For the better part of the past 12 months, many of us have been spending a lot of time online. We have been scrolling through Instagram more than ever before, and watching more and more videos on TikTok and YouTube. It’s because we're bored. And that boredom is also making us realize that things which may have seemed meaningful before the word “coronavirus” came into common usage perhaps aren’t so much.
It’s in this context that the conversation around “blanding” (a word used to describe the set of particular cues – the pastel colors, san serif fonts and clean lines that convey affordable luxury – used by many direct-to-consumer brands) has picked up again.
Commentary around the same-ification of branding goes way back. Even in 2017, Vox said “the clock is running out” on the minimalist aesthetic. But here we are.
So why don’t brands seem to mind? Isn’t blanding bad for business? We asked a number of experts and founders to share their thoughts, and throughout the article list a number of categories that have become quickly crowded.
Before Emmett Shine launched Pattern, the anti-burnout brand family, he cofounded a design agency. Gin Lane made a name for itself creating some of today’s most recognizable modern brands, from Sweetgreen to Harry’s, and its work is no doubt a common benchmark for other brands. Emmett argues that “blanding” is really nothing new.
“Go look at any art movement. Look at French posters during the Salon eras, look at renaissance paintings,” he says. “What is different? It’s [another] aggregation of people forming expressions at similar times with similar instruments.”
The reason blanding perhaps feels far more ubiquitous than other branding trends is because of the usual culprit: social media. Tap the like button on a #shelfie, and you’ll be served up with hundreds more. Start following Everlane, and Instagram will feed you more of the same. “We are being algorithmically bombarded,” Emmett says. “And we’re byproducts of the power of platforms, advertising, data and pseudo-personalization. We all exist in these weird bubbles where stuff reverberates around us that’s based on [the platform’s] understanding of our interests.”
This bombardment may also be why new design trends appear to take over so quickly (the “Gen Z aesthetic” being among the latest). It may be frustrating (or fatiguing) for both designers and founders in the industry, but it’s simply a case of brands “looking at one’s competitor and seeing how successful they have been with their message and visual vernacular. And then it starts to take off,” Eddie Opara, a partner at global design consultancy Pentagram explains. “And so it’s tweaked and built into everything.”
Certain brand messages – like the idea that it’s better to buy a razor from a subscription company that “cuts out the middleman” – prove to be powerful, and are then iterated on until a niche consumer category suddenly feels crowded.
These qualities are also useful for understanding what a brand is about without much more than a glance (which is often all brands get when they’re trying to make a first impression on social media). This accessibility is important for brands, says Eddie. “It gives you equity of understanding and comprehending what is going on within that communication,” he says, citing Apple as a pioneer of less-is-more branding.
Even for objectively boring products, like the razor blades just mentioned or even toilet paper, it’s possible for that sense of elevation to be conveyed. There are now multiple brands in the Thingtesting directory that offer rolls of toilet paper individually wrapped like gifts, in a bid to make the mundane experience of restocking the loo roll holder a bit nicer (never mind what that product is used for).
In this way, blanding can actually be somewhat useful for time-poor consumers. It also makes life easier for brand owners: creating a brand that stands out wildly from the crowd is a huge risk – but by operating within a clear set of parameters, you have a good shot of getting noticed by the type of customer these brands are broadly targeting. Meanwhile, platforms like Canva and Shopify remove the technical barriers for making sure a business looks good as it gets off the ground.
Problems do emerge, however, at the intersection between inspiration and copying. But even when a founder feels like a line has been crossed, it can be difficult to be 100% certain, or to take action beyond causing a fuss on social media. Instead, brands may simply put up with existing in their new niche together.
For Matt Mullenax, the co-founder of men’s skincare brand Huron, this is a huge source of frustration. He says that following the brand’s launch in 2019, he noticed that things like Huron’s website experience, product claims, usage instructions and even specific words the brand used were appearing on other companies’ websites.
He is confident that copying has occurred in some cases, although he acknowledges that these elements are not things which are protected by copyright.
“You obviously want to give people the benefit of the doubt, but when there are similarities that just fall too much in line, you have to question motives,” he says. “You reflect back on [what] went into crafting that copy, or building the flow of the product page. There’s little behind the scenes moments that probably 99% of the world don’t get to see. But for people in the space, you respect the fact that it takes a lot of time.”
The direct-to-consumer world is known to be an echo chamber, Matt adds. The problem is, for those outside of the industry it’s not always clear who has inspired (or copied) who, or which brand has kicked off a new product or visual trend. “So when a consumer sees [a] Recess knockoff for the first time, they’re going to be like ‘holy cow, this brand is amazing!’,” he explains. “Then maybe he or she sees the Recess site, and they’re like ‘that’s exactly like X’, even [if] the order of operations isn’t correct.”
One founder in the wellness space, who preferred not to be identified, says elements of her brand have been copied too, including an incident with one competitor who pivoted their product range to become suspiciously similar. This competitor is also a big fan of influencer marketing, to the extent that the founder we spoke to is concerned she may end up being viewed by unknowing consumers as the copycat.
“On the one hand, I’m glad that we’re leading the way, and people think what we’re doing is worth paying attention to,” she says. “I don’t get hurt by it, I get frustrated by the laziness. For their bottom line, they need to do things their own way. That’s what gets lost in all of this – it doesn’t do them any favours by copying us.”
While there are cases where a boundary has clearly been crossed, it can be helpful to remember that, when it comes to design work, “there’s nothing new under the sun,” says Abigail Muir, a designer who was a founding member of the now-defunct New York agency The Couch, which previously worked with Dims and Recess. “It’s really rare to be the first person to ever think of something or do something. Overall, I think the industry would be better if the conversation we were having was more about how we can support and help each other. The thing that bothers me the most [is the] secrecy – instead of it being a conversation that makes people feel like they’re sharing [what they are inspired by].”
Clearly, there are some advantages that can be found in using a common visual shorthand – it’s a quick way to get noticed by the right consumers, and to quickly convey a sense of credibility to them. But if too many brands do this, it can become confusing for customers, who may end up unsure if they’re looking at a great product, or simply a good brand.
For brands that bland – or who find themselves subject to copycats – it is now more important than ever to create points of differentiation beyond aesthetics that will keep customers coming back.
“Everyone that talks [about blanding] should take a step back,” Emmett says. “This is how humans have expressed themselves for as long as they have expressed themselves. What’s the oldest phrase in the book? Monkey see, monkey do.”
Thingtesting is a database of internet-born brands. We’re building the un-sponsored corner of the internet where consumers can come together to talk honestly about new things. Read more about Thingtesting here.
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