Unlocking the hidden code of your brand’s Visual Language

fast casual food branding

The hidden code
All brands project an image through the visual language of their brand identity. Customers and markets use the code contained within their visual language to make logical and emotional associations that drive their responses to trust, lust, aspire and desire the brand… or not. A well designed brand identity utilizes the visual language code of its market to pin-point the positioning it wishes to own in the hearts and minds of its customers.

When we talk about a brand’s visual language we refer to its brand mark (logo), brand colours and typefaces, and every visual expression of the brand on-line and off including; advertising campaigns, packaging, store design, product names, web site, uniforms, and marketing and shareholder communications. The scope of visual language is unique for every different brand.

Our Visual Decode Process
At Storm and Brand DNA we have become masters of the art of decoding the visual language of brands. This process plays a critical role in the way we position brands once we have defined their strategy and established their market proposition. The visual decode process provides the science that allows us to communicate a brand’s proposition, market positioning and personality based-on the visual cues of its brand identity. The process framework also allows us to provide clients with an informed assessment of the cues currently being provided to the market by their brand identity. The insights provided by this process are often surprising, always informative, and provide a valuable tool for organisations to tweak, adjust or overhaul their brand identity to better serve the objectives of the business.

fast food branding

Grill’d for Success
The Grill’d chain of burger stores in Australia are a case study in how to build a fast growing business by creating a new market segment and launching a highly-tuned brand into the over-crowded fast food market. Here we review how the Grill’d visual language positions the brand within its competitive marketplace?

Company: Grill’d
Market: fast food
Brand Canvases: Identity, Signage, Restaurant environment, Product naming, Packaging, On-line, Experiential marketing, Franchisee marketing

Code of Colour
Grill’d‘s primary colour is red. Red has a strong fast food heritage *(think KFC, Burger King, McDonalds, Nandos to name a few). Whilst not providing differentiation, Grill’d use red to effectively communicate which market they’re in, whilst taking advantage of the eye catching properties of the colour red. The smart use of white reversing out of the red for the Grill’d brand mark provides a cleaner, more contemporary and less mainstream look than the competition who typically add a yellow or orange to their palettes.
* In order to differentiate, a brand doesn’t necessarily need to avoid all the visual code cues of the market, it’s more a matter of consciously selecting which parts of the code to adopt, and which to avoid.
The secondary colour palette of ‘toasted burger bun brown’ and black create a unique feel when applied in-store.

Visual Language Code cues provided by Grill’d’s brand identity colour palette:
• Fast Food
• Contemporary
• Warm, Rich, Sumptuous

restaurant branding

Visual Language Properties
The Grill’d brand’s visual language is rich with unique properties, none more hard working than it’s playful use of illustration. The illustrations have an irreverent, Mambo-like quality to them, providing the Grill’d brand with a defining urban edge. The Grill’d brand mark is a logotype consisting a typeface only with no symbol. The type style is retro inspired, connecting the brand to the golden era of fast food, when the ingredients were pure and unadulterated. At a secondary level, the Grill’d brand identity uses scrawled hand-writing to communicated on walls, bags, menus and uniforms. These elements combine to give the Grill’d brand a look that is unique within the market. This rich palette of visual language allows Grill’d to free-style the application of its brand identity, providing a sense of authenticity and avoiding the ‘plastic wrapped look’ of the major fast food chains.

Visual Language Code cues provided by the visual language properties of the Grill’d brand:
• Retro Fast Food Heritage
• Urban Cred
• Ireverant, cheeky personality
• Youthful attitude
• Authentic burger joint, not cookie cutter franchise


Dialing-up the Personality
The Grill’d brand personality comes through loud and clear through all of it’s communications. The Grill’d way of doing things is clearly unique to its competitive market, and whilst it has enough flexibility to remain fresh, relevant and authentic, it all springs from the same well of Grill’d-ness. We cannot complete an assessment of the Grill’d brand’s visual language without covering-off its brand language. Although not strictly part of the visual language, it provides a rich example of the use of rich brand language as a powerful market differentiator. The Grill’d brand language is personality filled with a rich youthful, urban attitude. Product names include the Kung Fu Fighter, the Hot Mama and the Zen Hen. The Grill’d tag line is ‘Healthy Burgers for a Healthy Mind’ and painted on the walls of it’s restaurants are brand positioning slogans like: ‘No drive through, no clowns and no goddamn Colonel’.

Brand positioning cues provided by the brand language of Grill’d:
• Urban Cred

• Ireverant, cheeky personality
• Youthful attitude
• Healthy burger offer


Step 01. Crack your code
Every industry has an underlying visual code that customers utilize to pin-point the position and proposition of the businesses that are competing in that market. Do you understand the code for the market your business is competing in?

