The modern word “brand” – as we’ve noted before – originates in an older term meaning to mark something with hot irons, to indicate ownership.
We bring it up again here, because although social media branding doesn’t involve literal irons, it’s still ultimately about establishing what belongs to and is associated with an organization – in this case, what it shares on its social media channels.
A social media brand is to a company what a reputation is to an individual: It’s how others consistently perceive and think about it.
6 essential elements for effective social media branding:
- Grammar and style.
- Platform and accounts.
- Hashtags and formats.
- Legal and other guidance.
Read on for everything you need to know about creating your social media brand:
Visuals: The outermost layer of social media branding
What is social media branding?
True to its etymological roots, social media branding is inherently visual.
It exists in its most immediate form in the logos, colors and imagery that audiences associate with a brand. Think Nike’s distinctive swoosh logo and its love of high-contrast black-and-white photography, or, on a more subtle level, the specific san-serif font (called Roboto) that Google uses on Android and across its web assets, or how Salesforce carefully arranges the subjects in photos posted to its social accounts.
Let’s look at a few examples of the pivotal role of visuals in branding and how they fit into a larger social media branding strategy.
Example 1: Nike
Probably the world’s preeminent sporting brand, Nike’s social media presence shows how a coherent approach to visuals can shape and reinforce perceptions of the brand as a whole.
Here’s how the company presents itself on Instagram:
Likewise, the footwear and apparel company has virtually the same imagery and phrasing on its Twitter profile:
The same familiar catchphrase – “Just Do It” – is present on both platforms, as is the black-and-white color scheme and upfront appeals to broad empowerment (“You are an athlete,” “Everyone wins”) to its millions of followers. Unsurprisingly, Nike is well-known for its brand associations with personal achievement and high performance.
But the consistency goes beyond the logo and “Just Do It” ethos.
Even something like closed captioning can support social media branding.
Both the clip in its pinned tweet (as of Oct. 9, 2019) and numerous photos and videos on its Instagram profile are also in black and white (or at least feature black and white items), allowing the Nike logo to stand out in direct contrast to darker articles of clothing. Note also the optimistic, on-message “I believe!” caption in the video still below, as it shows how even something like closed captioning can support social media branding.
The total effect is dramatic and memorable, similar to the sentiment that “Mad Max: Fury Road” director George Miller once expressed when he said that “losing some of the information of color makes [the black-and-white version of that film] somehow more iconic.”
Nike’s social branding strategy combines the iconic, abstract and retro trappings of the black-and-white aesthetic with an easily understood message about empowerment and winning to captivate a specific audience (bonus etymology lesson: “Nike” is Ancient Greek for “victory”). Moreover, the message is consistent on all of its social platforms.
But it only really works because the visuals align with the message.
Color (or lack thereof) is central to how audiences recognize and feel about a brand.
The company’s straightforward focus on athletic achievement (“Just Do It”), with numerous appeals to momentous sporting events or moments made more dramatic when rendered in high-contrast coloration, might not be as effective if it were given to, say, psychedelic color schemes and wordy pronouncements.
Nike’s fascination with black-and-white photography is intentional, as color (or lack thereof) is central to how audiences recognize and feel about a brand:
- According to Elle & Co., 60% of consumers decide whether they like a brand based on coloration alone.
- Lucidpress has also found that 90% of purchases are influenced by visual characteristics like colors.
Indeed, adding multiple color options or a brand-specific color scheme to an item is an effective way to make it more fun to buy and use. Nike has done this itself with a wide selection of premium black-and-white sneakers, which fit perfectly with its social media aesthetic.
Example 2: Mission Bicycle
On the other end of the (color) spectrum, the bike company Mission Bicycle has made color customization a central part of its social media brand.
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3 weeks until Halloween… #nevertooold . . #halloweenseason #candyandcostumes #missionbicycle #custombikes #designedbyyou #baaw #orange #bikephotography #fromwhereiride #cyclingshots #bikeporn #loveyourbike #steelframe #commuterbike #singlespeed #urbanbike #cyclinglife #colorful #bicycle #cycling #streetphotography #wallsofthemission #missiondistrict
Its Instagram profile is a master class in social branding, as it emphasizes right away what sets the business apart (“Custom bikes built one at a time”), offers a link to its bike builder page, and then follows up with photos showing its colorful options in real life.
