What is Branding, Exactly? 5 Key Components

What is Branding, Exactly? 5 Key Components

Branding is a word that’s tossed around quite a bit in the design, marketing, and entrepreneurial circles these day (myself included). And while industry people generally know what we mean by that term, if you’re not in one of those fields you might be asking: what is branding, exactly? Particularly in the design field, it’s used interchangeably to mean your logo and colors. And while that’s part of it, it’s not the whole picture (which is why I try to always use the term visual branding when talking about my services).

So, what, then, does the term branding actually mean? The answer is both simple and complex. Simple because I’m breaking branding down into its five key components below. Complex because there are a lot of different factors that go into branding, and not all of them are under your control. The good news is that most of them are, and if you get those nailed down you’ve got a really solid basis for your business’ branding.

What is branding? It’s made up of these five key components:

1. The Intangible

You/your business’ core beliefs: what you stand for, who you are
Your mission statement
How you want your business to be perceived

This is the story of your business. Why it exists, what it considers important, how it strives to do business, what kind of vibe and personality it gives off. If you have a cause that your business is supporting, or a history that is behind why this business was started, or certain principles you want your business to stand for, those kinds of details help make up your core brand.

It’s best to clarify your answers in this step before you create any of your marketing materials or have design work done. This is why I walk clients through my branding questionnaire before beginning any logo work. If you’re not clear on these intangible elements, the rest of your branding may be fine, sufficient. But it’s not going to do any heavy lifting for your business or help to really connect you to your audience.

2. The Visual

Your logo
The colors, fonts, and photo/illustration style you use
The design and layout of your website, social media graphics, print materials, etc.

Colors have meanings associated with them. Fonts have personalities, photos and illustrations have moods and styles. You want to make sure that your visual choices for each of these line up with what you’re about as a business. After that, you want to make sure you’re using them consistently so that Your Look becomes recognizable and associated with your business.

This is the part most often associated with the word branding. And as I said above, it’s not inaccurate, as it’s an important part of branding- just not the whole picture. Visual branding is also the part that I, as a designer, specialize in. I help you find your visual voice by taking all of those intangible ideas and translating them into designs that match and promote those same ideas.

3. The Verbal

How you communicate: the tone, length, and vocabulary
Written pieces: from your tagline to emails to blog posts to about pages to contracts
Spoken communication: on the phone, in person, at speaking gigs, in webinars/videos

I think we can all agree there’s a difference between “Good evening, sir” and “Heya, how’s it going?” as greetings. The same goes for everything we talk and write. The words you choose to communicate with for your business can say a lot more than you think. If you’re aiming for a friendly, casual vibe, the words and phrases you use should back that up. A mismatch just causes confusion in potential customers.

As with visuals, when it comes to verbals you again want to be consistent. Mood swings are not something you want your business to be known for.

4. The Experiential

The experience your company provides while doing business
Personal interactions with your company by customers/users/clients
Includes: interactions with staff, ease of use of product, troubleshooting process, price point, etc.

This is where things start to step outside of your direct control for your brand. The main point you can control with customer interactions is this: does the experience match what you advertise? Does your product or service do what you say it will? Have you communicated clearly regarding process, price, what the customer is getting or can expect? Does a customer have clear avenues for how to seek help? If you’re interacting in person, are you and your staff polite, helpful and in line with the personality of the business?

Customers will weigh your brand and their experience on your authenticity, standards, and personality. If you’ve gotten the previous components squared away and have a legitimately good product/service, most of this work is already done for you. You just have to make sure the actual transaction (including any on-boarding and follow up processes) goes as smoothly as possible.

That said, you can’t control everything. Things like power outages, lost shipments, website downtime, sick days, family emergencies, and customers simply being in a bad mood are all a part of doing business. How you deal with and react to potential problems is the part of your brand you need to focus on for this component.

5. The Reputational

Overall customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction
What people who haven’t directly interacted with your business think of your business
The feeling/opinion people associate with your company based on reviews, word of mouth, articles, etc.

This is the component that you have zero control over. You can’t dictate what people think, after all. But, if you’ve got a solid branding base (components 1, 2 and 3) and knock it out of the park with customers (component 4), then you shouldn’t have much to worry about with this step. Give people a reason to say positive things about you with how you provide service, and they generally will. You’ll slowly build the reputation that you deserve.

In the event that something damaging to your reputation comes up (a bad user review or a negative article), not all is lost. If you need to, take five minutes to have a cry or throw a fit in private, offline. Then try to evaluate whether the critique is valid or not. If your company is at fault for something, you certainly need to take steps to remedy it if you haven’t already. If the bad press is groundless, carefully weigh whether it warrants a response or not. How your business deals with negative comments or accusations is also part of your brand. You want to make sure you stick to your business’ core values in any response you put out there.

Intangible, visual, verbal, experiential, and reputational. Put these all together, and your have your answer to What is Branding. It’s more complex that just your logo, but I hope seeing it laid out and explained like this also makes understanding branding simpler. Ideally it also helps you with your own business and evaluating where your branding is at, or how to build it if you’re just starting out.