Step 02. Clarify your Go-to-Market Proposition
Once you understand the competitive landscape of your marketplace, establish you most competitive position within that landscape. Determine what positions the leading brands occupy? What positions are available that you can own and dominate? Ask yourself, ‘is there a large enough market of customers out there for me to grow my business?’ (McDonalds and Burger King were competing for the burger market, So Grill’d created the Healthy Urban Burger market). And finally, do you have the skills, experience and knowledge to deliver on your go-to-market proposition?

Step 03. Leverage the code of Visual language
Decide which elements of your market’s code of visual language you will leverage, and which you will differentiate with. As a rule of thumb, a new player looking to quickly establish their brand in a market will leverage most of the visual language code of that market, whilst a dominant player wishing to create a challenger position (similar to the Virgin approach) will leverage as few of the cues of a market’s visual language as possible.

fast casual branding

Don’t try this at Home
The process of decoding, development of a go-to-market proposition, and leveraging of your markets visual code can be complex. Our process and skills have been honed over nearly twenty years of working with hundreds of brands in almost every different market conceivable. If you find this process to be confusing, get in touch and we’ll help show you the way.


Pics from Grill’d Instagram.


  1. Ben, thanks for the comment. It is amazing once you start looking how much a brand’s visual language can communicate a strong sense of personality (or not). Have you seen the Trampoline gelati stores. We worked on that brand and it has a great sense of personality.

  2. Ben, It was a great brand to work on. Funny thing about brands with strong personalities – they’re so easy to work with and the staff really get on board too – which for many brands is where the rubber hits the road for bringing them to life.

  3. Hi Thomas, It looks like an interesting book. I just ordered it from Amazon – thanks for the tip. Can you fill em in a little on the premise? Is it that there are codes of behavior that underlie different cultures and societies and that our actions are driven by them?

  4. Sara, you’re right on the money. As the brands within an industry move in a direction, ie. fast food brands with heaps of urban personality, the brands who were outliers become the norm, and new brands need to dial-up the level of urban personality even higher, or (more likely) find a different and sustainable proposition.

  5. A friend of ours started this business (with a couple of others) and now pretty much owns the whole lot! (no pun intended) Every time we see him we continually have the same conversation about the importance of branding, going to market (getting it right) and how much fun he enjoyed the processes in getting to where they are today.

  6. Discuss and debate whether every brand within the same category should have the same (or different)colour code for the category?

    1. Should Pepsi blue be changed to Coca-cola Red – the colour code for colas?

    2. Should Avis red and Enterprise green be changed to Hertz yellow?

    Or should the colour code be different to differentiate the brand?

  7. Alan, we have a pretty firm view of how to best work the code for your brand (colour included) but as with most things it is never simple. The code is a set of cues that exist in the minds of the market driven usually by the visual language of incumbent market leaders and current trends. Different brands either leverage-off or differentiate from the code depending on their status in the market (new entrant, challenger, established brand) and the audience they wish to connect with. Established brands like Pepsi and Avis should never attempt to mimic their market’s leader. But a new entrant in the space can identify and leverage relevant visual code to help their audience understand their brand’s go-to-market proposition.

  8. David

    Fabulous response. Your clients’ brands are in good hands.

    Let’s now move the discussion on to ‘Verbal Codes’ aka Cultural Source Codes.

    For example:
    Brand-leading Australian wines in America all have wildlife names – Yellow Tail (Roo) – but in the UK they tend to have place names – Jacob’s Creek.

    Could it be that the cultural source code for Australia in America is ‘Crocodile Dundee’? And that the cultural source code for alcohol in America is ‘Prohibition’ (violence=wildlife) but in the UK the code for alcohol is ‘Inhibition’?

    Would that explain the ‘failure’ of Tourism Australia’s campaign to ‘show Australia in a different (sophisticated) light’ because of Oz’s ‘Crocodile Dundee’ cultural source code in America?


  9. Alan, possibly the two best questions for the year.
    You’re right on the money – the second vital layer of code is cultural code, which is where the role of social anthropology has so much to offer brand.
    Each geographic market brings with it a cultural overlay of meaning will directly impact on the translation of a brands messages (this includes language, visual iconography, colour, and behaviour).
    Brands always live in a context relative to both their competitive set and their cultural ties. In the example of Tourism Australia, the cultural messaging from film, history and previous place branding provides the contextual starting point for future brand messaging. Brands need to evolve brand meaning; ie. you can’t be a land of adventure and danger one moment, and then wish to be understood as a land of sophisticated elegance the next. However you can have subtle variations of brand meaning in different geographical markets.
    This approach to global branding reflects current thinking on the best way for the big brands to build relevance and emotional connection in different marketplaces.
    Long answer – but the question deserved one.

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