The concise, informative copy in the bio, paired with the striking visuals below, shows how branding is holistic: It’s not just about visuals, but about how visuals interact with the brand’s story and voice.
- Use consistent logos, text and hashtags across social media channels.
- Create a company-specific color palette and reinforce it in photos and videos and via complementary filters.
- Make sure that your colors fit with your message, whether that means using neutrals for drama (Nike) or vivid coloration to tell a story about customization (Mission Bicycle).
Example 3: Android/Google
Text is visual, too. The fonts a brand uses are critical in creating a consistent online presence.
Google implements the bespoke Roboto font on all licensed versions of Android and on its official blogs. It establishes a distinctive appearance for the company’s operating systems, which in turn gets extended to its social channels.
Here, the @Android Twitter account uses Roboto for the profile picture text (the same logo is also used on other profiles, including Instagram), and in the message on the screen of the device above, so that the distinctive Android brand image gets shown in two different ways.
The green background beneath the phone is also identical to the color of the Android robot, and to the shade used in a video posted to the @Android Instagram account.
Meanwhile, the prominent placement of eyeglasses and the sharp contrast of black text on a white background complement a message that Google communicated in a blog about its attempts to better serve visually impaired users, who inspired its decision to switch from green to black text in Android branding.
Moreover, Google uses Roboto on that same blog:
For content marketing purposes, such font usage adds another layer of consistency across multiple channels.
Google’s Android team can post product updates to the company’s blog in the same font that end users see both on their Android devices and in the social media profiles belonging to the Android brand.
Consistency is paramount in content marketing, in every aspect from posting frequency to the visual design of finished assets – so every little detail counts in improving engagement and meeting followers’ expectations.
Example 4: Netflix
Similarly, Netflix took advantage of a custom font, Netflix Sans, to save money on licensing costs and extend the same distinctive character of its site and apps to its social media platforms.
The screengrab below, from its web app, displays that quintessentially Netflix-y typeface, which is as central to its brand image as the big letter “N” and that weird sound it makes before any original content plays.
A core part of Netflix’s overall brand is originality: It doesn’t just run licensed shows, but invests billions in exclusive content like “Stranger Things.”
Its usage of proprietary, unique fonts on its social media accounts fits with this message and helps it carve out a clear niche (screengrabs from Twitter and Facebook below).
- Extend the look and feel of assets like company blogs to social networks.
- Pay attention to how text is presented and rendered on social accounts, both for distinctive branding and accessibility/readability reasons.
- Emphasize consistency of fonts in addition to images and descriptions, and think about how they align with your brand image.
Example 5: Salesforce
The need for effective social media branding isn’t limited to B2C firms. Salesforce, the biggest name in customer relationship management (CRM), sells essential software to businesses of all types, so that they can more easily manage customer data.
That mission is front and center in its social media accounts. On Twitter, Salesorce includes:
- Its familiar cloud logo, to communicate clearly that it is a cloud-based service.
- Brief text succinctly explaining that “We bring companies and customers together,” again showing that no good brand lets it bio go to waste.
- A link to the company’s support account for B2B customers with pressing needs.
- A playful image showing two people – a corporate employee and a customer, apparently – being linked together by a mascot branded with the cloud logo.
Its Instagram page keeps the thread going, with similar arrangements of two people side-by-side in multiple photos:
Also noteworthy are the repeated placements of the same logo featured on its social accounts, plus the inclusion of another image of the mascot used in its Twitter cover photo/header.
The latter post also includes some useful text describing what will be covered at the company’s Dreamforce conference.
Overall, the consistency across the company’s Twitter and Instagram profile contribute to its message of people collaborating, exchanging ideas and working together toward customer success.
- Social media branding is just as important for B2B companies as it is for B2C firms.
- The specific scenes depicted in photos shared to social accounts – e.g., an interviewer and an interviewee laughing about something – help reveal a brand’s values.
- Make the most of social media bios by including a clear description and link to a helpful page.
Beyond visuals: The importance of voice and platform
The successful visual branding of all of these companies above is worth emulating because it helps reliably boost audience engagement and in turn build the brand equity that fuels conversions.
