Brand language, brand framework, brand toolkit… these are just some of the terms used, sometimes interchangeably, when talking about the myriad visual rules regarding shape, colour, typography, iconography, photography, video and motion, and user interface design in branding. A better way of looking at these rules, when they’re all put together, is that they make up a Brand System.
Why is a brand system important?
The combined elements of a clear brand system, consistently applied, help foster brand recognition, both online and offline – taking in everything from social media posts, to physical touchpoints such as signage and large format display. Your audience becomes familiar with your brand looking, sounding and speaking to them in a particular way and this, over time, builds trust.
From your side, having a brand system and the brand guidelines that flow from it, ensures that all your external creative agencies, as well as your internal team, are always able to produce high-quality communications that retain the thread of that original brand idea.
What is included in a brand system?
To illustrate the concept of a brand system and run through what goes into it, here’s an example of a recent rebrand The Co-Foundry did for Abode Worldwide, a PR and content marketing agency that has a leading position within, and works exclusively with, the lodging tech sector:
Typography – a typeface reveals far more about a brand than you might imagine – switch the Nike font for say Time New Roman and the dynamic personality of the Nike brand identity is immediately lost. But it isn’t just the typeface or combination of fonts that gets established by a good brand system, it’s also the hierarchy and case (whether it’s all caps or if you choose sentence case for example) that gets set out.
We selected just one typeface for the Abode Worldwide rebrand: TT Norms, choosing it for its contemporary precision. Its understated nature reflects the Abode brand’s confidence and leading position in the market, something which is further emphasised by employing just one font weight and using colour and size to give hierarchy, rather than relying on capitalisation or varying weights.
Colour palette – this refers to the combination of colours that expresses the personality of a brand. The number of colours and variation, and the use of primary and secondary colours all form the rules within the palette.
The personality for Abode Worldwide was defined as one of substance and gravitas – they are a market leader in the area they operate in. The resulting palette has a limited range – gold combined with a pale paper beige and a serious deep blue. With the brand idea for Abode Worldwide being Rise & Shine, we selected secondary fonts drawn from dawn and dusk colour palettes. This plays out across Abode’s sister brand, Pillow Talk, which is their established thought leadership media channel, well-known for providing the industry with insight and inspiration.
Graphic devices – at the heart of a brand system, these shapes and illustrative devices are used as image placeholders and signposts, adding dynamism and interest to the brand.
Abode Worldwide raises its clients’ profiles by increasing their exposure. The radiating circles device was created as a key element of the brand identity and is primarily used as an image overlay or watermark, adding soft texture or highlighting a point of interest within an image.
Iconography – used sparingly to add meaning or signpost content, a library of icons can be a hardworking component within the brand system. Sticking with one style (be it hand-drawn, single colour, full colour, linework etc) helps to reinforce the brand language while overcomplicating with a mixture of styles dilutes brand identity.
For Abode Worldwide we developed two types of icons – a set of radiating circles to signpost content and more illustrative devices to develop infographics, such as their approach graphic:
Logo – the most obvious and well-known element of what goes into a brand system. It is often, but not always, combined with a tagline. A brand system will typically include rules around the placement and use of variations (full colour, inverted, white out, one colour, black).
Logomark – now synonymous with social media avatars, the logomark or motif is derived from the logo and is used for website favicons and social media profiles.
Sub brands and lock-ups – depending on the brand architecture model defined during the strategic planning stage, this is a set of rules for articulating sister or sub-brands and needs to be defined at the design phase.
Abode Worldwide has a thought leadership media channel, Pillow Talk, which is delivered as a Substack blog. We developed the identity for this sister brand using the same motif as for the main brand, twisting it to create a moon motif. It can also be set in an alternate blue palette:
Photography – The images you choose can reinforce or challenge perceptions of your brand and, as such, need much thought and consideration. For example, employing conceptual stock library images, and mixing them with naturalistic documentary style photography rarely works to present a cohesive style.
As well as photographing the team for website and marketing collateral, we gave Abode guidance on the balance and choice of images for their own content marketing activities. We encouraged them to source images of people working, resting and playing, balancing that with property photos (an 80% people/20% buildings ratio) to give some context without getting too geographically specific as Abode’s audience is global.
Video and motion – transforming your brand identity from static to dynamic literally brings a brand to life, making it a far more engaging proposition on digital platforms. As with any other aspect of a brand system, setting style guides for motion design helps to build consistency and recognition.
Animating Abode Worldwide’s radiating circles device expresses something growing and evolving, communicating the value Abode brings to its clients as it raises their profiles through public relations and content marketing.
User interface design – following on from the wider brand system, this is a digital design system that defines interactions and components such as call-to-action buttons and interactive behaviours such as hyperlink hover states. A brand is experienced across many touchpoints and the experience should always be consistent, and never jolt or jar.
Abode Worldwide’s new website design and development set the style guides for everything from image hover states to dropdowns and client testimonials.
Brand guidelines – aka the brand system rule book – this is where everything comes together including tone of voice guidance for the verbal expression of the brand. Good guidelines should demonstrate how the brand’s visual elements can be dialled up or down, depending on use, case or audience. For example, social media applications can be more flexible, allowing for something more visually dynamic while proposals and stationery may be more reserved in their application.
Testing the effectiveness of your brand system
A brand system is so much more than a logo, in fact as your brand becomes known and recognised, a branded touchpoint should be recognisable even if the logo is hidden from view. This is something which is called ‘passing the thumb test’ – would your audience know who you are without seeing your logo? Would your brand identity still be recognisable when your logo is obscured?
As a brand becomes more established, there is always scope to ‘play’ with its identity – i.e. step outside the rulebook – for example, for seasonal or thematic campaigns. But take care not to start out on this tack too soon and break rules to satisfy your own creative itches. Stay true to the system and avoid change for change’s sake or you’ll risk losing valuable brand equity.
What next for brand systems?
In recent years we’ve moved from static brand identities to incorporating motion guidance and digital UX design rules, but what will we need to be thinking about next?
As we start experiencing the metaverse, a 3-D digital space, in the mainstream – brand systems will grow and become more complex, but the need for consistency and building trust will only grow more important.