Brand Identity: A Necessary Concept

Like the ideas of brand vision and purpose, brand identity is a recent concept. In the very fashion-conscious, trendy milieu of communications, it is just a sheer linguistic novelty, or is it really essential to understanding what brands are?


What is identity?

To appreciate the meaning of this significant concept in brand management, we shall begin by considering the many ways in which the world is used. For example, we speak identity cards - personal, non-transferable document which tell in a few words that are, what our name is and what distinguishable features we have that can be instantly recognized. We also hear of identity of opinion between several people, meaning that they have an identical point of view.

In terms of communication, this second interpretation of the word suggests brand identity is the common element sending a single message amid the wide variety of its products, actions and slogans. This is important since the more the brand expands and diversifies, the more customers are inclined to feel that they are, in fact, dealing with several different brands rather than a single one. If products and communication go their separate ways, how can customers possibly perceive these different routes as converging towards common aim and brand?

Speaking of identical points of view also raises the question of permanence and continuity. As civil status and physical appearance change, identity cards get updated, yet the fingerprint of their holders always remains the same. The identity concept questions how time will affect the unique and permanent quality of the sender, the brand or the retailer. In this respect, psychologists speak of the identity crisis which adolescents often go through. When their identity structure is still weak, teenagers tend to move from one role model to another. These constant shifts create a gap and force the basic question: ‘What is the real me”?

Finally, in studies on social groups or minorities, we often speak of cultural identity. In seeking an identity, they are in fact seeking a pivotal basis on which to hinge not only their inherent differences but also their membership of a specific cultural entity.

Brand identity may be a recent notion, but many researchers have already delved into the organizational identity of companies. There, the simplest verbal expression of identity often consist in saying: “Oh yes, I see, but it’s not the same in our company!”. In other words, corporate identity truly exists and that it is a coherent and unique being with a history and a place of its own, different from others.

From these various meanings, we can infer that having an identity means being your true self, driven by a personal goal that is both different from others and resistant to change. Thus, brand identity will be clearly defined once the following questions are answered:

- What is the brand’s particular vision and aim?
- What makes it different?
- What need is the brand fulfilling?
- What is permanent nature?
- What are its value or values?
- What are the signs which make it recognizable?

These questions could indeed constitute the brand’s charter. This type of official document would help better brand management in the medium term, both in terms of form and content, and so better address future communication and extension issues. Communication tools such as the copy strategy are essentially linked to advertising campaigns, and so are only committed to the short term. There must be specific guidelines to ensure that there is indeed only one brand forming a solid and coherent entity.

Brand identy and graphic identity charters:

We do indeed find many graphic identity charters, books of standards and visual identity guides. Urged on by graphic identity agencies, companies have rightly sought to harmonize the messages conveyed by their brands. Such charters therefore define the norms for visual recognition of the brand, i.e. the brands colors, graphic design and type of print. Although this may be a necessary first step, it isn’t the be all and end all. Moreover, it puts the cart before the horse. What really matters is the key message that we want to communicate. Formal aspects, outward appearance and overall looks result from the brands core substance and intrinsic identity. Choosing symbols requires a clear definition of what the brand means.

However, while graphic manuals are quite easy to find nowadays, explicit definitions of brand identity per se are still very rare. Yet, the essential questions above must be properly answered before we begin discussing and defining what the communication means what the codes of outward recognition should be. The brand’s deepest values must be reflected in the external signs of recognition, and these must be apparent at first glance. The family resemblance between the various models of BMW conveys a strong identity, yet it is not THE identity. This brands identity and essence can be actually be defined by addressing the issue of its difference, its permanence, its value and its personal view on automobiles.

Many firms have unnecessarily constrained their communication because they formulated a graphic charter before defining their identity. Not knowing who they really are, they merely perpetuate purely formal codes, by for example, using photographic style which may not the most suitable. Thus Nina Ricci’s identity did not necessarily relate to the company’s systematic adherence to English photographer David Hamilton’s style. Knowing brand identity paradoxically gives extra freedom of expression, since it emphasizes the pre-eminence of substance over strictly formal features. Brand identity defines what must stay and what is free to change.

Identity: A Contemporary Concept

That a new concept, identity, has emerged in the field of communications, already well versed in brand image and positioning, is really no great surprise. Today’s problems re more complex than those of ten or 20 years ago and so there is now a need for more refined concepts that allow a closer connection with reality. First of all, we cannot over emphasize the fact that we are currently living in a society saturated in communications. Everybody wants to communicate these days. If needed, proof is available; there have been huge increases in advertising budgets, not only in the major media but also in the growing number of professional magazines. It has become very difficult to survive in the hurly burly thus created, let alone to thrive and successfully convey one’s identity. For communication means two things, sending our messages and making sure that they are received. Communicating nowadays is no longer just a technique; it is a feat in itself.

The second factor explaining the urgent need to understand brand identity is the pressure constantly put on brands. We have now entered an age of marketing similarities. When a brand innovates, it creates a new standard. The other brands must then catch up if they want to stay in the race, hence increasing number of me-too’ products with similar attribute, not to mention the copies produced by distributors. Regulations also cause similarities to speak. Bank operations for example have become so much alike that banks are now unable to fully express their individuality and identity. Market research also generates homogeneity with a given sector. As all companies base themselves on the same lifestyle studies, the conclusions they reach are bound to be similar as are the advertising campaigns they launch, in which sometimes even the same words are used.

Finally, technology is responsible for growing similarity. Why do cars increasingly look alike, in spite of their different makes? Because car makers are all equally concerned about fluidity, inner car space constraints, motorization and economy, and these problems cannot be solved in all that many different ways. Moreover, when two makes of cars such as Peugeot and Citroen share many identical parts for either productivity or competitiveness purposes, it is mainly brand identity, along with, to a lesser extent, what’s left of each car, which will distinguish the two makes from one another. Diversification also jeopardizes identity. Brands launch new products, penetrate new markets and reach new targets. This causes both fragmented communications and patchwork images. Though we may still be able to discern bits and pieces of the brand here and there, we are certainly unable to perceive any global or coherent identity.


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