Effective branding is never strictly visual.
At the same time, effective branding is never strictly visual.
The visuals an organization uses on its social channels constitute just one layer of the overall branding onion. When an audience peels back the visual layer to see what’s underneath, they should see more layers with a similar look and feel, with all of them combining to form a coherent whole.
What other components are important to social media branding?
Components of an organization’s overall brand identity include:.
- The style and voice of a brand’s writing
- The types of user-generated content it approves
- The social networks it focuses on.
- Even the frequency of its posting schedule
(If you’re wondering about the latter, think about how the fact that @Apple has never tweeted fits its image as a privacy-focused firm):
In other words, visuals are necessary yet not sufficient for memorable branding.
Everything an organization does, from the filters it uses on its Instagram photos to the causes it promotes on its official channels, affects its branding in some way.
In the cases of the Android social media profile picture and Salesforce’s Dreamforce sketch on Instagram, we can see on a basic level how well-branded and meticulously designed visuals on social media make it easier to tell audiences a consistent, informative story about the brand. To recap:
Those two visual assets both align with what their respective companies were doing on other content marketing channels. The Android logo and Google’s blog posts are rendered in the same font, while Salesforce reuses the mascot from that sketch in its official, information-rich promotional page for Dreamforce 2019.
Going deeper, the language in this shot – “It’s a life-changing experience” – reveals a distinctive corporate voice present across all of Salesforce’s channels, which is essential to any social media branding strategy.
How to develop a consistent voice across social media channels
To make its voice consistent and effective, a company must know:
- What values it embodies.
- What audience(s) it’s trying to reach.
- What will make the chosen voice seem authentic.
With Salesforce specifically, the brand voice has some noticeable attributes that help satisfy all of these requirements:
- Tech-savviness: As a CRM software provider, Salesforce is assumed to be up-to-speed on recent technological developments and how technical solutions can be used to solve specific problems, because that’s what its audience cares about.
- Optimism: Words like “winning” and “success,” as well as a general positive vibe about what the future holds, are ubiquitous across Salesforce’s social profiles and content marketing assets, e.g. its customer case studies.
- Playfulness: While CRM is serious business (a company’s customer service reputation can be the difference between it thriving and going out of business), Salesforce often keeps things light, especially on Twitter, which can help with authenticity.
These characteristics show up across its social media accounts and its blog.
This customer successory story deftly uses some tech-y language (“all from a single application”) to emphasize a larger ideal about how companies operate (“faster, smarter service”).
On Twitter, the company account is similarly speaking to a specific audience – informed, technologically knowledgeable B2B buyers – but also much more casual.
This jokey tweet about an upcoming release manages to work in a pop culture reference (“Game of Thrones”), something technically niche (“Winter ‘20 release”) and a serious-looking pie chart that turns out to be a joke, but one that reinforces the company’s optimistic outlook.
The media platform (and the medium) is the message
You might notice how Twitter, in this instance and others, lets organizations use a more casual approach than they are elsewhere on the web.
Remember how we noted that @Apple had never tweeted?
Part of the reason why might be that Apple’s voice just isn’t suited to Twitter, with its vast assortment of memes and in-jokes.
To see how media platforms inherently shape the voices of the brands on them, consider the difference between Delta Air Lines’ YouTube and Twitter accounts.
On YouTube, Delta exhibits an aspirational, serious voice: “When we venture into the world, we see all that we share.”
On Twitter, it keeps things much looser, as in this photo – likely user-generated content or influencer marketing material that the company approved, as indicated by the tagged account – showing someone with a crown made of in-flight Biscoff snack cookies. It’s framed within the Twitter-centric “No one/absolutely no one” meme, which would seem wildly out of place on YouTube or even on Facebook, where the airline’s page is mostly news-y updates.
There is no right answer to which kind of voice an organization should use for social media branding, since it will vary not only from one company to the next but also by which platform it’s being tailored to, as this example shows.
The type of content being shared will also shape the voice associated with it.
So far, we’ve mostly looked at the static imagery and text that companies directly post to their social media accounts. However, social media branding also encompasses assets such as multimedia branded content campaigns, which ideally get promoted across multiple channels to direct audiences back to a company’s official websites or social media profiles.
