brand series: brand expression

March 14, 2019

written by
Barbara O Stephenson

part 3. show me what you got.

Once the strategy is done, how do you show it? (catch up to part 1. and part 2. of this series if you missed them) You do this by communicating internally so that EVERY touch point from the accounts team to the sales floor to the janitor feels and believes your brand. I cannot stress this enough. It only takes one weak link to make your brand fail. Get it? Good, now onto the list of items you can make to show your brand externally. We generally call this the brand identity or the brand expression. Get ready for the hard part because here’s where things can go off the rails.

Anytime something is subjective and emotional, it’s harder to know when you’ve gotten it exactly right. We’re going for the intangible, the emotive, the intuitive “that brand gets me” feeling that we want people to feel when they see your visuals.  It sets the feeling that cannot be put into words when someone interacts or sees your service/product. Are you trustworthy? Are you fun? Are you academic? Are you organic? Needless to say things can really get crazy if/when you start to add in tertiary items such as packaging, shirts, backpacks, schwag, etc. so let’s stick to the main stuff. Read about our Typo Conference branding in the VMA Storyboard.


This can be your name or a mark or both. Think of Nike- the mark is the swoosh but sometimes you see it just as a name or as a combo of both.

color palette.

You need 1 main color, 2 primary, 3-5 complementary, and 2 accents. You can get away with less but if you’re planning on marketing a lot, you may find yourself running out of options.


This is the font that represents who you are. Are you a fancy looking word or a plain looking word? Are you easy to read or are you going to be unique? You don’t need 10 of these but make sure that you have both print and onscreen formats.


What is your photography style? B&W or color, crops close in or full, people looking at the camera or candid shots. Each one of these expresses your individual feel in a very different way.


This may not be needed but if you decide to go this way, you’ll need to set specific guidelines on the style of illustrations.


We use icons to convey meaning without words. This speeds up the content digestion, can take up less space, or reinforce an idea. Flat, rounded, colors, etc.

data visualization.

Most of us use use charts and graphs to represent results, growth, or numbers. Pie, line, scatter graphs plus comments, values, and legends should all be the same from data set to data set.


How do you shoot video for short form or long form. Are they fixed position or hand cam? Do you have quick transitions or slow fades? All of these visuals should be standard from file to file.

tone and voice.

Your company isn’t a person but it does need a voice. Are you speaking in first person or third? Do you want to sound professional or approachable? Are you dry or spicy? This sets the mood for all of your outward facing touch points. I’m placing it here for inclusion in the design system but it can also be done during the strategy phase with the personality so that your tagline/mission statement sound authentic to the rest of your content. That’s the messaging architecture if you want to get fancy – start with the mission and vision, brand promise, tagline, to brand stories.

papers/ content /presentations.

Do you need annual reports or white papers? Do you submit press releases? All of those should be branded consistently. The #1 place people try to subvert a brand is during a presentation so make sure to rein in personal interpretations of your brand from getting out there.

business cards.

Far from being out-dated, business cards are still used around the world and convey meaning not only visually but tactilely. There has been a backlash against technology being too easy and for real luxury / connections to occur IRL.


A basic set of envelopes, letterhead, brochures, etc to be used everywhere.

digital correspondence.

What do your newsletters, emails, invoices, etc look like? Do they have a logo, a digital signature, a header or a footer? Remember the Rule of Seven more people see something, the more they recognize it.

design system.

We also call this brand guidelines or brand book. This is the final item and should be a living document. It’s the dictionary for your brand on how use use it, how NOT to use it and provides guidance for everyone. Check out an example for San Francisco’s City Beer Store.


This is your digital front door and where everyone goes to visit your brand house. You’ll use all the above information to make it look and FEEL right.  We want people to have a subconscious reaction to what they see.  Also, you need to be mobile first if you want to be found on google – that means that the way people look at it on their phones should be MORE important than how people look at it on their computer screens. It needs to be fast, secure, and 1,001 other things you can read about here.


Wow, that’s a ton of stuff. It’s like your closet: you have some things you wear everyday and some things that only come out for specific occasions. You should at least have some colors and a font. You can get away with just a word mark and no logo (hey like us!)

So what’s next? part 4.  how do you share all that?