Elements are the primary building blocks of matter. Think back to chemistry class—remember the periodic table of elements? All those squares with numbers and two-letter symbols? This is relevant to branding, trust me. Everything in the universe (except energy) is made up of some combination of these elements. Similarly, every brand out there is made up of the same elements of branding, like a logo, a color palette, a specific user experience and more.
These branding elements come together to form a brand identity, which designers then use to craft compelling, engaging brand designs. Here’s everything you need to know about the elements of branding and how to use them successfully.
Breaking down branding
Even if you know what branding is and you can recognize it when you see it, sometimes it can be difficult to articulate exactly what branding involves.
We’ve covered brands, brand identity and branding quite a bit on our blog, so if you need a refresher on any of those topics, read the in-depth pieces we’ve published on them. In short, your brand is how the world perceives your company, branding is the design choices and other steps you consciously take to shape that perception, and your brand identity is the collection of design elements you use in your branding.
Why is branding so important?
It’s not just important, it’s necessary. In a crowded, competitive world where you’re up against millions of other brands for your consumers’ attention, time and money, you can’t afford to not stand out.
Branding communicates who you are, what you offer, why you’re a better choice than your competitors and why you’re the best choice for the specific buyer you’re targeting. It’s a means of survival and the key to thriving.
The 8 universal branding elements every brand needs
When you’re building a cohesive brand identity, certain elements are non-negotiable. These are the elements that clearly express who you are as a brand, what you have to offer and who you’re for.
Take a look at pretty much any company’s branding and you’ll see all of these elements working together. Sometimes, they’re subtle and in certain cases, one or two might be missing, but for the most part, you’ll see each element on this list present and working with the others to communicate the brand.
Every brand needs a logo. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a brand that doesn’t have a logo, which arguably makes it the most important element of branding.
A logo is a brand’s whole personality boiled down into an easy-to-recognize image. It’s often the first interaction you have with a brand; the image that sticks in your mind and conjures up memories (good, bad or indifferent) about the brand when you see it again.
Your brand’s logo goes on almost every asset your brand owns: your business cards, your website, your merchandise, your social media pages, any branded templates you use and all of your advertising and marketing materials. That’s why your logo should represent what your brand is all about and encapsulate the essence of your brand identity.
2. Color palette
Colors are another key ingredient in any brand identity. Take a look at the following color swatches and try to guess which brand each palette represents.
Color is so important to branding that some companies have gone so far as to trademark their signature brand colors. A few examples of trademarked colors include UPS brown, Tiffany blue and Fiskars orange.
But why is color so important? Because colors express key values and personality traits. We’ve covered color psychology and how to choose effective colors for your branding before, so if you’re not sure which colors are best for your brand, check these out.
And don’t feel like you need to stick to just one color—the colors in your palette work together to express your brand while giving it a unique look.
Shape is another part of an overall branding strategy. Not just the shapes present in your logo, but the shapes in your web page backgrounds, layout design, packaging and even your business cards and other stationery.
We’ve discussed how different shapes convey specific brand values and other aspects of your identity in previous blog posts. As you develop your brand identity, determine which shapes align with your brand’s persona best. Keep in mind that you aren’t locked into just one shape or type of shape—if your brand’s look demands two or more shapes, use those shapes.
“Just do it.”
These are two of the most well-known taglines in the world. Taglines, also known as slogans, are the flagship of brand messaging.
Brand messaging is how you communicate your brand’s unique offer. Sometimes that offer is obvious, like Subway’s “Eat Fresh” slogan. Subway chose “Eat Fresh” as their slogan to differentiate themselves from other fast food brands by positioning themselves as a healthy alternative. Using green in their branding and running commercials showing customers’ testimonials of losing weight while eating Subway hammered this point home.
For other brands, this unique offer is more abstract, like Nike’s urging the customer to “Just Do It.” But despite being somewhat abstract, Nike’s message is clear: don’t hesitate, take action. Get up, exercise, do what you know is right for your body and your mind—no excuses, just do it.
Your tagline gives your logo additional information and context. It doesn’t just tell people what you do, it tells them what to expect.
5. Tone of voice and vocabulary
At Starbucks, you can’t get a small coffee.
Well, you can get the smallest of their three standard sizes… but the name of the size is “tall.”
That’s because Starbucks developed their own unique branded vocabulary to differentiate their product offerings from other brands’. Even though they didn’t coin the words they use for the different drink sizes, they were the first to use them in this unique way.
This isn’t the only unconventional naming convention Starbucks is known for. They’re also well-known for misspelling customers’ names on beverage cups—sometimes hilariously inaccurately. And although Starbucks hasn’t officially acknowledged any deliberate choice to spell customers’ names wrong, they have recognized writing names on cups as a fun part of their brand. Individual baristas, however, have different takes on the misspellings.
A specific vocabulary is part of a brand’s tone of voice. A brand’s tone of voice is the voice you read in all the copy produced by the brand, like the emails you receive from them, the content on their website and the language they use on social media.
Your tone of voice is one of the most effective ways to shape—and reshape—how the world perceives your brand. Wendy’s is one example of a brand that carved themselves a new persona by developing a consistent, unique social media persona. Before they were on Twitter, they were just a fast food restaurant that sold square burgers, frosties and chili. Now they’re a fast food restaurant that sells square burgers, frosties, chili and never passes up an opportunity to be snarky and savage.
The fonts a brand uses are another key element of branding. Wherever a brand uses text, like in their logo, on their website and as part of an email template, the font used for that text isn’t random—it’s carefully selected to communicate the brand’s personality and values.
