One of the most challenging parts of marketing for small business owners is selecting images and visual elements that clients and customers will love and—more importantly—respond to. Visuals and imagery are very personal things. They bring out a lot of emotion, both positive and negative. In today’s digital world, where images are everything, a picture is worth a thousand words and more.

The right images will result in sales. The wrong ones will drive customers to your competitors.

Of course, you want to present images in your marketing and communications that the people you’re targeting will find attractive. However, imagery is about so much more than that.

This article will explain what you need to know to select images and other visual elements that differentiate your business, keep it top-of-mind, and get your consumers to take the actions you want them to take. (Buy! And buy more!)

Imagery: The basics

Brand imagery isn’t just selecting a picture, color, or other visual element because you like it.

It involves conveying the history, mission, goals, and personality of your business. It takes a lot of digging and thinking to do that.

Once you have a deep understanding of your business, you can select visual elements that convey everything you need to consumers—no words required.

Brand imagery is the visual representation of your brand. It includes all the elements consumers see that they associate with your company. They can take many forms, from your logo to photographs to long-form videos.

Brand imagery aims to communicate the right messages through visual elements to the people in your target audience, so they feel the things you want them to feel—and do what you want them to do—when they experience your brand.

The best brand imagery is multi-sensory. Consider:

  • Does an icy, wet image of a bottle of Coca-Cola make you taste it?
  • Can a clear and colorful picture of a steaming Dominos pizza make you smell it?
  • Might an image of a North Face puffer jacket allow you to feel its warmth on a winter day?

Brand imagery versus brand image: The difference

Although the terminology is similar, brand imagery is very different from brand image (also referred to as brand identity).

Brand image is how the public views your business. The brand imagery you select can affect how your brand image is perceived. Imagery is a powerful, but more limited, part of brand image. Brand identity is bigger than brand imagery. Your identity is built on many factors, including how your company treats its staff, charitable giving, business practices, the press it receives, along with the images it presents in its marketing.

Types of brand imagery

Brand imagery can include many things, such as:

  • Animation
  • Backgrounds
  • Color palettes
  • Composition rules
  • Emojis
  • Filters
  • Icons
  • Illustrations
  • Infographics
  • Logos
  • Memes
  • Photos
  • Slide presentations
  • Typography
  • UI components

Some brand imagery elements are used by all businesses, including a color palette, logo, and photos. Others depend on a brand’s unique needs, such as memes and videos.

How brand images build brand image

Let’s look at a familiar brand, McDonald’s, to identify the ways imagery contributes to the overall perception of its brand. Think about the fast-food restaurant’s:

  • Signature golden arches
  • Distinctive photos of burgers and fries and other types of food on its menus
  • The shade of golden yellow on its “order now” button on its website and app
  • The reds and golds used in its restaurant décor
  • The logo on—and coloring of—its trash cans
  • The colors and images used on its food packaging.

You don’t need to see the name “McDonald’s” when you look at the items on this list to know you’re at a McDonald’s or being marketed to by it.

The importance of brand imagery

In the McDonald’s example, the company and its marketing agencies, communicators, architects, designers, and other visual experts have worked diligently and consistently to imprint the McDonald’s brand in the minds of consumers. From our first interactions with McDonald’s to our ongoing experiences with it, everyone knows what to expect from the fast-food chain. Every restaurant, every ad, and every online experience is the same. The investment in consistent brand imagery has allowed McDonald’s to create a unique language that keeps it top-of-mind with people across the United States and all over the globe.

And while McDonald’s is a very big business, the same approach to branding can make your small business stand out in your industry or community.

Benefits of effective brand imagery use

Here are some of the benefits you can expect when you take the time to create a brand imagery guide and ensure everyone who does design work for you follows it:

  • Your entire universe of visuals contributes to consumers’ perception of your brand, not just your company name and logo.
  • Your unique style sets your brand apart from your competitors.
  • You leave consumers with a clear and memorable impression whenever they interact with you.
  • You can tell your story without using words.
  • Your design and photo choices can engender positive emotions about your brand in the hearts and minds of consumers.
  • Relatable visuals give prospective customers a way to connect with your brand.

Having well-defined brand imagery guidelines and using them consistently provides many ongoing benefits for businesses.

Develop brand imagery guidelines for your business

There’s no one single way to determine what your brand imagery should be. However, answering these questions can help point the way.

How do you describe your business?

What does your company do, who does it serve, and why is it unique in your industry or area? The answer should be as simple and direct as possible and take just a few seconds to express. The answer to this question is your elevator speech because it should sell a prospective customer on doing business with you in the short length of an elevator ride. It can also help point the way to a visual look and feel that will work for your company.

What three words describe the personality of your business?

The words will point to the colors, images, and typefaces that could represent your business. For instance:

  • A smart company may use shades of serious dark blue, charts and infographics, and a formal serif font as imagery.
  • An earth-friendly business could express its brand virtues through the color green, pictures of trees and the sky, and a modern, clean typeface.
  • A folksy brand could be conveyed through pastel tones, pictures of people, and a handwritten font.

What are your company’s values?

Your business values are what’s most important to it. If you can express your essential business values, you’ll find the essence of your visual brand and what it must convey.

What brands do you like, and why do you like them?

You never want to copy another company’s brand. It will seem inauthentic. However, studying other brands can help you identify elements you like that you could incorporate into yours.

What do you want people to feel when they experience your brand?

Understanding the emotions you want to bring out in your target customers when they engage with your brand will help you develop your visual guidelines.

  • A soothing brand will feature cozy images and shades of calming blue.
  • A dynamic one will be based on exciting pictures and pops of hot colors.
  • A patriotic brand will present flag images and represent itself with red, white, and blue.

Is your business associated with a time or place?

Time and place can play an essential role in visual branding for businesses connected to a location, era, or both (think Philly cheesesteaks and Colonial Williamsburg). If this is the case with your business, consider:

  • Using images that represent a period in history or location.
  • Choosing historical or modern typefaces.
  • Selecting brand colors that evoke a moment in time (parchment beige) or a place (pacific blue).

In many cases, history or locale can bring out powerful feelings in consumers.

Develop a visual style guide

Once you’ve considered all the elements of brand imagery for your business, have your choices documented in a style guide. Of course, most small business owners don’t have the skill set to do this on their own. Work with a brand expert or graphic designer like the ones available through Sales Maven to do this. Just share the answers to the questions in the previous section with us, along with any other insights about how you think your brand should be represented. A graphic design professional or brand expert can organize them into a visual brand guide.

Once it’s done, share it with everyone who does design work for you and educate them on critical points. It will enable everyone to consistently apply them to your branded platforms, including your website, social media posts, newsletters, etc. It will have a big impact on how people perceive your brand and business.