{Business Tips} Discovering Your Visual Identity

Last week in the Thoughts on Shops post, a quote from Polarity really struck me:

“Before you need a banner,  you need an identity and, then, you need a kick-butt banner and kick-butt pictures that reinforce that identity.”

That quote led me to think about how we discover and define our shop identities. A strong visual identity is a key element of branding a business, yet last week’s post mentioned that artists in general shy away from the word “branding”.  I would like to suggest that we embrace the word and use it to our advantage to make our shops and marketing materials stronger.  Elsje from Picky and Elsjeboer, found a quote that sums the idea of visual branding up perfectly…

“Give your company a personality. Have you ever been around someone who didn’t seem to have a personality? If so, you probably couldn’t wait to get away from them. Personality draws consumers in. It creates charisma in your product. It creates an emotion. This is the essence of branding.”


(Photo: Elsjeboer)

What is your personality?

In my marketing work with green businesses, when I ask them to describe their business personality, many respond with “green”.  For this post, let’s set the record straight – Green is not a personality.  Green is a value.  Green is a purpose.  Green is even a company mission.  Let’s repeat – Green is not a personality.

Personalities are adjectives – the kinds of words you would use to describe a person.  Words like smart, modern, and fun.  So, a green business that is “traditional, optimistic, and rural” will have a visual identity that is very different from the green business that is “urban, modern, and funky”.  Neither personality is “right”, they are just different.

The key for each of us as shop owners is to discover our unique set of three words.  Then, find some key images (around 5) that demonstrate how those words express themselves visually.  Once we have our identity defined we can create a document with these words and images to keep us on track – ensuring our visual identity is consistent both in our shop and in our marketing materials.

OK – so this is easy – you just need to write down the three words for your shop.  Right?  Unfortunately, for many of us, discovering our own words is MUCH more difficult than defining the personality and words of others.  So, let’s turn our attention to some ideas to help us discover our words and imagery.

Depending on what you feel more comfortable with, you can begin your discovery by defining your words OR by selecting your images.  The two sections below describe some activities that can help you along the way.  Pick the section you would like to start with and then tackle the other section.

Discovering Your Words

Before jumping into your own words, I would encourage you to head to Etsy and open any shop and identify your impression of their words.  Look at the main page and jot down the three words that you believe best describe the shop.  Now, head to another shop and do the same thing.  After three or four shops you should get a feel for the process.  Now, it’s time to turn the attention to your own words.

Here are two activities that can help you develop your list:

  1. Brainstorm What Comes to Mind – Look at your products and start jotting down words that you use to describe them to others.  Think adjectives – comfortable, simple, modern, funky, cozy, etc. – and write down as many as you can so that you have a large list to work from.  Do you see groups of words with similar meanings?  If so, that’s a sign – one word from the group should definitely be on your list.
  2. Ask Someone – Sometimes family, friends, and customers can describe your image better than you.  Send a quick note to 20 or 30 people asking them to provide three words that describe your company / products.  You may be amazed at the responses you get.  The words will provide the clarity that you’ve been looking for. Sometimes, you may even discover a great word you have never considered.

Discovering Your Images

Images provide dimension and context for the words you select.  They can add personality that cannot be captured in words alone.  Here are a two activities that may help you discover your perfect images:

  1. Search the Web Comb through Flickr, do some Google searches, or find other websites with imagery that reflects your product, values and brand.
  2. Look at What You Like – A great idea from Christine at Ecouturiere – “At the beginning of the year when I began trying to create a more cohesive identity for my business, one of the things that helped me visualize who I am as a person and as a seller was an examination of my favorites. Seeing all those Etsy items that I had hearted helped me sort of ‘see’ who I am, and that is definitely part of what my business is about, too. I tried to identify a theme to all my favorites, even if it was sort of a weird one, so I could have that ‘theme’ to work from in my identity.”

Photo: Ecouturiere

Tying it All Together

In the end, you want to develop one page that has your words and images and serves as your inspiration for your shop and all of your marketing materials.  This succinct set of words and images not only provides the framework to keep you on track, the document can be used to guide and inspire any designers you may contract to produce marketing materials for you.

No matter how long your shop has been open, it is never too late to step back and adjust the image to one that is a better reflection of your vision.

So, what are your words?  What images convey your visual identity?  As you discover your three words, I would love to see you share them here in the comments.  Happy branding!

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  1. Great ideas to ponder here! I’m thinking for my shop… care free, playful, old fashioned, vintage flair, french boutique, family heirloom, sophisticated, precocious, creative, girly, lovey dovey, endearing. This article really helps to unify the personality of a shop which is a great place to start before coming up with a complimentary banner and avatar. I could see the sheep from my avatar sitting sophisticatedly at an outdoor Parisian cafe under a parasol sipping tea. And if I was going to combine my 2 shops, I’d think about including a mother daughter relationship maybe…? What do you think?

  2. I have a hard time stepping back and looking at my shop as well. Some of the words I like for my shop are fun and whimsy/whimsical but others may have a completely different take on my shop! Please feel free to take a look if you have time!

  3. Great article and perfect timing for me too! My expressions on my website are “storytelling fabrics” and “may contain childhood dreams”. But i am still looking for simple words actually describing my products. If you have a chance i would love some feedback.

  4. Yes! Great article, this will come in very handy in short order as I’m completely revamping my company/shop image later this spring. Of course actually picking the words will be much tougher, a tall order for someone who installs decorative art for a living yet wants to provide commercially accessible pieces in her shop! Finishing ranges from super sleek to uber traditional and everything in between, so its hard to narrow it down. Anyway, I think as my focus on what I’m selling narrows it will be easier to pick words to describe it…I think 😉

  5. Thank you so much for this article. This is a great article that gives me a lot to think. I am tweeting it right now. I think the answer for my shop’s personality will reveal to me gradually as you mentioned, going through the hearts I make , the things I like and if I still am developing any style – brand.

    May be you may be the first person of those 20 or 30 friends that I’ll ask this question. Will you please leave me a note? I’ll come back to check it. Or if you have time you may comment on my blog at http://www.alankarshilpa.blogspot.com.

    • Dita – After reviewing your shop and spending time with the jewelry, I see a number of opportunities for your personality. The first two words that came to mind when I saw your jewelry were “elegant” and “graceful”. Then, after looking more specifically at the pieces, the words “detailed” and “intricate” were added. I also considered “upscale”, but the word seems overused and “old-world” because your designs have a feel of beauty from the past with a modern twist. So, considering all that, I think my three words would be “graceful, elegant, and intricate”.

  6. I think I may be in the stage of needing someone else to tell me my words. I am so sporadic with my creations and I wonder if that is taking away from a cohesive identity of my own shop. Great article. Gets me thinking and I always like to ponder (:

    • Lauren – I took a look at your shop, browsed around a bit, and I think you are not sporadic at all! While you have an awesome diversity of designs, they are all casual, fun, funky, playful, colorful, and more. I think if you would ask a handful of people to provide you some words you would quickly see some consistencies. If I were to provide just three words, they would be “casual, expressive and fun”.