In the past, the life of a corporate identity manager was fairly clear: Based on the brand positioning, a basic corporate identity was developed during a large-scale project and consisted of a number of fixed elements such as the logo, colour palette, typography and visual language. This was then translated into unambiguous designs for all purposes. The magic word was ‘consistency’. Because of extensive guidelines there was no doubt about where the logo was placed, how the colour ratio and distribution should be applied and how the brand was expressed. The corporate identity manager saw to it that this was done well and policed where necessary.
Realising the brand promise
Now the situation’s very different. The concept of consistency has a completely new meaning in the world of brands and corporate identity styles. In the visual application of the brand, it is now much more about coherency, and online channels predominate. The speed and ease with which you can make (small) changes is essential and the fact that design is much more flexible is reflected in the development of corporate identity. In addition, ‘form follows function’ is the leading principle; design should not distract too much from content and user-friendliness and should not stand in the way of conversion. As a result, online is often a basic application of the corporate identity (elements): especially visible in the form of logo, colour and typography. Because the emphasis is now on realising the brand promise, communication is increasingly about content. To make the content stand out, it is important that not all communication looks the same and it’s therefore necessary to allow for flexibility in applying corporate identity.
The key message
Another reason for the trend towards coherence is internationalisation. Although a certain degree of consistency is necessary to remain recognisable worldwide, a local interpretation of communications is necessary in order to be relevant and appealing to local target groups. To this end, in addition to the globally recognisable image that has been created, there must also be flexibility for the local interpretation of the brand. This does not alter the fact that a consistent brand experience is still crucial, but it does indicate that the content of this is now different. It is no longer about exactly the same application of the corporate identity to all resources. Again, coherency is key: expressions must convey the same feeling and core message. Of course, a number of visual elements remain crucial in order to achieve this, but there is a lot more freedom in its application.
6 tips for a coherent corporate identity
So how do you achieve coherence without diluting your brand? The following six tips can help:
1. Determine the distinctive brand elements
To be able to determine which requirements an expression must satisfy, you have to investigate which combination of corporate identity elements ensure brand recognition. Most brands have only two or three truly distinctive brand elements, the so-called ‘distinctive brand assets’. When one of these elements falls away, with the consequence of a decrease in brand recognisability, it’s a sign that this needs to be a fixed element in your communications. By supplementing your brand with optional identity elements, you create unity in diversity: a recognisable brand image with sufficient flexibility to allow individual messages to stand out.
2. Identify your general identity and brand guidelines
Strong brands record their corporate identity and brand guidelines, but not at a detailed level. Therefore, do not completely lock-down your corporate identity (application), but give users a (mainly defined) degree of freedom. In one expression more freedom may be needed than in another. With a design architecture you can determine the degree of freedom needed and define the degree of freedom per category. Determining and recording the ‘distinctive brand assets’ can also help.
3. Train the brand skills of employees
When guidelines are less detailed, you have to check whether certain interpretations work. Testing is no longer about literally checking the application of the guidelines, but much more about feeling whether the right thread links the core message and visual appearance. Sense of design as well as the feeling and knowledge of the brand is crucial. Employees can be trained for this so that they can learn how to determine whether certain expressions connect with the brand. By regularly assessing and discussing all of the interpretations as a core team, you develop everyone’s skills and create a central starting point for the development and assessment of interpretations.
4. Work closely with User Experience teams
Corporate identity and brand are no longer created for just (marketing) communication departments. Increasingly, a User Experience department (UX) has ownership over the digital (elements). In order to ensure that the brand experience remains consistent online and offline, close collaboration between the two departments is necessary. Clearly define everyone’s tasks, responsibilities and powers. This prevents unpleasant situations and optimally utilises each of the disciplines.
5. Create a platform for testing and inspiration
Where previously all interpretations of a corporate identity were neatly named and visualised in the brand guidelines, it’s no longer possible as there are now a huge number of ways that these interpretations could be used. That is why it is important that employees receive help in developing and testing communications in other ways. Companies build their brand values better when they have implemented processes that test whether the brand carriers are in line with the brand positioning. The use of tooling helps with this.
A simple solution is to introduce a central email address (a design helpdesk) where elements can be sent for review. Trained marketing and communication staff can answer the incoming questions. A more advanced solution is to implement a brand portal where expressions must pass an approval process. Those which are approved can then automatically be included in a ‘Best Practices’ section and serve as inspiration for future statements. Because this can be extremely time-consuming for the reviewers and frustrating for the uploaders, the organisation often opts for brand audits. Assessment takes place afterwards. The examples from this (good and bad) can then be made available for inspiration, as do’s and don’ts, in the brand portal.
6. Be careful with brand communities
With the shift from consistency to coherence, there is extra work for the department responsible for the brand. With large organisations, checking communications can quickly become a daily task. Some companies therefore use an internal community platform (e.g. Yammer) to answer questions about the corporate identity and to have it tested. A big advantage of this is that answers to (frequently asked) questions can reach a larger audience. In addition, involvement with the brand increases and part of the workload is divided over the organisation. However, the danger posed here is that employees who are not trained in brand skills give their opinion and influence the assessment process. Therefore, make sure that trained marketing and communication staff can answer specific questions quickly and accurately. They must also monitor the discussions that may arise.
In the past consistency was most important, however today it’s mainly about coherence. Brand carriers no longer need to have exactly the same visual layout but they need to feel the same, convey the same core message and thereby contribute to the brand. It is therefore more than ever a challenge to create an unambiguous brand experience between all online and offline expressions. The role of the corporate identity police seems to be a thing of the past with the shift from a consistent to coherent visual applications of the brand. But keep it in mind that brand managers are now busier than ever in managing all brand communications that are out there.