A brand's function is to demonstrate the company's personality and set it apart from the competition. Generally, it is built around three complementary features:
Corporate vision - a company's strategic vision, setting out its values and goals
Employee belief - the employees' perception of the company's value system and aims
External perception - what the external world believes about the company
Good branding relies on these three core elements being in agreement with one another, to create a consistent corporate identity that is recognizable across different media - in print, online, in advertising and merchandise.
The elements of branding
Besides these core elements, branding encompasses a variety of others from brand name and slogan to more obviously visual elements such as signature colors, fonts and the logo. Good design can help balance to these different elements, combining them in a single visual identity.
A logo is probably the most instantly recognizable asset of a company's brand. It's designed to inspire trust and loyalty, and create immediate recognition. Take Apple's logo, for instance.
Notwithstanding Forest Gump's endearing reference to Apple as 'some fruit company', Apple's iconic logo is widely recognizable and indelibly associated with Apple computer products, plus obviously the iPhone and iPad.
Originally designed in rainbow colors to demonstrate*the ability of its computers to display color, since 1998 the logo has used monochrome themes, which make it easy to adapt. This simple logo also works equally well at different sizes.
In 2008, chocolate company Cadbury fought Australian-based chocolate manufacturer Darrell Lea over the right to use the colour purple.
Cadbury argued that that Darrell Lea's purple on its advertising, uniforms and products was too similar to its own and confused customers.
Cadbury lost the case, and Darrell Lea interestingly seems to have since switched from purple to blue, but the point remains. Colors holds powerful associations and is a crucial element of brand identity.
Colors can make or break a company's visual appeal, so it's worth doing some research about what associations certain colors evoke. Black, for example, is often used to sell expensive products such as cars because of its perceived boldness, seriousness and associations with power. For more on colors association, I recommend Ann Smarty's useful article.
Signature fonts designed especially for a brand can set that brand apart from the crowd.
UK charity Cancer Research UK is an interesting example. The charity funds research into all types of cancer and provides an information service for cancer patients, as well as organizing nationally recognized fund-raising events such as Race for Life. Its tone of voice is warm, friendly and uses plain English to talk directly about cancer.
Cancer Research UK's strategic vision is "Together we will beat cancer" - a hopeful statement that reflects the charity's ethos and optimism.
Keep it versatile
Visual identity needs to be able to adapt to different media. For example, your color scheme, fonts and logo all need to work wherever they appear - on business cards, merchandise, TV, or online channels such as display advertising, web and social media.
Working for web
When designing for a website there are certain accessibility principles you need to bear in mind (these tools can help). Soft Grey fonts on a white background (for example) look cool, but will fail a basic web accessibility test because they are not contrasting enough to be easily read.
Likewise, if your logo works brilliantly for print materials but is too big for online advertising, think about creating a secondary logo for use online. The same applies to fonts - signature fonts work well for images and logos, but may need to be backed up by secondary, standard issue fonts for headings and body copy that can be built in HTML.
The acid test
Visual brand identity needs to be tied in to the first three elements of branding: corporate vision, employee belief, and external perception. If these three can be reflected in good design, you've got yourself a visual brand.