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A Better Way to Define “Identity”

In the past few years there has been a lot of debate in the creative world regarding the term “identity.” Depending on whom you ask, you are bound to get different definitions: marketing and public relations firms are quick to use the term “branding” to explain the activity of identifying a product or service, while advertising agencies and design consultancies might use the term “corporate identity.” Both terms, branding and corporate identity, seem to be used interchangeably, but do they really mean the same thing?   According to Walter Landor, founder of Landor Associates, “Products are made in the factory, brands are made in the mind.” Based on this rationale, branding can be defined as the creation of a positive image or perception about a product, service, or company through the use of graphic design. Creating a perception, or in most cases, an emotional connection, in order to persuade a consumer to buy something, is more about psychology. Corporate identity, on the other hand, stresses immediate identification: through good design, it serves to establish a consistent image of a company, product, or service. Much of the emotion of branding is left out.   Both branding and corporate identity serve the purpose of promoting a company, a product or a service through increased awareness and in turn, increased sales, although they achieve these goals through different means and usually for different audiences. Branding is considered more of a business-to-consumer (B2C) activity, in which a company appeals directly to the end consumer. Corporate identity, on the other hand, focuses on building business-to-business (B2B) relationships.   But what happens when a company operates in both the business-to-business and the business-to-consumer marketplaces? Although they might have marketing components that are purely dedicated to building their brand, these companies must also have graphic elements that establish its identity within a more corporate, or B2B, environment. It is in this area of overlap between “branding” and “corporate identity” in which a more accurate and truly universal definition can be found to describe the role of graphic design in enhancing a company or product’s image: visual identity design.   “Visual Identity” incorporates graphic elements from both branding and corporate identity, and includes those that must appeal to all audiences, regardless of whether they are B2B or B2C customers, and regardless of whether or not increased sales or stronger brand awareness is desired. At the core of any visual identity is the logo, a graphic mark that must simply, quickly, and effectively communicate the essence of the company or product. This logo must be applied to everything from a company’s letterhead and stationery system to vehicle graphics and web site. Consistency is most important, and a graphic standards guide or manual ensures that all subsequent applications of the visual identity remain effective.   The term “visual identity” encompasses the graphic elements that are common within both a corporate identity program and an extensive branding campaign, but doesn’t necessarily exclude other marketing needs. After all, an identity must above all be consistent. What this does mean is that companies, before selecting a creative firm or agency, should evaluate who their audience is and what their graphic design needs truly are.   By: Ryan Hembree, Principal | Creative Director