Did this clear up the question of ‘what is branding’ for you? If not, what else can I clarify for you?


Creative Wavelength: Instagram Edition

It’s been a few months since the last Instagram Edition of Creative Wavelength. That just means I’ve had time to round up a great new batch of people you should keep an eye on. These people are all doing amazing, beautiful, creative things, and documenting the process for our enjoyment. Check them out:

Full disclosure: these are not all straight screenshots of these accounts, I hand-picked what ‘grams to show based on what I’m most a fan of.

Meni Chatzipanagiotou of menis_art is an illustrator with such a detailed hand, it amazes. Her black and white creations, whether on wood or paper, have a compelling visual depth and beauty.


Laura Groetzinger of pinkandsalt uses her deft touch with watercolors to create these ethereal floral paintings. I want them all.


Nicole.gray_ (aka. Nicole Sweeney) uses a fairly basic shape – a wood triangle – to fashion some remarkable wood mosaics, playing off of color and texture.


liamashurst (Liam Ashurst) is a very talented designer and illustrator, who has mastered the style of monoline design with these vector drawings. Teach me your ways, Liam!


Quilling is not an art form you hear much abotu (or maybe even know the name of) but Sabeena Karnik of sabeenu is clearly an expert at handling those paper curls. How many paper cuts do you think she gets in a day?


Martin Tomsky of tomskym with his focus on story and mythology. Using wood staining and precision layering, he creates amazingly intricate wood sculptures. Not helping my desire for a laser cutter here, Martin.


⇒ And of course, you can also find me over on Instagram, at studioguerassio.

Who are your favorite creative people to follow on Instagram?


An Incomplete List of Pursuits by a Serial Hobbyist

An Incomplete List of Pursuits by a Serial Hobbyist

I’m in the process of cleaning out my office/studio workspace in preparation for some house renovations. This has meant slowly going through all of the art supplies, materials, half-finished pieces, bits and bobs, etc. accumulated over the past 7 years. To say I have a lot of such things would be an understatement. If nothing else, this endeavor has made me come to a realization.

Hello, my name is Amanda, and I’m a serial hobbyist.

If it can remotely be considered artsy or craft, chances are good I have tried it. Combine this with my tendency to not want to waste anything if it can possibly be used later, and we’re talking a serious creative clutter problem. Think I’m exaggerating? Cast your eyes on the following.

An incomplete* list of things I have tried my hand at, taken a class or workshop on, or otherwise tinkered around with:

Pyrography (woodburning)
Brush Lettering
Hand Lettering
Acrylic Paints
Mixed Media Collage
Bookmark Making
Charcoal Drawing
Chalk/Pastel Drawing
Pencil Drawing
Pen Drawing
Digital Photography
B&W Film Photography (complete with darkroom development and printing)
Clay Sculpture
Miniature Modeling Clay
Plaster Casting
Mixed Media Sculpture
Basket Weaving (thanks, mom!)
Tie Dye
Shibori Indigo Dyeing
Screenprinting with Screens
Screenprinting with Stencils
Bleach Painting
Sharpie/Marker Art
Life Drawing
Wood Block Carving & Printing
Linoleum Block Carving & Printing
Handmade Greeting Cards/Invitations
Wood Staining and Painting
Mural Painting
Sponge Painting
Paper Mache
Candle Making
Simple Weaving
Dreamcatcher Construction
Stained Glass
Jewelry Design

In case you needed evidence.


Am I good at all of these? Hell no. And I stuck with some longer than others. Some I only tried once. But I still have the materials for an alarming number of these pursuits. And this doesn’t even get into non-visual creative things, like baking or music. Or things more directly related to design, like classes in typography or branding or book cover design (all of which I have also taken).

It’s not likely to stop any time soon, either. Because a creative mind is a curious mind and there’s still more to explore.

Things I would still like to try**:
Welding/Metal Sculpture
3D Printing
Calligraphy / Quill Pen Writing
3D Modeling/Scene Building
Paper Making
Paper Curling/Quilling
Letterpress Printing (I have ordered pieces, just not done myself)
Blacksmithing (specifically sword making)
Gold Leaf
Bronze Casting (or some other metal)

Yeah, a lot of these are more involved or require more specialized/expensive equipment than in the first list, which is a good part of why they remain untried. But they are on my radar. I’d also like to get better at some of the things in the first list, so I’ll have plenty to keep me busy in my free time.

Meanwhile, wish me luck on my office clean-out. If you don’t hear from me next week, I’ve been buried by art supplies.

Are you a serial hobbyist as well? What kinds of things have you pursued?

*Incomplete because I’m sure I’m forgetting something.
**I also just discovered while writing this that The Contemporary Austin Art School has a whole bunch of interesting classes for adults, so yeah… not abating any time soon.

Highlights from HOW Design Live 2017

Highlights from HOW Design Live 2017

I spent last week in Chicago, attending the amazing HOW Design Live conference for the first time ever. It was a jam-packed week full of seminars, keynotes, exhibitors, and more. I’ll probably need at least another week to properly process everything. But in going through my notes, I realized there were quite a few speakers who distilled their ideas down into very quotable bits. And I wanted to share some of those here today. There’s wise words, words to make you think or chuckle, and a good overview of a lot of the topics covered at this year’s conference.

