What’s the Difference Between Brand and Brand Identity?

I spend my time working with clients on everything from logos to messaging to environments and websites. So when someone says, “You do branding work, right?” they’re right, right? Well, not exactly.

I don’t do branding work; my clients do, by doing their business. They’re the ones building the brand, because they are the brand. 

What I do is brand identity work.

Brand with a Capital B

The terms “brand,” “branding,” “brand identity,” and even “logo” are often treated as synonyms (even by designers!), but they are not the same thing. You might think this is semantics, but I believe defining what designers do is important work that guides our process, and informs the stories we tell prospective clients. 

A brand is an idea. It’s the intangible perception of a thing in your mind. A company, a service, an experience, a product, sometimes even a person — all these things can be brands.

Let me give you a local example: there is probably a handyman in your neighborhood. Eventually we build a general neighborly consensus on how reputable that handyman is. A number of factors add up to our overall perception of their handy services — price, punctuality, dependability, if they make a mess or clean up after themselves, the quality of their craftsmanship, etc. All those factors (and a bunch that you can’t articulate) create a perception of the handyman.

Our hypothetical handyman might never have a logo, business card, website, or even a business name, and still be a brand.

Look at This Stuff, Isn’t It Neat?

A brand identity is the collection of various artifacts and experiences that represent a brand in the world. Brand identity is made of the stuff we see, read, and interact with. These artifacts connect intangible ideas in our brains with tangible representations of those ideas. A logo isn’t the brand, but it can symbolize the brand, standing in as a sort of mental shortcut for understanding in the right context.

When executed well, the sum of brand identity artifacts and experiences create a clear picture of a brand in every place a person interacts with it. When executed poorly (or partially) brand identity still creates a picture, but it is not a clear or cohesive one. 

I divide brand identity into three main categories. This isn’t exhaustive or by any means perfect — every brand is a little different — but it gives us a solid starting point:

The verbal, visual, and visceral elements of a brand should work harmoniously to create a cohesive, consistent connection to the brand. As designers and collaborators, we can intentionally craft and cultivate the brand experience at every step, instead of lazily letting it happen.

The Aim of Brand Identity is Truth

Clients often think they need to “do a rebrand.” What they probably mean (even if they can’t articulate it) is that their brand and their brand identity aren’t aligned. There’s a disconnect between perception and reality.

There are plenty of reasons for brand/identity disconnect. Maybe a national brand has outgrown their original regional identity and audience, or their market changed and they need to tell a different story. Sometimes a brand changes and no longer lives up to the promise of their identity, like when a brand’s identity communicates luxury, but the product quality has diminished. However a brand gets there, the way they sound, look, and feel should be an appropriate expression of who they are.

The brands that resonate with you likely have identities that appropriately represent them. They craft it at every touchpoint, and they work diligently to maintain the relationship between who they claim to be and what it’s like to experience them. 

Brands that align your perception of them and the reality of your experience tell stories that are hard to ignore — brands that don’t just make a lot of noise.