Branding, identity design, and logos: what’s the difference?

Business magazines and websites are full of terms like branding, brand identity, logo design, identity design, corporate identity, and brand strategy. Sometimes different terms are used to describe the same thing. Sometimes the same term is used to describe different things.

As an identity designer, I want to be clear with my clients about what I do (and also what no designer can do for you!)

Identity design, brand, and logo explained

Brand

A brand is the perception of a company.

Your brand is what people think of when they think about you. It’s your reputation. Your values, your products, your marketing, your customer service. Magazine articles about you, how your stores smell inside, and what your neighbor’s mom said about you at her bridge party. And yes, it’s your logo and website and business cards. Everything people encounter when they interact with your company adds to their perception of you: your brand. 

Branding is the effort to influence this perception. You can’t literally control what your neighbor’s mom might think, of course. But you can do your best to get on her radar and make a great impression.

Identity

An identity is a brand’s set of visual elements.

A subset of a brand is the brand identity (also called corporate identity or identity system). The key word is identity. Just like with people, checking an ID proves you’re you and not somebody else. The tangible elements you can see when a company communicates with you comprise its identity design:

Logo, colors, fonts, icons, letterhead, business cards, envelopes, websites, packaging, uniforms, office aesthetics, promotional swag, social media, email blasts, signage, messaging.

A brand style guide documents a brand’s evolving identity.

Example brand style guide by Jessica Jones

Example brand style guide for a client

Logo

A logo is a mark that represents a company.

Of all the visual parts that make up your identity, your logo is the strongest point of recognition. It doesn’t have to tell the world everything you do. It’s a quick tag or identifier. A red bullseye doesn’t reveal all the clothing, housewares, and food you can buy at Target. But it works as a stand-in for everything you know about Target. And if you knew nothing about Target, you could still make some guesses about the personality of the company by looking at the logo.

Logo examples by Jessica Jones

Logos by Jessica Jones

What do identity designers do?

Identity designers set the direction for the visual elements that make up your brand—your logo, color palette, typography, stationery, website, and future collateral. These should be unique to your company and help illustrate your brand. An identity designer isn’t going to make the conveyor belt in your plant run faster or tell you which employees to hire. But we can influence the public’s perception of you by creating an appropriate look and feel.

Small business brand identity design

Business card redesign for Maverick Chocolate Co. See the rest of the identity design here.

Benefits of hiring an identity designer for your small business

Maybe you’re a small business starting from scratch. Or maybe you’ve been growing for a little while, and you’re wondering whether you should update your existing brand identity. Is it worth investing in better design?

For businesses that get all their customers from neighborhood referrals—and they’re satisfied with that—it’s probably not worth it. Think of plumbers, mechanics, or dentists. As long as their service is excellent, nobody minds if their visuals are less than stellar. But if you’re in an industry where aesthetics can increase your visibility or revenue (think food and beverage, hospitality, fashion, arts, financial services, health and wellness, etc.), you can benefit from hiring an identity designer. Great design can help you:

Be memorable

Strong identity design sticks in customers’ minds. After seeing it a couple times, it becomes instantly recognizable as yours, and familiar is comforting.

Create desire

Customers are drawn to attractiveness and a company who clearly gets them.

Look established

As if you didn’t just arrive on the scene yesterday with a clip art logo hastily printed on perforated cards from your office inkjet.

Look bigger

Elegantly designed materials and lovely printing convey that you’re prospering. Customers want to work with successful companies.

Two points to consider when creating identity design for startups

Along with small businesses, startups have similar factors to consider when creating a brand identity.

Culture

The culture of your organization. What’s your heartbeat? Why are you doing this? What are your beliefs, values, and ways of thinking and working? It should influence your identity design if it’s going to feel authentic.

Connectedness

Connectedness to your target audience. What do they need, love, and respond to? Your brand identity isn’t just to make you happy, it’s for them. Show that you relate to them by creating design that resonates.

When your startup’s language and visuals speak to both parties, you’ve done it right.