There’s an important distinction between the terms “branding” and “visual identity.” A brand covers the whole ethos, philosophy and purpose of the brand, including things like the brand story, the mission of the brand and the personality or “tone of voice.” The visual identity is just the superficial visual representation of all that — it’s one part of a business’ branding.
When it comes to rebranding, there’s a lot that a business will want to weigh up. So how can you avoid pitfalls and remain memorable even as trends come and go? A proper, effective rebranding certainly takes time, but the effort you put in at this stage ensures you won’t be playing catch-up with your competitors for the next few months — or even years.
What Makes a Brand Timeless?
First impressions matter, especially where visuals are concerned. Naturally, you’ll want to put a lot of focus on that aspect of branding. But for a brand to feel strong, complete and timeless, the other elements of the brand have to be strong enough to support the visual identity. Let’s say you want to create a visual identity that feels modern and up to date. To do that, you might get too caught up in what’s big at the minute. But being in vogue comes with a price — you might look the part for the time being, but all those fancy bells and whistles could well be out of date by the year’s end, leaving your brand looking outdated and old hat.
Let’s look at the word timeless. It gets thrown about a lot in design, but what do we really mean by it? People tend to point to timeless design as something clean and simple: Apple products or the original Audi TT, to name just two. Both of these products draw their inspiration from the Bauhaus movement, an art movement that shunned elaborate decorations and garnishing for simple geometric shapes. And they were onto something: circles and squares will never not look good in a design context, right?
On the flipside, other pieces of design we consider timeless include the Bakelite telephone or the Lambretta moped. But they don’t adhere to any of the principles mentioned above. Actually, they were following the trends of the time — they just did it so well that they captured the zeitgeist of the times and cemented themselves in society as iconic pieces of design. More importantly, they are honest pieces of design, in the sense that the design of the product served a distinct purpose. They weren’t designed simply for design’s sake.
Finding Your Own Version of ‘Timeless’
By now you’re probably thinking, “so how do I go about creating a timeless visual identity for my brand?” The answer is you probably need an amalgamation of both of the above examples. Ultimately, strong timeless branding lies in two things: the purpose of the brand and the foundations that let a design philosophy to thrive and take root.
Let’s look at Apple again. The philosophy of the company is to create beautiful devices that simplify and enrich the user experience. This brand philosophy is reflected in the design philosophy of the products: they are high quality, simply designed and make the user feel good. Plus, they have aspects that show incredible attention to detail, from the weight of their products to the damping of how a laptop closes.
This design philosophy trickles down into the visual identity of the brand, in the form of a clean, minimalist and calming aesthetic. The idea of making the user experience as seamless and effortless as possible is even reflected in the shopping experience in an Apple store. From the moment they choose a product to the moment they walk out of the store with their shiny new gadget in hand, the customer never has to walk very far in between either of these actions.
When Rebranding, Start with Your Values
So when it comes to rebranding your own business, your values and mission make for a good place to start. Both elements can provide you with a solid base that can dictate how your brand will look and feel. They don’t have to be lofty; something aspirational can be just as striking. In fact, like the Bauhaus guys, keeping things simple in general can often work best — whether it’s your logo or brand story. As long as they’re strong and well-defined, they’re sure to be more memorable and relatable in the long term.
Likewise, the message you want to convey can help to shape your brand too — even if your product isn’t particularly exciting. Your customers have a problem; show them how your brand is going to solve it. There are countless brands that might not have the most glamorous products, but their branding is what gives them the power to linger in the mind even decades on.
If you really want to brand your business in a way that reflects current design trends, then it shouldn’t come at the expense of your brand philosophy and purpose. Look at the brand philosophy as the building blocks and the trendy visual identity as a garnish or embellishment you can use to present your ideas to the world. The most important thing to ask yourself during the process is: does the visual identity do a good job of relaying the brand ethos and personality? They both have to work together in a holistic way. In other words, if you were a celebrity stylist, you wouldn’t dress Stephen Fry as a Gen Z festival-goer — no matter how fashionable that seems at the moment.
Niki Lau is Creative Lead at the digital marketing agency Banc. He graduated from Northumbria University in 2009 with an Automotive Design degree, which led to a job as a Junior Designer at a studio in London. Following various freelance projects in the automotive sector, Lau ultimately decided a career in car design wasn’t for him and he made the move into illustration and graphic design, which eventually led him to Banc.