How to develop a brand identity system (like Intercom)

[Editors note: This is the first of a series of articles that were writing about branding for startups. Its part of our latest initiative to find the best brand designers and agencies in the world who work with early-stage companies nominate a talented brand designer youve worked with.]
When designer Ryan Hubbard joined Intercom, a SaaS unicorn that makes customer engagement tools, he knew that he would be working at the forefront of brand design. The companys leadership empowered its Intercom Brand Studio to help Intercom stand out in an increasingly crowded field.
I always look to figure out what is possible or push expectations, Hubbard says. Theres a more traditional view on brand design the idea that people are there to create order and make rules. And thats valid, but its not how I look at it.
Now a senior designer at Medium, Hubbard has a lot more to say on how startups should approach branding to make a memorable impression.
The essential principle of branding
The one thing you should probably have buttoned up prior to investing in brand is some kind of clear point of view about who you are as a company and what makes you different, says Hubbard.
While the elements of a brand are primarily visual, brand identity is based on foundational values and attitudes that define a company.
Thats why its essential to start with your companys unique story. Those who approach branding as an exercise in defining and expressing their core ideas will find it much easier to create a striking and memorable brand.
Intercom has a compelling origin story about friends in Dublin longing for online customer service to mimic the welcoming atmosphere of the coffee shop where they liked to work. Accordingly, Intercoms brand focuses on values like approachability, personality, warmth, and helpfulness.
Those values translate into the brands visual language: a smile-like logo, joyful colors, quirky illustration.
You could start with, What is the story youre telling? says Hubbard. The stronger and better you can be with your story, thats a really strong foundation for a good brand.
How to define your look and feel
The basic elements of visual branding include logo, language, colors, imagery, and typography. A strong brand is one that can be distilled down to the most basic elements and still be recognizable. Even a single word written a particular way can convey volumes.
Theres a lot you can communicate with just typography, says Hubbard. The best identity systems Ive seen not just in tech are all brands that are really strong with typography.
Free-flowing creativity is key in experimenting with these elements. Youll be holding on tight to your brand identity as you refine your story and identify your values. But its important to be open to all kinds of creative expression when you start designing.
Dont be too precious with exactly how you want everything to look, advises Hubbard. You cant have a predetermined direction in your mind when youre going into it.
Get ideas and images out onto the page quickly. Then identify which draft elements light a spark and develop them. It will soon become obvious which connect most strongly.
How to deploy your branding
Once you have a brand identity system in hand, the next step is deploying it consistently. Your brand must be consistent across touch points, both inside and outside the organization.
But dont mistake consistency for rigidity. If your brand is built on ideas and not just on a simple collection of visual elements, you can be consistent and creative. Allow your brand to have a life of its own, anchored by its core values and principles.
Its really easy to create a brand system that gives you no flexibility for expression, so you wind up putting the same thing over there over and over again, says Hubbard. If you dont give yourself any room to do new exciting things with your brand, youll get stagnant and forgotten.
Thats a death knell for any company, but a strong brand identity system will keep your brand at the forefront of customers minds.
Help us find the best startup brand designers and agencies in the world nominate a talented brand designer youve worked with.
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