By Thierry Brunfaut and Tom Greenwood
December 11th, 2018
The worst branding trend of 2018 is the one you probably never noticed. I call it blanding. The main offenders are in tech, where a new army of clones wears a uniform of brand camouflage. The formula is sort of a brand paint-by-numbers. Start with a made-up-word name. Put it in a sans-serif typeface. Make it clean and readable, with just the right amount of white space. Use a direct tone of voice. Nope, no need for a logo. Maybe throw in some cheerful illustrations. Just don’t forget the vibrant colors. Bonus points for purple and turquoise. Blah blah blah.
Brands aren’t created in a vacuum; they’re products of the world around them. Formed in relief around the strengths and weaknesses of the competition, a brand is as much about what it isn’t as what it is. The point is differentiation; by definition, that’s what branding is. Which is precisely why I’m so baffled by blanding. It is designed not to stand out at all, but to blend in. With results that are, in a word, bland.
The brands that inspired blands
It’s easy to see how we got here. Tech giants such as Apple, Google, Airbnb, and Uber communicate in basic codes that function almost like signage. They have intuitive branding; with simple visual cues, they are able to convey youth, friendliness, progress, newness, nowness, and, above all, tech. They have been wildly successful. And so their shared visual language has become a formula for countless tech hopefuls to copy.
Let us call them the blands.
Blands are like teenagers. They dress the same, talk the same, act the same. They don’t have a defined sense of self or, if they do, they lack the confidence to be it. It’s a school-of-fish mentality where the comfort and safety of the familiar outweigh the risk of attracting too much attention.
Why blanding isn’t effective branding
The problem is that the blands haven’t earned the branding they ape. The big tech companies have strong, simple visual identities that match their strong, simple products. In many cases, they are their product. Their branding has evolved to reflect their powerful missions. Google’s logo wasn’t always the pared-back wordmark you see today. It matured, lost its quirks (remember that exclamation point!), and became a better representation of the company over time, as Google itself grew up.
This is not limited to tech. Take REI. For the past four years the company has closed every one of its stores on Black Friday, the single biggest shopping day of the year, and paid its employees to spend the day outside. Another example is Volvo, inventor of the three-point seatbelt. Rather than keep that landmark 1959 patent to itself, Volvo gave it away to the world. Why? Because it would save lives. Sixty years later, the company has pledged that by 2020 no one will be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo. An impossible goal. Or is it? Doesn’t matter. This is not a company simply broadcasting a message of safety; it’s a company devoted to it. Both REI and Volvo have recognizable, if unfussy, visual identities. In each case, the branding amplifies what’s already there: a focused mission and the products to match.
So who do you believe, the company that tells you they believe in something or the one that does something about it?
The challenge of omnichannel branding
It’s easy to see why tech would embrace blanding so wholeheartedly. Many of the companies are young, they’re selling untested ideas, and they haven’t had time to cultivate a strong identity.
There is also a functional reason: bold colors and sans-serif type play well across the diverse media on which brands today must live. They scale up or down. They are legible on a screen, in a magazine, or on a billboard.
Perhaps it is unsuprising, then, that the blanding trend isn’t limited to tech. Even some of today’s most established brands have erased their identity and, in one turquoise swoop, neutered their brand. Take Peter Saville’s controversial redesign of Burberry’s wordmark. The radical use of a neutral type eliminated all decorative elements. In Burberry’s case, these details weren’t superfluous; they happened to evoke style and class and heritage and something nobody else had—something that was, for lack of a better word, Burberry. Celine, too, went minimal recently, killing its accent and adjusting the spacing of its wordmark to “enable a simplified and more balanced proportion” that is designed to read as well on Instagram as it does on the side of a building. Blanding, the suggestion seems to be, is just good business.
But there’s a logical fallacy. Just because simplicity is the easiest way to accommodate diverse platforms, doesn’t mean it’s the best. Omnichannel branding is a tremendous design challenge that should make companies more creative, not less. I’m not advocating for getting back to fanciful, illustrative logos. I’m asking simply for brands to be more expressive. That doesn’t mean loud, it just means personal. Honest. True. And different.
The process of getting there is a little like therapy. It can be painful to dig down to find the truest sense of a brand, but it’s cathartic, and it’s crucial. Look for the secret ingredient. Something elusive and non-obvious: a contradiction, a surprise. Something to talk about, believe in, tickle, intrigue, entertain, agree with or disagree with, and hopefully not give you a rash.
Does your company have a big nose? This is how people will remember you, whether you like it or not. So you might as well own it. Call your company Schnozz. Make a proboscis monkey your mascot. Donate a percentage of profits to preserving their habitat. Commission deluxe, extra-large facial tissues, brand them, and give them to clients. Live the truth that big noses build character. Then translate that to visuals that feel like you. No sans-serif allowed.