Brands need a clear, consistent identity that is relevant for their target audience and differentiated in their market. The key to this is Atomic Branding.

By Lisa Geisler and Sebastian Tretbar, wirDesign.

From new products to new markets or new companies, business success these days rests on more than attractive features or the right team. In a global market environment with maximum transparency and increasingly similar products and services, it is branding that makes all the difference. To remain successful in the future too, brands need a clear, consistent identity that is relevant for their target audience and sets them apart in their market. Atomic branding is the key to achieving this. A strong brand idea is the nucleus and starting point for atomic branding: this guideline acts as the brand’s media-neutral genetic code which guarantees a consistent global image and is infinitely scalable – in design, in communications and at all touchpoints.

Atomic Branding versus Atomic Design

Hold on a minute: just because it includes the word “atomic” doesn’t mean it’s the same as atomic design. Here’s a brief explanation.

Atomic design is a UX/UI methodology (developed by American web designer Brad Frost) for developing digital modules and applications quickly and verifiably. Atomic design breaks web projects down into their smallest building blocks to combine them into complex units later on. In this system, there are five elements which build on one another: atoms, molecules, organisms, templates and pages. An atom is the smallest, indivisible element of a website. It could be an HTML tag, a font, a headline or a button, for instance. Molecules are groups of atoms bonded together which perform a task together. Several such molecules combined make an organism. That could be a complete page header. The advantages of this design methodology are that the various (design) elements are stored in a library, they can be reused and the web design can be modified easily.

Atomic branding, on the other hand, aims to not only take care of a brand formally and systemically, but to create a supporting idea and positioning as a docking opportunity for all target groups and channels.

Brand idea: the smallest indivisible element

The thing that holds a brand together at its core is not a formal component: not a logo, a font or a colour combination. It is the atom of the brand idea which comes before all of those things and works in text-based (brand) communications too. An attractive guiding principle can even be summed up in a tweet.

The brand idea is the starting point – the cornerstone of a strong brand on which everything else is founded. It sets out the code that ensures consistent branding in design, communications, conduct, technology and service.

The core of Atomic Branding is the brand idea
© wirDesign

What does atomic branding mean for corporate design?

Brand managers who are responsible for corporate design today face considerable challenges. More and more new communication channels, touchpoints and complex environments are rapidly emerging via which the brand is supposed to communicate with its users. A growing number of digital products round out the portfolio and the brands themselves become interfaces.

With this in mind, companies should choose flexible design principles instead of hard and fast rules with the brand idea serving as a unifying element. For a corporate design to work today and tomorrow, it needs to interact with an environment that is constantly changing. It should emphasise the brand’s ethos and communicate content that is important to its users, who are more interested in what is actually being said than in what that message looks like. Brands increasingly function communicatively: via the content, story and brand idea.

Focus on the brand idea and few visual brand codes
© wirDesign

This applies to fast brand development for start-ups – when strategy, design, communication and documentation happen almost simultaneously – and to complex corporate design projects for established firms which would not be manageable with the large number of new channels now available.

One thing is for sure: increasingly complex design rules are not compatible with an increasingly complex environment. We wholeheartedly recommend moving away from rigid formal rules and suffocatingly tight design corsets. Focus on the idea and a handful of visual brand codes. What are the fundamental elements with which we can define the brand? How does the brand feel within an application? Flexible design principles have proved themselves, especially in the development of digital applications.

Respond agilely with flexible brand codes

The new notion of “fewer rules and more freedom” also changes the role played by brand managers. They become more like curators: clear positioning and a guiding idea provide guard rails for the brand. The brand’s essence and a clear attitude are used as a basis for developing various brand codes. Brand codes include a logo, colours and typeface, of course. But they also extend to the interaction and animation behaviours and tonality. All these elements combined are the key determiners of a brand’s personality. Together they form a set of building blocks that can be used as needed and that allows for the necessary degree of flexibility at all times. These building blocks can always be recombined to suit the application and occasion. They offer a great number of freedoms while still remaining inherently consistent and recognisable. What is more, they always allow the big picture to shine through.

Flexible brand codes allow brands to respond agilely to new requirements, markets and target audiences. A clear positioning and the atom of the guiding idea make them future-proof.

Further reading

In German:

1) Review des wirDesign-Webinars „Atomic Branding – von der Idee zur starken Marke“

2) Atomic Branding für omlox

3) Atomic Branding für openpack

About wirDesign

wirDesign communication AG is a creative brand and design agency which consistently ranks among the top ten German agencies. As an expert in holistic brand development, wirDesign is the go-to partner for strategy, design, communication, technology, brand management and brand activation.


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