Our brains can process images that our eyes see for as little 13 milliseconds, and when it comes to brand message retention, people exposed to words accompanied by visuals have a 65% recall rate after three days – 55% higher than those who are shown text alone.
That means your first and most lasting impression relies on your visual identity.
As competition increases, creating a strong visual language to support brand identity is increasingly important for B2B companies. And while B2C brands have traditionally had a stronger focus on using design as a communication tool, a report from CMI shows that in the past year “the majority of B2B content marketers increased their use of audio/visual content, written digital content, and images.”
Besides boosting your branding, investing in a clear visual identity is a smart strategy because it means that everything you produce will have multi-channel and social media applications, offering consistent visual cues that help customers easily recognize your product. And considering that consistent brand presentation across platforms increases revenue by up to 23%, it’d be silly not to.
Read on to learn how to create a visual language that supports your business and marketing goals while building powerful audience engagement and connections for your customers.
1. Know your brand
While visual identity is an important communication tool, your first priority is to understand your company to its core, and know what it is you want to say. Research has shown that color and visual elements play a strong role in how people perceive brands, but it takes concrete reasoning to actually makes these associations impactful. Understanding the values you want to transmit and the tone you want to “speak” with will inform all your team’s future design decisions.
“As human beings, we’re more likely to trust something we can see and relate to. A good [visual] identity expresses your values and personality, so it creates an emotional connection,” according to Alex Antolino, Creative Director at Typeform, a SaaS form builder. That’s because a successful visual identity is more than just font and color selection; it’s a set of guidelines flexible enough to take you into the future as your brand evolves but defined enough to set you apart from your competitors – all while encouraging customers to trust and engage with your company.
“Brands are like people,” continues Antolino, who oversaw Typeform’s year-long rebranding process. “They have personality, values, and a certain style. When creating a visual identity, you need to deeply understand the core identity of that brand, and that means the purpose, the vision, and the values.” By discussing these points with employees, stakeholders, and customers, he was able to narrow down on insights that determined their final brand philosophy – “a celebration of people, their differences and uniqueness” – and aesthetic of organic, imperfect lines seen across the site, along with candid photos of real users.
Tip: Before you decide on specific design elements, think about your company’s purpose, vision for the future, and how its values and actions support that larger mission. These aren’t easy or quick topics to consider, but by tackling them first you’ll be able to build a visual identity around them that connects more deeply with your audience and guarantees a lasting impact.
2. Immerse yourself in storytelling
Visual identity is a useful tool in supporting the information found in your text. Creative framing, layouts, and other elements make content more memorable and easier to read. By using visual language, you can create a bigger picture – a larger story that runs throughout the entirety of your site, blog, social efforts, and beyond.
Take Salesforce. The leading CRM platform plays with the idea of the “customer journey” with a visual identity that revolves around quests and features video-game inspired icons and illustrated imagery to gamify calls to action and encourage engagement. By spreading unique visual and storytelling elements across landing pages and using different characters and settings to showcase their products in a friendly and creative way, Salesforce creates a sense of discovery and encourages users to explore their site.
“The most engaging and powerful works of design tell stories… [and] invite people to create their own paths,” graphic design leader Ellen Lupton told Áccent last month. “If we begin from what stories we want to tell or enable, we can anchor the formal and visual components of the project to that fundamental story” – in any medium, across any platform.
Playing with even a few basic visual aspects across your communication efforts can start to give you a serious edge. The simple imagery of iconography, seen here, creates a visual hierarchy that makes it easy for viewers to quickly absorb information. And though their size and need to be instantly recognizable may create certain design restrictions, icons like Salesforce’s show that there’s plenty of potential to incorporate brand storytelling across smaller design elements.
Tip: Why airdrop generic imagery into an otherwise cohesive visual identity? Take a critical look at the banners, icons, CTAs, and other touch points across your website. Noticing those visual features can help you discover new opportunities for integrating your brand’s mission, goals, and design story while guiding viewers where you want them to go.
3. Invest in original images
A curated selection of stock imagery is key to any visual content marketing strategy, but bespoke illustration and design will always win in terms of memorability and distinction. Original imagery gives you the opportunity to find creative ways of expressing your brand story while serving as a consistent thread that unites the content you produce.
Humans are visual creatures; our brains are wired to rapidly process imagery and retain visual information. And yet, many marketers “still make the mistake of thinking of imagery last – even though it’s the first thing a reader sees,” says John Collins, Intercom’s Director of Content. He works closely with a team of writers and designers to produce content and original artwork for Inside Intercom, which has built a unique visual identity for the brand and helped the company gain wider recognition.
This kind of custom imagery fuels memorable and purpose-driven communication that’s literally designed to support your message. It’s important to “bite the bullet and say that you’re going to try to invest and do something different from early on,” adds John, especially seeing as one-of-a-kind visuals enhance the reader experience, add a unique touch to otherwise technical content, and are so helpful in building a cohesive online presence.
Tip: Nail down your brand identity to guide design decisions when creating and picking images that best fit your brand personality. Illustrations, above all, offer the chance to add quirkiness and a creative twist that make for highly shareable visuals your customers will remember you by. While your output might decrease somewhat, the quality of each piece – and the impact it has on the viewer – will soar.
4. Be responsive
Slack’s recent redesign got a lot of press, and the company has been open about how their changes were fueled by the desire to create a cohesive visual identity, especially seeing as their inconsistent visual language was making it difficult for people to recognize their brand. After all, as they explained on their blog, “The important thing about being a brand is that whenever people see you in the wild, they should recognize that it’s you.”
Often the magic and challenge of building a strong visual identity is finding new ways to engage your user while still sticking to a consistent visual language. One of the new ways Slack is doing this is by using simple interactive visuals to make their site and blog more dynamic.
Responsive hover-over effects automatically engage users as they travel through a page, adding a graphic punch and helping highlight information. By using a mix of techniques – like adding colorful shapes to frame selections when the cursor hovers over them, or greying out surrounding content – these visual tools add personality while making each link and CTA all the more clickable.
“When given the choice, people naturally prefer what’s easier for them to use, to read, or to understand,” wrote Slack designer Hubert Florin in a Medium post about accessibility as a design tool. He explained that because we’re used to perceived brightness indicating that something is actionable, which is why Slack’s content – which creates the perception that the option you’re hovering over gets brighter – taps into this part of our brain.
Tip: If you’re thinking of borrowing the same trick or finding new ways to help people interact with your pages, keep user experience top of mind and use the rules you’ve established with your visual language to make sure you don’t use an overwhelming number of elements. Just as Slack had to pare down imagery that was presented in competing styles before its rebrand, consider ways to present your visuals so that a dynamic element will complement, rather than overshadow.