If you’re fond of playing industry buzzword bingo, you’ll have likely come across the word ‘blanding’ in recent years – a concept that still lingers in the brand design and strategy arena long after first being coined. And rightfully so, amidst fast-paced change, blanding poses an inherent threat to truly innovative brand strategies. If brands exist to create differentiation in the minds of consumers, blanding is the strategic choice to adopt the same visual and verbal cues as the rest of the market in an attempt to blend in, to feel familiar.
But familiarity isn’t enough. With markets becoming quickly saturated with many players setting out to achieve the same objective (a prime example being the 10-minute grocery delivery firm boom in London), how can businesses respond to fast-paced competition, break from the norm, and stand out to become the clear choice for customers?
Tech, whether ‘big’, ‘startup’ or ‘scaleup’, is no exception to the ‘blanding’ movement. If an AI tool like MidJourney or ChatGPT could have designed your brand, then it’s likely you’ve fallen victim to blanding. Take a look at the latest tech companies advertising their products and services across your social feeds or on your commute. Can you tell them apart based on the way they look, what they’re saying, the stand they’re taking? Chances are, probably not. You’re lost in a sea of pale colours, corporate Memphis (those illustrations of people with overly exaggerated limbs and tiny heads), and messages of putting you in control, or a new era of finance/shopping/working/living or being the central hub of something or other. Tech brands are failing to imagine their brands in a way that builds any meaningful connection with the audiences they are trying to connect with.
So then why, in a world of noise, market over-saturation and bombardment, are companies intentionally choosing to blend in with the crowd?
A brand is an investment in building equity by adopting a unique position to make connections, build trust and nurture relationships with your intended audience. They’re made up of the cues that are given to understand whether a company aligns with personal values, wants, and needs. On the other side of that same coin, our relationship with brands has evolved in the past decade to a majority digital experience, with algorithms now selecting what we see based on what we’ve viewed before or expressed an interest in. It’s only logical to dress up in the same space to make sure the algorithm spots you and presents you to your audiences.
This might go some way to explain why brands today are deciding to play it safe by attempting neutrality. But there must be more to it than simply gaming the system to show up to the masses. In doing so, any purpose-driven, disruptive brand is already putting itself at a huge disadvantage. As consumers, we decide a brand’s positioning – a brand can only give us the tools to recommend where they sit – the actual positioning takes place at a subconscious level, using the cues we’ve been provided. And if the cues being provided are the exact same as we’ve seen hundreds of times before, that brand will quickly become lost when audiences pay them little mind.
What if what we’re seeing isn’t as clean cut as choosing the path of least resistance? What if it’s simply about reaching the pinnacle of good brand design and strategy? Sam Butz, Senior Creative at Yonder Consulting says:
“We’re living in an intense normalisation period of ‘good design’. A brand can no longer differentiate themselves by having a nicely designed logo and identity – it’s now the expectation. Consumers expect more, and this goes far deeper than the aesthetics of a visual identity”.
But what else is driving this trend?
How often we come across ‘we’re going to be the Uber for…’ when hearing about new companies in concept development. And standing out on a disruptive product or service is great…until it isn’t. The market always catches up with new entrants or existing companies who can do it better, faster, and cheaper, and so resting on this idea is a short-term play at best. Your brand needs to connect with customers on an emotional level. Innovative strategies are driven by a detailed understanding of every part of your customers’ lives – the product itself won’t ever be enough on its own. Neglecting this from the outset will cost you later down the line when the market is flooded, or you have been made obsolete.
Sticking to what you know
Another key driving force behind this trend is how tech brands are funded. Tech brands are typically propped up by the same select handful of Venture Capitalist and Private Equity firms, all looking to get in at the ground floor of the next big thing. And when the next company comes along, they all point to the same select group of consultancies, using the same old suspects because they offer a consistent experience of building what they think a tech brand should be. And while this may fit the style of what they’re trying to achieve for mass adoption, it’s actually more detrimental than they realise – crafting familiarity may work to gain entry to a market and enable audiences to understand their product, but it does little to create a clear stand out positioning. A short-term solution at best. Long-term solutions require imagination.
Imitating the big players
Finally, a shift to digital minimalism and simplicity is favoured amongst the newest entrants to the market because it has shown promise to the bigger players. Take the all-mighty Google as an example. A highly simplistic approach to branding and positioning, but intentionally so to match their purpose-driven ethos of organising the world’s information to make it universally accessible and useful. If it works for them, why wouldn’t simplicity work for you? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Google has spent the past two decades building its reputation as the gatekeeper of information, and their brand reflects this – clean, intuitive, uncluttered. Seen as the gold-standard by many, brands are unable to replicate such simplicity and minimalism because they haven’t been granted the permission to do so by their audiences. Authenticity is key. Brands too often lose sight of what makes them successful and unique in an attempt to imitate what has worked for others – your brand needs to reflect the core of your business, not your competitors.
Breaking the cycle
Reimagine your brand
To avoid falling into the same trap, brands need to reimagine their positioning in the context of a continuously evolving world. They must be willing to go against the grain and identify clear, authentic positioning, carved out of the whitespace. Easier said than done, especially when needing to create familiarity with audiences. But by shifting away from the functional benefit of a product and service based on high level ‘customer needs’ and elevating towards an emotional connection driven by in-depth customer understanding, a brand can occupy a distinct stance. When we view our target markets within the wider context of their lives, we also understand our business within that context – why we matter to them in the first place. This will ensure brand salience and loyalty in the future. A long-term investment.
Present your positioning through an authentic identity
Be bold. Be authentic. Don’t imitate. There are plenty of tools to enable you to translate your positioning into your visual identity. We use a rigorous semiotics mapping approach (the study of signs, symbols, and their interpretations) to determine where clients need to operate in order to create that standout, designing their visual and verbal cues in a way that clearly articulates their brand’s framework – their reason for existence, the why behind what they do.
Dare to be brave
Sam Butz: “We embrace that unfamiliarity and find appeal in something that isn’t what you’ve seen before. The next time something strikes you as ‘ugly’ or ‘the wrong way’, can you question yourself on the spot? Is there an appeal in the unfamiliar? Is there value in something that strikes that chord in your mind, and better yet, heart? Let’s challenge the aesthetic together and explore the “right” and “wrong” way. Our experts focus less on trying to fit in so that we can focus more on trying new things. It means more imagination, expression, experimentation, and exploration. It means unfiltered creativity – less living by an aesthetic, more living life through expression and playfulness. Some things stick, others we can smile back on… until the cycle comes around again, and we find new meaning in it.”
Daniel O’Hara, Head of Voice: “When it comes to language and voice, brands are falling into the trap of death by audit. Too much of what brands communicate and how they say it, is in response to their competitor set. As a result, they either fall into the sea of sameness or lose sight of what they really need to be saying. Instead, brands should follow their core brand truth, wherever it authentically leads them and speak from there”.
Whilst it may seem safer to avoid it, evolution is a key driver of continuing success. The rate of change means we are surrounded by more information than ever before; through extensive research, machine learning, data-science techniques, and a culture of imagination, tech brands will be able to drive long-term, innovative, winning brand strategies. Don’t fall victim to blanding. Understand what your audiences really think and feel, and what they need from the brands they interact with – creating equity that will stand the test of time when your competition comes knocking. Be brave and dare to reimagine what things could be, rather than what they are.