Branding is a fine art. Achieving the right combination of personality traits, visual identity and value sets—and expressing them in an intentional way—can be confusing and overwhelming. Becoming a branding master usually is not high on a CEO’s to-do list, but there are some fundamentals in which company executives should be well versed.

In the past, we aimed to achieve a recognizable logo and a relatable personality when it comes to branding. This was usually enough to convey the brand message and create trust through familiarity. However, with the introduction of social media, which opened the lines of communication between consumers and brands, we are finding that most brand strategies are rather inflexible when it comes to fitting into the modern world. They lack the robust personality to engage in multiple conversations, both in text and visual design. Ultimately, they lack brand dynamics.

Brand dynamics is the ability of a brand to shift its persona in each situation using its range, spectrum, diversity, flexibility and adaptability—going from quiet to loud or big to small, for example, without losing the continuity and consistency of the brand message or the ability to act appropriately for any given situation. This is no easy task, but when you build your brand the right way, it is baked into your business’s DNA.

There are multiple layers to a brand identity: logos, color pallets, typography, brand voice and brand message—all of which make up the brand’s look and feel. Each element plays a different role in communicating your brand identity. When these elements are out of sync with one another, the brand can feel confusing—or worse, inauthentic. The message becomes lost, and the brand struggles for recognition.

The challenge for most non-branding professionals is creating an accurate representation of their brands using the elements listed above. In an attempt to come up with something, they often stage their brand, trying to make everything “look” right without knowing the brand’s true spirit.

This three-part branding series will explain what each of these components brings to the brand and how you can use them to build an authentic identity that stands out. Our goal is to help you move away from a staged brand and into one that is fluid and adaptable, and resonates with your audience. Here, in part I of this special series, we break down an integral part of your brand identity: typography.

More Than a Typeface

Typography, simply stated, is the technique of arranging type to make written words legible, readable and aesthetically pleasing.

Typography can be confused with typeface, the grouping of bold, light, medium and italic fonts that make up the typeface family. Fonts, on the other hand, are groups of characters. Comic Sans, Palatino and Papyrus are examples of typefaces. They are designed to have a very specific feeling, which can intrude on the message if improperly used. (To help clarify: Comic Sans is a typeface, and Comic Sans 12-pt Bold is a font.)

To simplify:

  • Typography is the study of letters.
  • Typefaces are font families.
  • Fonts are the characters of the alphabet designed to have the same brush stroke.

As we have transitioned from hand-lettered type to the printing press and now to digital type, we have formed ideas culturally about what kind of voice typography has. We can identify what kind of feeling certain fonts or typefaces elicit. For example, Comic Sans is fun and casual, while Times New Roman is formal. Helvetica is popular because it is neutral, meaning it allows the words to speak on their own without intrusive graphic or design elements.

In the midst of such a well-versed visual culture, what are some things to think about when using type for branding?

Be Goal-Oriented

The first (essential) step is to identify your goals. Are you trying to be a national product that can scale? The more people you want to be palatable to, the more neutral your type should be. As noted, Helvetica is a good option because of its neutrality. If you want more options, and have the money to spend on fonts, then Univers, Frutiger and Trade Gothic are other neutral options. And if you want to go further, hire a reputable graphic designer, as type and font research can become convoluted and intensive. Designers will be able to navigate this process and ensure your typography remains appropriate while still standing out.

Are you trying to build a small, long-lasting craft dispensary? Niche and small audiences want a brand that is tailored to their needs, so you might need something more handmade (likely hand drawn and extremely custom). You will want a strong “voice” created by a designer or typographer who understands the micro-culture of your audience. Inside of that and beyond is a broad spectrum of possibilities old and new.

Beware the Competition

Next, do your homework. Who is the competition and what do they look like? Who already buys from them? What are the fashion trends in that community? What transcends fashion into ideals and principles? Who are their vendors? What do ancillary businesses look like? These questions will not only help you identify what is visually common in the marketplace, but also how to stand out and be visible in a crowded market. The idea behind analyzing your peers is to understand what is appropriate and what is not, and to know how to be appropriate while still being able to stand out. You don’t want your brand to be “average.”

When it comes to typography decisions, many choose overly characterized fonts (i.e., Snap ITC or Al Fresco) they feel will help deliver the brand’s message. Going back to Papyrus, it has a specific, carved-in-rock design that makes it feel ancient when used correctly, and cheesy when it’s not.

Overly characterized fonts can overshadow your words and their meaning. Put another way, the font’s style and shape distract from or cloud the message you are trying to convey. It’s like a huge exclamation point on a simple statement. This will likely lead to the words appearing either a little too appropriate, which can make your brand seem like a poser, or they will miss the mark entirely. Remember: People are good at determining when someone is being insincere.

A long tradition exists for over-stylized logos and type that we should move away from. We have all seen the drippy, hyper-psychedelic cartoon-style logos and art that some of us liked when we were teenagers. These types of logos and fonts only further the stigmatizing “stoner” story.

Thankfully, that is changing. Companies like White Fox Medicinals, Bloom Farms, Potters Cannabis Co., PAX, dosist, Willie’s Reserve, Whoopi & Maya, and many more are broadening the spectrum and using a wide range of typography and an elevated brand voice. From White Fox, with its clean and ornate hand-drawn type, to Whoopi & Maya with its classic use of type, you can see type used incredibly well.

Write Your Ticket

Typography is a big part of the branding pie. It is especially exciting when cannabis brands get this component right because when they do, it allows them to express themselves more genuinely and even convey moods. The reason that you are putting the message out, after all, is to elicit a response.

Remember that the average consumer sees more than a thousand messages daily. If people like what they see, they’ll respond. If they don’t, they tune out. As consumers, we may not know why, specifically, we tuned out a message, but it can often be traced back to unsettling delivery through poor type choice.

Kyra Reed launched Markyr Cannabis, a digital marketing and social media strategy agency, in 2016. Reed’s cannabis clients include cultivators, manufacturers and software companies. Jesse Barney is a brand design freelancer in the cannabis industry and visual communications expert.