Understanding the difference between brand and corporate identity.

Written by Finn Taylor on 18th June 2018

(Last updated 8th November 2023)

A brand manual is the cornerstone of any design briefing ensuring the designer does not go rogue or dilute the brand, and yet more often than not, the document sent by the client is not what we would call a brand manual and is simply a set of corporate identity guidelines.

As a designer we are looking for an informative guide and direction, however a major frustration is when a brand manual is weak, offering no insight into the visual brand, instead consisting of 20 to 40 pages detailing how to use the logo, with some colour and typographic rules, but nothing about the values and visual persona. Critically from a designer's perspective we are left none-the-wiser about the brand, what it means and how it should be conveyed! It is surprising how often you could switch the mark (logo) and this set of guidelines could be applied to almost any company.

We presume the reasons for these manuals not defining the brand as (we think) they should are:

  • brand agencies ‘under delivering’ and only providing a corporate identity manual,
  • lack of budget to go through a deeper brand process
  • or clients confusing corporate identity and brand, which is also common.

Either way there is a problem, which is partially solved if people understand the difference between corporate identity and brand, ensuring the client / agency can have a coherent discussion about the visual representation of the company.

Clarifying what CI is

Your corporate identity is the visual mark and rules used to present you – this manifests as:

  • a logo
  • set of primary and secondary colours
  • defined fonts
  • a set of rules about how these can be used
  • guidelines for how images are to be used and the kind of images that can be used
  • some example layouts of this in use on brochures, posters, stationery etc

To be clear – this is not your brand...these are the corporate identity guidelines

So what is a brand?

The brand is something far more ethereal and emotive – which is nicely summarised by Seth Godin 

This sounds very broad, but when formalised becomes a pillar of the design process.

Whilst a set of values or brand statements can be added (this is quite common) to the guidelines document,  this does not turn the CI manual into a brand manual as the statements can be:

  • Out of context lacking the rationale behind these to give them meaning
  • Lacking real word examples of implementation and execution
  • Fall into the trap of being a generic list of bland brand statements which can be applied to any company

Whilst it is easy to be critical, the question comes down to what should a brand manual consists off?  

We would suggest that your brand manual should (at minimum) contain:

  • Set of key brand values or statements (hopefully a distinct and meaningful set)
  • A mission statement and potentially a ‘strap line’
  • A well thought out elevator pitch
  • A defined set of customer triggers
  • A tone of voice
  • Set of visual guidelines for delivering this (this could be a seperate CI manual)

At this point it is worth highlighting that a good manual gives more than just the final outputs, but documents the journey and rationale behind this, ensuring the user of the manual (designer) really understands it and is able to most importantly use it appropriately. 

A recent example of this was John Charcol's new brand guidelines which we used to reposition John Charcol online. Mammoth surprised us with a refreshingly informative manual, which really explained their thought process and rational (not just giving the final output, but taking us on the journey), ensuring we really understood their vision and the decisions taken to get there, rather than simply just providing the final set of rules which can often be hard to really understand and embody.

To summarise, 

Your corporate identity manual defines the visual components you have and the rules around how you use them.

Your brand manual should tell you more about the positioning, persona, differentiation, how people connect, what they feel etc, and should guide you in how to achieve this.

The combination of the two gives you the tools you need to design the marketing & communications materials (website, brochure, advert etc).


This article was posted in Brand development, Design by Finn Taylor

  • Finn Taylor

    Finn Taylor

    Finn is a founding director of Liquid Light, and he still (after 22 years of web design) likes to get involved in projects. When he is not worrying about the clients, he is studying Chinese medicine, working with young criminals and doing spartan challenges.