277. Essay: Typographical Distinction in Branding

by jfjudah

I remember Marco Polo, the game played at many a swimming pool. A group tries to avoid an individual — whose eyes are closed — as they call back and forth, “Marco!” “Polo!” Slipping under the chlorine water buys time to get away from blinded chaser, but only until your lungs start to burn. Then you have to answer when you take that breath. “Polo!” Dunk, swish, kick, kick, kick.

In business, the blindness is reversed. We the customers are all blinded to advertising, either by choice or inundation. The companies must call to get our attention and draw us to their goods and services. Trust means a lot in this model, so whatever a company can do to set itself apart is invaluable. Marco.

Branding. Say Wha . . . ?

You know it when you see it: Nike, Apple Inc., McDonald’s, Disney, Coke. Branding is how an entity is recognized. It encompasses their message, personality, reputation, and style (meaning their look and feel versus another organization in the same category).

Branding is voice. It has enough character to seem original, but not so much as to be distracting. This voice must fit the brand. Just think about a foreign film with voiceovers. You can quickly tell that the individual whose mouth is moving either does or does not have a certain voice. With good branding, the message is clear to the listener because the brand is focused and unswayed.

Branding is distinct. It is not the norm, and it is not boring. It is creative and inviting, adept at pulling in the audience time and again.

Branding is consistent across all mediums and is built through the years. It is easily recognized on the Web, in print, on billboards, in videos, and the like. Great branding means an organization has impact: Their name elicits a certain response. They’ve become part of the cultural consciousness; mindshare is the buzz word for that.

Branding is therefore memorable. And this is my main point. This is “Marco.”

How to Brand

If you’re part of the marketing or design world, you know the elements of a good brand. It’s things like logo, colors, style, and type choice that are in sync with the company, representing them accurately. Holding strong to these elements over the years will yield a strong net effect with the public. A memorable logo that has enough simplicity to render in color as well as it does in black and white is a good start. The logo should be simple enough that it retains its clarity at all sizes and it should match the voice of the organization. The color palette is important, but colors can change with trends over the years. Same goes for style. Unless you are going for a certain “dated” aesthetic — and I mean that in the true sense, not sarcastically — it’s good to roll with current style trends many times.

But what about following trends that overtake the font world? I think it’s a bad idea, actually. If you want to stand out, go against the crowd.

The Role of Typography in Branding

So how does choice of typeface affect a brand? If a brand is to be so memorable that is stands apart from the crowd, then it follows that whatever forces the brand into obscurity is counterproductive. Looking like the rest is brand failure. This is why I believe the wrongly-assumed neutral typefaces such as Helvetica and Gotham, and overused typefaces like Gill Sans and Futura, are not truly brandable. Not that they aren’t decent typefaces in their own right, but I don’t think they fit the criteria listed above. When the market is saturated with the same typeface, the impact of your brand will not be felt.

Are Helvetica and Gotham beautiful? Yes. Are they inviting and even? Yes. Do they feel current after all these years of use? Yes. Are there enough weights and widths to use in most circumstances? Sure.

But these are not the criteria for distinction in branding. This doesn’t ensure “Polo.” Branding sets you apart from the cacophony of the crowd, from the norm, from the all-too-easy fallback position. The question shouldn’t be, “What has everyone else done?” It should be, “What gives us a distinct voice?” This means taking some time and doing the research to find a typeface that is a bit different than what everyone else is doing.

It’s worth it.

Typography’s Staying Power

The logo may stay, but it may get updated or changed altogether. Colors and style have the inherent ability to be more fluid; they serve the brand rather than the other way around. It seems to me that type choice is one of the few things that don’t necessarily have to change and, therefore, could be one of the most important aspects within a brand. Consider this:

  • Words are the primary medium in any communication, whether audible, printed, or on screen.
  • As I’ve written before, font choice carries a feeling. This is in addition to the meaning of the words.
  • With a simple change of the font weight, many possibilities are opened. The feeling can change from fun-loving to serious or represent two different departments under the parent brand.
  • Whether using an image or a font service, the font family you choose for print can be used online as well. This will only become easier and more expected as time goes on.
  • If type choice remains consistent, the customer will see strong and clear unity throughout the brand.
  • If the customer feels the brand coherence, uncertainty is alleviated and they feel reassured during interactions such as purchases or submitting personal information.

This is “Polo.”

I think typographic choice is one of the easiest ways to set an organization apart. It acts as the clear voice among the echoes, it can reliably impact the public, and can provide consistency across all mediums and throughout the years.

Distinction wins the branding game. You have to tell your story to distinguish yourself from the competition. Lose your voice, and your customers will lose their way to you.