These initiatives might use original videos, articles hosted on someone else’s site, or even non-digital creations like magazine covers to help build a company’s social brand.
Take this branded content example by Gatorade, which took the form of an animated short created for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
This branded content bolstered Gatorade’s social media branding in multiple ways:
- The company’s animated name/logo are consistent with its branding elsewhere but used only sparingly via product placement to keep the focus on the stories of the depicted athletes.
- That makes this piece of content marketing seem authentic and not heavy-handed, which is important in building brand equity and consumer trust. Attributes like honesty and friendliness – both encapsulated in this vibrant video – rank high on the list of what consumers want to see from brands on social.
- The extended narrative format (the video is more than 7 minutes long) provides a lot of freedom to break free from the more formal, predictable voice that Gatorade uses on platforms like Facebook. Yet the video’s story still emphasizes the company’s core values about athletic performance.
- As an embeddable YouTube video, the asset was suited for going viral by being shared through multiple social networks. It had garnered more than 15 million views by October 2019.
When crafting a voice it’s important to think about the limitations and demographics of each media platform and content medium and how they can (or cannot) be squared with the brand’s overall content marketing strategy.
This is where having a social media branding/styling guide literally pays off.
The must-haves in a branding guide
First, what is a branding guide?
A social media branding or style guide is a comprehensive document spelling out how, when and where content should be posted to a brand’s official accounts. Essential components include:
What colors, graphics types, logos, fonts and photo subjects are acceptable?
The Nike and Google examples above are particularly instructive in terms of how a certain aesthetic can be crafted across a company’s social media presence.
Here’s another from Starbucks, showing how a predominantly green and peach seasonal color scheme with stylized illustrations dominated its fall 2019 Instagram feed.
Which words are OK to use, and which are forbidden?
Who is the audience, and what should its members feel when reading or listening to something created in the brand’s voice?
Skype’s official branding guidelines (PDF) show how such questions can be answered in a creative, easily understood way:
Grammar and styling dos and don’ts
Are there any preferences on capitalization, spacing and/or sentence structure?
How should references to certain products or services be handled?
Instagram’s branding guide is a great example of a brand showing what is and isn’t permitted when talking about the company itself.
Social accounts rundown
What accounts belong to the brand?
Who’s managing them?
Do they have similar purposes and guidelines or are they somewhat independent from each other?
For example, Amazon owns multiple verified accounts on Twitter, for its main site, its music service, Alexa, and more, and their visual styling differs in some cases, e.g. blue vs violet coloration.
Hashtags, company descriptions and post formats
What hashtags are social media accounts using to boost brand awareness?
Are there any hashtags to avoid?
Which descriptions and links should be used for each social bio?
What does a typical post look like?
The Instagram feed for leggings and shaping briefs company Spanx shows a remarkably consistent format across its photos and videos, with each post containing quite a bit of text written in a distinctive voice and followed by a handful of recurring hashtags.
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Meet @alisabarry, owner of @shopbellacucina! Alisa opened Bella Cucina to share her love of Italy, beauty and food. As long as she can remember, Alisa has wanted to be her own boss. "I can't remember being anything other than an entrepreneur. I've always dreamed of having my own business." Her favorite #Spanx product is the Perfect Black Pant in Cropped Flare, seen here! "They are just amazing. They feel so good, and I'm in love with them." ❤️ #MadeOfMore #SPANX #PerfectBlackPant #SPANXStyle #LadyBoss
Legal and other guidance
Is there anything that can’t be posted or retweeted/regrammed/reposted?
What legal liabilities exist for a company when using social media?
How should disputes with competitors or tricky customer service interactions be handled?
Walmart’s social media guidelines spell out the company’s position on some of these issues pretty well and in a typical fashion for a prominent brand:
Make your social media branding strategy a success
With so many interactions happening in real time, social media can seem overwhelming to consume, let alone manage in accordance with complex branding guidelines. But it’s doable, and many brands have cultivated a consistent image and reputation online.
Ultimately, this guide is just a starting point.
Any successful social media branding effort will require some real-world trial-and-error, A/B testing and gradual refinement to hit that Goldilocks “just right” sweet spot. But it’s worth the effort, as you might not get a second chance to make a positive, memorable first brand impression.