As an entrepreneur, you probably know that making a mark on your customers’ minds is highly valuable. By creating a recognizable, trusted and consistent image of your company, you’re able to win your customers’ attention and loyalty. Without that differentiation, they could easily flock to your competitors.

A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is—it is what consumers tell each other it is.
- Scott Cook

Simply put, a key success factor for your company is your brand.

Now, when most people think of brand, the first thing that comes to mind is a logo. While a logo is indeed a key brand element, and typically the most immediate visual association with a company, there’s much more to a brand than just a logo.

To build a great brand, there are three key terms you need to be aware of:

  • Brand: how people perceive your company.
  • Branding: the actions you take to build a certain image of your company.
  • Brand identity: the collection of tangible brand elements that together create one brand image.

Let’s take a deeper dive into these concepts.

What is a brand?

IKEA’s Hong Kong store
Everyone knows that for cheap-but-good furniture (and meatballs), IKEA is the place to be. Via IKEA.

A brand is set of distinctive perceptions, ideas and feelings that people have about your company, which set it apart from alternatives.

Basically, your brand is what your consumers think of you. As Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit, puts it:

“A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is—it is what consumers tell each other it is.”

For instance, there are many furniture stores and brands out there, but one that stands apart in most people’s minds is IKEA. When people think of stylish furniture at an affordable price point, the Swedish company is the most immediate association.

What is branding?

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Although it’s really your customers who decide what your brand is, there are certainly actions you can take as a business owner to put yourself in the driver’s seat.

This is called branding: the active process of shaping the perceptions that consumers have about your company. All the steps that you take to build awareness and reputation around your company and its product or services live in the realm of branding. Your branding efforts may not always fully translate into your customers’ minds, but the more deliberate and cohesive they are, the higher the chance of success.

Before making any branding decisions, first consider this: what is the perception you want to impress on your customers? What’s your goal brand? Be authentic and really dig into the core why of your company. This high-level strategy should help to guide your branding decisions.

What is brand identity?

It is through the process of branding that you can build a brand identity: a collection of tangible expressions of your company, such as your logo, colors, typography and voice. The more distinct, specific and cohesive these elements are, the higher the likelihood that they will shape a differentiated brand that is recognized and admired.

IKEA’s logo history
The gradual transformation of the IKEA logo. Via IKEA.

IKEA’s logo, for instance, transformed quite a bit in the first couple of iterations, but remained fairly consistent since 1967: changing only colors, and preserving shape and font. Today’s blue-and-yellow color combination signifies trust and reliability, yet friendliness and affordability. Coupled with the bold, rounded lettering, and the oval framing the name, this builds the impression of a strong, established and inclusive brand.

A brand is a living entity, and it is enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures.
- Michael Eisner

Yet, the logo is only one of many elements that serve to build this identity. IKEA’s simple, easy-to-navigate website that greets visitors with a “Hej!” speaks to the customers in a friendly voice that authentically embodies the company’s Swedish roots. Moreover, the fact that their physical stores are self-service—requiring buyers to pick up the items themselves from the warehouse—is not simply a financial and operational decision: it also fits well with the DIY, economical ethos of the brand. Similarly, the open floor plan maximizes the utility of the store space. The large, blue and yellow IKEA bags also represent the company’s identity: they’re simple, practical, and highly durable. Of course, the ultimate embodiment of IKEA’s brand identity are the actual products they sell, which seamlessly combine efficiency, style and affordability.

Together, all of these elements of IKEA’s brand identity strengthen each-other and compose the image of a friendly, user-centric and economical brand.

IKEA’s bags
IKEA’s bags are an unmistakable physical element of the brand. Via New York Times.

So, as you build your company’s brand identity, be deliberate and check that each element is actually contributing to the overall perception you want to imprint in your customers. Even simply keeping in mind the difference between (and importance of) the oft-confused terms—brand, branding and brand identity—is already a step in the right direction of creating the next cult brand.

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