“Instead of minimal viable product, aim for maximum f**king love.”
Brian Collins. I always thought the idea of minimal viable product was a really low bar. I’m not sure ‘love’ is necessarily the prescriptive solution, but it’s a move in the right direction at the least.

“’What do you do for a living?’ Whatever I can get away with.”
Timothy Goodman on his adopted slogan. I wasn’t super familiar with his work before, but seeing some of his series on Instagram has gotten a few ideas cooking for me.

“People in the center are never going to be the big change makers.”
Sam Harrison on being weird. His advice: do so many uncommon and unusual things that you surpass weird and enter genius territory. I can get behind this.

“A great visual identity system creates space for great ideas.”
David Turner on the importance of a codified and scalable visual identity system. If the rules are clear, it actually frees you up to think creatively within them.

“It’s not what the brief or identity standards says you can or can’t do; it’s about what it doesn’t say you can’t do.”
Stefan Mumaw on creative villainy and circumventing the rules.

“‘Design thinking’ packages a designer’s way of working for a non-designer audience by codifying their processes into a prescriptive, step-by-step approach to creative problem solving – claiming that it can be applied by anyone to any problem. This is bullshit.”
Natasha Jen on why a single way of thinking or single process is not the panacea of design. Design is messy and complex, and one approach is never going to be good for every possible problem and project. Amen to this.

“Brands that recognize our feelings and validate our humanity are hard NOT to engage with.”
Valerie Aurilio on the eternal truths of design: empathy and storytelling.

“There is always a crossover between print and digital.”
Indra Kupferschmid on how no project is strictly one or the other.

“Color is only ever and always 3 things: hue, saturation and value. Knowing this makes working with color so much simpler.”
Jim Krause on how distilling color down to its basic parts makes finding that perfect shade easier.

“If you’re ever in a rut with your work, ask ‘what might get me arrested?’”
Kelli Anderson, regarding her project of printing and distributing a fake New York Times edition that painted the world as a better place than it is. She is up to some cool stuff, definitely check her out.

“The desire of the manager to speed up the process and impose a deadline on the designer is the single most detrimental thing to creative people, the biggest killer of good design. […] The single most important skill for a creative life is getting the world to back off.”
Malcolm Gladwell speaking directly to every designer’s soul, even though he’s not a designer himself. Everyone should check out his podcast: Revisionist History. I could listen to this guy talk for hours. Not because he has a particular melty voice (he’s no Benedict Cumberbatch), but just because he’s so interesting.

Yeah, we had an impressive lineup of speakers and presenters. I hope you enjoyed some of these tidbits and maybe clicked thru to connect with some of these creative minds.

Do you have a favorite quote from above? If you also attended HOW, what’s a great quote that I missed?

(a girl can’t be in every session at once, after all)

Covers Reimagined: The Lord of the Rings Redux

Covers Reimagined: LOTR Redux

Awhile back I did a take on new covers for The Lord of the Rings epic fantasy trilogy (you can follow that link to see what I came up, along with some design reasoning and a quick summary of each book in the LOTR series). It was a fun experiment and a good exercise in using type and negative space as design elements. And though they ended up looking pretty cool, I was never completely happy with the final covers. So I decided to have another go at them.

For this new take on the LOTR covers, I wanted to see if I could rework the elements I already had into a new design. So if the first set of covers was bold and textured, this set is minimal and restrained. Think of them as dwarves vs. elves interpretations. 😉

Here, then, are the redux covers by yours truly for The Lord of the Rings trilogy:

LOTR new covers stack

LOTR new covers lineup

LOTR book 1 - The Fellowship of the Ring

LOTR book 2 - The Two Towers

LOTR book 3 - The Return of the King

As you can see, I basically did the opposite of what I did that last time. I’m still using the same photos, and the same icon shapes, and even the same typeface. But now the icons are solid, the photos only shows up inside of them, and the type has been simplified. I’d probably get yelled at by a publisher for doing a solid white background, simply because on bookstore shelves they show every smudge and crease. But for the minimal look I was aiming for this time, white was the only real choice. Any other solid color would’ve been too overwhelming or heavy compared to the other elements.

I’m quite happy with how this second attempt turned out. It’s not a complicated setup for this batch of LOTR covers, to be sure. But simplicity is often the better path in design and I think that’s true here, too. White background aside, if this was shelved amidst all of the other fantasy books at the bookstore, I think it would stand out. Not that ol’ JRR needs my help selling these. LOTR is well established by now, and you really only see those dratted movie version book covers any more. At the least, my covers are an improvement on those. [/bookwormgrumbles]

What do you think? Do you prefer my first attempt at the LOTR covers, or this latest take?

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Amanda Guerassio

From freelance designer to studio owner, I've been a self-employed, independent graphic designer for over a decade. I love helping people find the right visual voice for their businesses and projects. Let's talk!