Brand and identity are pretty easy to conflate, as they both answer the question, “who are you?” To understand the difference, we can take the metaphor a little further.
Identity is your social security number. It’s the token to play. if you were strictly speaking in identity terms, when asked ‘who are you?’ you’d reply with your name.
But, to answer ‘who are you’ with your credentials is a shallow dip into the pool. This is where brand comes in: what makes you inherently you? It’s the swagger and the voice that make up a brand and ultimately speak to your essence.
There are plenty of companies that do both, one or neither of brand and identity well (some more intentionally than others).
Examples of companies with strong identities and strong brands:
Nike, Levi’s, Penguin books, New York Times, Virgin America, Coca cola, Nintendo, Apple, PBS, Gatorade
Examples of companies with strong brands and weak identities:
Urban outfitters, Wikipedia, Many fashion design companies, Ray and Charles Eames, The Smithsonian
Examples of companies with strong identities and weak brands:
CBS, FedEx, most car brands, public transit systems
Companies with strong identities are immediately recognizable, and companies with strong brands are easy to relate to. When a company has a strong identity and a weak brand, it seems like a utility. It’s easy to find when you need it and different from its competitors, but you don’t expect it to have much personality.
Companies with weak identities and strong brands feel extremely democratic and mercurial. They can be rooted strongly in trend or the flow of the people. For Urban Outfitters, for instance, a lack of identity actually strengthens their brand. They appeal to irreverent, young renegades, and their damn-the-man attitude is amplified by their ever-changing logo.
The reason a strong identity and strong brand is the holy grail of companies is because only when utility and ethos are combined can a place really portray itself as a service. However, it is an interesting thought experiment: what would happen to your company if you leaned one way or another? Is one side more appropriate?
All good things come to an end. Or, they would if we ever stopped evolving.
There are two kinds of reinvention. A company that’s settled into a comfortable and wan pattern will shake up its brand to fly under a steadier standard. Take the Current TV redesign, which does this quite literally:
(image from Brand New)
The idea of an army-sized movement, of the immutable power of the tide, of a billowing flag in the dark—that’s got a lot more heft than techy crowds wielding pixels. And, it’s what Current has always been about.
There’s a different genius in the second kind of reinvention, the reinvention of conviction.
Sunglasses are built to shield us. They block out the sun, they anonymize movie stars to the flash of the paparazzi. I have always loved Ray-ban for its complete opposition of this idea. Let the other sunglasses keep out the world. Never Hide in Ray-bans.
Jeans are built for hard, gritty work. But, in Levi’s, there’s work to be undone. In the nostalgia for our forefathers, we don’t find factory drudgery. We find the love of careful craft and the freedom of razing the past to start anew.
When your brand’s heart runs dry, find a new north. Run in the opposite direction. Free yourself from the metropolis we’ve built and head for the frontier. Breathe the country air. At the very least you will come home changed.