Brand codes: is less more?

Poster Series Coca-Cola Contour 100, by Turner Duckworth

Brand codes: is less more?

As a brand professional, I’m regularly advising people to create and manage recognisable assets, visual or verbal.

These assets or ‘brand codes’ are elements that are used to identify a brand and differentiate it from its competitors. Codes can be visual, verbal, or audio and are essential for building brand recognition, salience* and growth. They can include your logos, colour palettes, typography, imagery, slogans, and audio codes ( jingles). Often referred to as mnemonic devices —   these brand codes are a powerful tool for promoting immediate recognition of your brand communications — and create a consistent and cohesive brand identity across touchpoints, be it your environments, packaging or advertising.

Give me an example

Okay, anyone will agree that Coca-Cola brand’s iconic red and white, distinctive logo, and bottle contour, are instantly recognised and activated heavily across all communications. This has helped Coca-Cola become one of the most valuable brands in the world. Or think how Tesco,  streamlined and simplified its brand codes by focusing on its colours, their tagline and  wordmark. This has helped Tesco become one of the largest retailers in the UK and Europe. Or of course, McDonald's, the brand has a set of iconic visual codes such as the yellow arches and colour palette. The brand instantly recognised worldwide. Equally verbal codes, like “I'm Lovin’ It”, and its accompanying musical notation, surely one the most successful in fast-food advertising.

So. What’s that to me?

But while these heavily-advertised superbrands may seem a stretch away from your business, it is helpful to note and learn from their practices, as you endeavour to do more, with less. And importantly, consider that at their scale, surely the temptation to create more assets or devices around particular offers or sub brands must grow? Yet, they carefully manage the brand and resist that temptation.

Okay, so I need to create brand codes or assets.

Yes, used effectively, brand codes help create an emotional connection with the consumer, making the brand more memorable and top of mind. They also help to build trust and credibility, which are vital for building long-term relationships with customers. Bear in mind also that many of the people seeing your message are not in the market to buy right now, but that's okay, you are building recognition amongst the many who are not ready to buy, so that you are front of mind when their decision time comes.

Can we have too much of a good thing?

Indications are that proliferation of brand codes can actually have a negative impact on a brand's growth prospects. According to Professor Byron Sharp, multiple pieces of differing creative will actually work against brands – undermining their ability to encode these critical memory structures in people’s minds. So more focus, more clarity, more differentiation, better results. And a side benefit? Ease of management. Yes, it requires discipline and care to use less — but less to manage has got to be a good thing, right?

So, in a demanding and fragmented communication environment, it’s critical to streamline and simplify your brand codes and activate them heavily on communications, whether visual, verbal, or audio. This ensures that even a fleeting glance at a bus shelter poster, a company Linkedin post, or hearing a jingle, effectively brands the product. This is why recent years have seen many leading brands simplify and clarify their portfolio of brands, and their visual assets.

David Aaker, Professor Emeritus as Haas Business School, writes ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. It’s essential for a brand to have a small set of core elements that can be easily recognised and remembered. The more complicated the brand, the less likely it is to be remembered, and the less effective it will be in building relationships with customers.’

Images: Turner Duckworth

Consistency, repetition and simplicity — with creativity

Brand codes need to be used consistently if you want to keep them to embed them in people’s memory. The challenge is to develop fewer and more distinctive (and effective) brand assets.

Mark Ritson, puts it that you must:

  1. Establish your brand codes
  2. Apply them mercilessly and repeatedly
  3. 'Play' with your codes — only when they are well established.

So, it’s no coincidence that recent brand refreshes for BA, Virgin Atlantic, Spotify, and Deliveroo — amongst many others — have simplified and removed variations to focus on key distinctive assets.

The opportunity: to create a simple, flexible design system, a verbal identity, and maybe even audio, that bridges channels and categories — to deliver a greater return on all of your communications and media efforts.

A note on consistency: If you, your social, or marketing, team are ‘bored’ with these assets, maybe learn live with it. The elements you are tired of seeing may only just be percolating into your audience’s consciousness (or unconscious, more likely). That should not mean that things are dull. Not remotely. You need to be creative. After all, think of the great symphonies written with endless variations on a few beautiful notes!


Your brand assets are essential for building brand recognition, salience*, and growth. But brands should focus on a limited number of highly distinctive and effective brand codes, to create a more effective, flexible design system that bridges channels and categories and gives you a greater return on your communications and media.

*Salience: Is how readily your brand comes to mind — its recognition, recall and consideration in the minds of your audience.

That’s all for now from me, good luck with your process and remember you don’t have to do it alone... let me know if I can help.

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