Much like specific colors correlate to different emotions and traits, so do fonts’ components. Take a look at the fonts in these logos and focus on what they communicate about their brands:
See how effective a font is at communicating a brand’s personality? For an even more blunt look at the power of font:
Imagery includes all the kinds of images you use in your branding, marketing and advertising. This isn’t your logo or the specific pieces of content you publish; it’s the choice of photos and stock images you use, the style of the graphics on your website and other brand assets and your overall brand aesthetic.
Think of gradient and patterned backgrounds, packaging or banners—you don’t need concrete imagery to communicate a brand clearly; you can easily do so with abstract imagery through your shape and color choices.
Brand imagery works closely with other elements of branding, like color and shape.
But it doesn’t stop with illustrations and graphics. Brand imagery also refers to how a brand, and this extends to when an individual creates a personal brand, presents themselves visually. You see this a lot with celebrities who drastically alter their images, like Selena Gomez’s evolution from Disney Channel star to a fashion-forward artist who dabbles in creating independent horror films.
Positioning is the niche in the market that a brand fills. When you determine your brand’s persona, you determine not just what it offers buyers, but how it fits among other brands in its space. Are you priced higher, about the same or lower than your competitors? What makes your offer more attractive than competing offers?
A brand’s positioning has a direct impact on its branding. For example, a low-priced brand that aims to communicate that they’re the most economic choice might choose bright, value-communicating colors like yellow and orange and craft a brand voice that’s simple, friendly and optimistic.
In contrast, a higher-priced brand might employ darker hues and a mysterious brand voice in order to position themselves as the more exclusive option.
Brand positioning isn’t just carving out a space in the market, though. It also involves interaction with other brands, both within the same industry and brands from other industries. This is where positioning overlaps with brand imagery: the brands you partner with (and that includes influencers) shape how the world perceives you.
Less common branding elements
Your strategy for using branding elements can go way beyond the common elements discussed above. For lots of brands, these elements extend to sensory input and specific experiences. Often, these kinds of branding are associated with specific industries—while a fast food restaurant would have a branded taste, a record label wouldn’t.
As you determine which types of branding are most strategic for you, explore which of these less common elements of branding can enable you to deliver an unforgettable experience.
When people go to Taco Bell, they don’t go because they want authentic Mexican food. They go because they want Taco Bell. Taco Bell’s products have a unique flavor you won’t find in any mom and pop taqueria, and that unique flavor is a key part of Taco Bell’s branding.
A consistent brand taste builds buyer loyalty. Sometimes, you’re hungry and you don’t want to gamble on food from a place you’ve never heard of, so you go to your old standby. Branded taste isn’t just for food, either. When your product has a flavor, whether it’s gum or beverages or tobacco or toothpaste, that flavor is inextricably linked to your brand. Leverage that recognition in your branding.
If you’ve ever been inside a Hollister store, you’re familiar with the Hollister smell. Sister store Abercrombie and Fitch similarly has a signature in-store scent.
That’s on purpose. To create this unique ambience, employees spritz the brands’ colognes throughout these stores as part of their job duties.
Brands that smell good know they smell good, and some have leveraged their amazing smells by offering buyers the opportunity to take those smells home with them. In 2018, Auntie Anne’s distilled their delicious pretzel scent into a line of essential oils and Disney World’s signature resort aromas are so memorable that third party companies create and sell candles that replicate these scents.
Even interactions can be branded. One well-known example is Chick fil A’s employees responding to customers’ thanks with “my pleasure.”
Branded interactions go beyond words and phrases. They also extend to how a company’s employees refer to themselves. When you bring an electronic to Best Buy to have it repaired, it isn’t repaired by the “service technician” or the “repairs department.” It’s repaired by a member of the Geek Squad, an elite team of installation, support and repair professionals you can only meet at Best Buy.
Disney Parks is another company well-known for extending branding to employee-guest interactions. Park workers aren’t employees, they’re cast members. And they don’t simply perform day-to-day duties, they perform in the parks’ immersive world, often going above and beyond to provide a little extra magic for guests.
User experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design are two additional elements that can be worked into a brand identity. UX is the user’s experience with an app or another type of product, and UI is the interface through which they have that experience.
With UX and UI design, a simple, intuitive experience for the user is always your primary goal. Creating this type of seamless experience reflects positively on your brand. But branded UX and UI don’t have to end there—you can also create a memorable experience for users by using UX design as a way for them to engage with your brand, like how Vans embraces creativity by offering an easy way for users to design custom shoes.
Just like taste, you can also make specific sounds part of your brand identity. This includes jingles and songs, but it can also include recorded phrases, speech and brief musical sentences. We all instantly recognize the sound branding that goes along with the Netflix or HBO logos at the beginning of our favorite shows. Another famous example of a branded sound was Staples’ “that was easy” slogan, which came prerecorded in branded “easy buttons.”
For original sounds and songs, you can seek copyright protection to ensure nobody encroaches on this specific piece of your brand identity. But what if your signature song is a quick chord before you introduce the day’s topic on your YouTube channel or a quick snippet of a public domain song? You can’t copyright those, but you can definitely use them in your branding to give yourself a unique persona.
Lastly, your location is an important branding element. Much like positioning and partnerships, where people see your brand has a big impact on how they perceive it. It’s no coincidence that certain brands only operate in shopping malls, others never operate in shopping malls and others yet only operate in other very specific locations.
Location as a branding element doesn’t just refer to where you conduct business. It can also refer to where your products and advertisements can be found. UberPOOL got creative with location when they launched an ad campaign that used drones to dangle mini billboards advertising the service to drivers stopped in Mexico City traffic.
Build a beautiful brand from the elements up
As you can see, building a brand means way more than just designing a logo! Your brand identity is a three-dimensional body of design choices, assets and unique branding elements that all work together to provide your brand’s unique look and feel. If you’re in the process of creating a brand identity, don’t rush the process or skip out on designing any of its elements. Work with an experienced brand identity designer to bring it to life.