What’s a CI? And why do we need it?

Early on in your career as a business owner, freelancer, entrepreneur, or self-employed person of any kind, you should come across the concept of a corporate identity, or CI for short. In this article, we give you a crash course on all things CI – what a basic package consists of, why you need it, and why you need a good one.

So, let’s start with the basics.

What is a CI?

You have a blank canvas, paint a masterpiece.
You have a blank canvas, paint a masterpiece.

This is your corporate identity. It’s how your business will be known to the outside world, its identity, personality, and functionality. Just like you have a name, certain personality traits (outgoing, charismatic, reserved, considerate) and skills that you’re known for (very handy, great at fixing computers, bakes like a champ), so too should your business. A basic CI consists of:

    • Company name: Very simply, what are people going to call you? Is your business’ name going to be simple, memorable, and functional?
    • Logo: This is a symbol which comes to represent the company. Think any car manufacturer’s shield on the nose of its vehicles, the fruit representing Apple Inc., or the mouse ears representing Disney.
    • Letterhead: This is a header that appears on all your correspondence, digital or hard copy. It contains information such as name of company, date of registration, contact, and director’s details. Having all this information on your letterhead means you save space and time in the actual document.
    • Business cards: Although we’re moving to a paperless-all-contacts-on-phone world, it’s still considered professional to exchange business cards when making new contacts.
    • Email signature: This is a sign-off at the end of your emails which serves the same purpose as your letterhead – giving recipients essential information about your company.
    • Visual identity: Every piece of communication your business sends out should be recognisably from you. What font do you use, what size do you use it in, what colour palettes appear on your work? This can get pretty complex, and once your business is established, it’s worth getting a professional designer to help you (you can match with great ones on Kalido). For now, we’ll just say: Be consistent. If you generally favour Times New Roman size 12, stick to this, instead of picking fonts on a whim every day.
    • Tone and brand voice: This helps to convey the personality of your brand. It often takes years to build, through your website, advertising, and everyday correspondence. It’s also useful to have a professional copywriter help you out here (you can find them on Kalido too), but in the meantime, remember to be professional, helpful, and grammatically-correct. So, now that we know what we’re talking about, let’s see why all of this stuff is necessary.

1) Your CI helps to identify you as a business

You, the person, are a separate entity from you, the business. Even if you’re a one-person show, and have no other employees, suppliers, or partners. Even if you are your service (think actors or models who personally render a service, without necessarily producing a product). Having a clear separation of you as a private individual, and as a professional, will help set expectations and boundaries for yourself and for your clients. When you’re Professional You, working under your business CI, you’re telling the world that you’re here for business. You might be operating out of your spare room in pyjamas at 2 in the morning, but the work you produce is comparable to that big corporation down the road with the fancy lobby and big glass windows. That’s why you’re sending the work out on your official letterhead from your professional email address, not from your childhoodnickname@yahoo.com address.

2) Your CI helps to distinguish you from other businesses

Stand out from the crowd.
Stand out from the crowd.

To make sure your work isn’t confused with the work of that corporation down the road, your CI should be distinctive. Think how you instantly recognise a Coke from afar, just from the white script on red.

That’s why it’s so important to develop your own brand. If you ‘take inspiration’ from a famous company, use a slightly modified apple shape for your logo for example, you risk confusing the market, not to mention potential lawsuits for trademark infringement. You’re building your business, and you know it best, so give it the recognition it deserves. When you’re developing your CI, it’s also worth thinking ahead to all the possible use cases you’ll need it for e.g. your company website, corporate apparel, social media, stationery etc. Certain fonts don’t work well in a web format, and certain colours don’t print well on particular surfaces. If you’re uncertain, do a bit of research online, or reach out to some printers or designers.

3) Your CI helps people understand what you do

Your CI, especially your company name and logo gives your clients the first clue as to what you do, and how. ‘Nana’s Bakery’ is certainly somewhere you would consider for hot coffee, fresh pastries, and probably some old-world charm. It’s not somewhere you’d go to for swimming lessons, or to get your car serviced. So, when developing your CI, make sure what you come up with helps people see and hear what you need them to. Great names like Netflix, Lyft, and even Airbnb all convey a sense of the business. So, whether you’re going for something functional (Bob’s Auto Repair), or whimsical (The Treehouse BnB), make sure you capture either your business’ core service, or personality.

Now that we’ve learnt why a CI is necessary, let’s talk about the 3 golden rules:

1) Let your CI live

Uniformity is key to CI. Any baker will tell you the same of his or her produce.
Uniformity is key to CI. Any baker will tell you the same of his or her produce.

It’s going to take time to gain traction in the market, for your clients to recognise your business, and to build what marketers like to call ‘brand equity’ – customer recognition, affection, and loyalty. To help the process along, make sure you use your CI – always and consistently. Get your name out there, get your logo out there, get your business out there. Don’t answer the phone with ‘hello’, answer as ‘Nana’s Bakery’. Don’t send a generic Word document, send everything on your letterhead. Don’t let the other person save your details into the black hole that is their mobile phone book – give them your slick business card. The more you use your CI, the more the world will know you exist.

2) Pick something you love

Don’t rush it. Since your CI is going to be around for a while, pick something you really love. If there’s something iffy that bothers you now, it’ll keep bothering for the next 5/10 years. And if there’s a typo anywhere – fix it now. You don’t want every potential client in the next few years sniggling behind your back and questioning your competence.

3) Refresh only as needed

Refreshments add energy and vitality.
Refreshments add energy and vitality.

We already mentioned that it takes time to build resonance for your brand. That’s why you don’t want to be changing things up willy-nilly. A new business doesn’t need to change much on the CI front for at least a couple of years. Some companies go several decades without touching theirs. As a rule of thumb, you should give your CI a critical appraisal every 3 – 5 years to see if it’s still serving its purpose. It might be perfect as is, or it might need a small refresh. For example, if you repair computers and your logo shows an old screen, maybe consider updating it to a flat screen. Or if you’re a tailor and your logo features 90s baggy pants, perhaps slim down the silhouette a bit (unless you’re into ironic imagery – then carry on). The important thing to remember is that any change to your CI should be an extension of the identity you’ve worked so hard to build. Large-scale or total change should only be considered in the most extreme cases (like if the business is changing direction or ownership).

Now, armed with your new knowledge on all things CI, break out a large notebook and start scribbling down some ideas. And if you need some professional advice or direction, match with a talented designer or copywriter nearby on Kalido.