Eat. Sleep. Live. Period.
Branding the everyday.
It’s an amazing time for product development. With so many options available to the customer, it’s also a trying time that demands every new brand to place critical focus on the qualities that set their product apart from the rest. To conquer human habit and disrupt a person’s daily routine, brands must establish more than just the best product; they also have to intimately understand their customers and speak directly to them.
In order to dig into this subject a bit more intimately, we hosted a panel discussion at Paperless Post HQ with the brand design leaders from Maple, the meal-delivery service changing the way professionals eat lunch in NYC; Casper, the most affordable high-quality mattress on the market; Oscar Health, the insurance company for the modern age; and THINX, the underwear company tackling the taboo of women’s health.
Luke Williams: Getting to know the perspectives of each brand present, I’d like to open the dialogue with a pointed question for each of our panelists, beginning with you, Greg.
When I order takeout, I often order from certain places because of a really positive experience I had with a physical dining room environment. Being that Maple is like a restaurant without the restaurant, do you feel there is an uphill climb to leave a lasting impression with your customers?
Greg Hathaway: Maple as a business was designed that way, with the intent of spending more on ingredients and sourcing. So the whole idea was let’s do something that doesn’t require brick and mortar. Let’s place ourselves in locations you would only find if you were lost — where the rent is super low — and then lets invest the rest into high quality ingredients.
To answer your question, that’s certainly a challenge. Where you can control ambient music, smells, all sorts of things in a restaurant space that you can’t control when you just do delivery. So we knew that we needed to look different — be different — in order to make an impact on the consumer, and also to be memorable.
Luke: I ordered from Maple on day one. I remember receiving the delivery bag and admiring the well-designed packaging. It came in a beautiful bag, with a well designed silverware sleeve and food container, and I feel like from the start you must have anticipated this need for making a lasting impression.
Greg: That was one of the gating factors to Maple’s launch. We reached a point where we were about to launch the company and the dialogue was like, “The tech team has figured out how to coordinate hundreds of orders across all these locations,” and then it became, “Hey Greg, where’s that bag that we need?” It sounded so simple, but it was really challenging to get the custom bag made!
Luke: THINX has a really compelling new product on the market. For decades, marketers have approached hygiene and personal health products from a very timid, coy, or bashful angle to be more politically-correct about those topics. Although I’m a little left of center to your target audience, when I see your marketing on the subway I immediately notice the bold and honest presentation of your brand.
How is confronting cultural taboo significant to your brand strategy?
Meng Shui: Confronting cultural taboo basically is the brand strategy! First of all, the word taboo originated from the word ‘tapua,’ which means “menstruation”. So yes, that basically is our business.
We are here to talk about everything you don’t want to talk about. We want to break the taboo by starting the conversation. By getting people to talk about these topics, we can begin to educate and empower people. Menstruation is not something anyone should be ashamed about.
Luke: The copy in your marketing is very forward, very honest. I personally feel empowered when I read it. It seems that beyond just communicating about a new product to your customer, you’re also elevating how they approach their own confidence in their life.
Meng: Exactly! We want to empower people by being honest and saying things truthfully. Like you were saying, for a long time menstrual hygiene products have been marketed by showing a woman in white pants jumping in a field of flowers, which is not what we do when we have our periods! We want to eat junk food in bed, or just not do anything at all basically. Our copy reflects that; we say what we are feeling when we’re on our periods.
Luke: I moved to NY about four years ago, and somewhere along the way I started seeing Casper ads on the trains. Since then, I feel as though I haven’t stopped seeing Casper advertising on the trains! I see it being refreshed again and again with new illustrations, new copy, new storytelling, but always with the same root campaign message.
Describe the benefits of long-term advertising campaigns, and how you are able to make them enjoyable to absorb time and time again without ever feeling repetitive.
Huy Vu: First of all, a big shout out to our agency and partner Red Antler for all the work they’ve done with the brand since launch. Everything from the logo to the mattress box to our illustration style came out of their four walls.
When it comes to the subway campaigns, I feel there is a comfort in seeing things repeated over and over again. There’s an expectation from the audience of ‘what’s next?’ that I find very useful, rather than constantly changing things up for the sake of change. One thing that’s been really interesting as we’ve been going through this process has been reframing the campaign as ‘an act of generosity,’ and trying to figure out new ways to be generous to the person observing the ad — sort of like a gift to New York.
How can we make someone feel good, respect their intelligence, and also sell a product? That’s sort of the approach to how we think about our advertising. We also like showing up everywhere with our advertising — we want you to know that we exist, that we’re reputable, and that this is a quality product. To us, this is an important story to tell, over and over again.
Luke: It’s definitely a subway takeover that makes me want to look up and down the train car to read all of the placements. There’s an understated tone about the Casper brand that deals with ‘having fun’. The way you promote your messaging and your product is very whimsical and playful — this morning you were smashing alarm clocks on Snapchat!
Huy: I think having fun is essential. If you look at how mattresses have been sold for centuries, the creative is like, ‘person on bed, smiling wistfully with eyes closed.’ We’re trying to reframe the conversation around how to think about a mattress from a commodity good to a considered purchase, so being ‘fun’ is super important.
Luke: As a designer, over the years I often think about the prospect of ‘going out on my own’ and starting my own professional practice. I think this is a dream for many young designers, but the topic of health insurance has historically been a big hurdle to get over before making such a big commitment.
When I see Oscar Health advertising, I feel at ease about an otherwise challenging topic. The messaging speaks to me as though you’re on my level, in a way that makes sense of a topic that you may anticipate is hard for me to understand. I detect a big empathy story in the Oscar branding. How hard is it to make it look so easy?
Josh Long: That’s a good question. An easy way to say this is, insurance is so bad that we feel there must be an easy way to make it better.
What we found out was by taking the top layer of everything in insurance and trying to simplify it becomes step one. But as soon as you do that, it’s like peeling layers from an onion; once you make one layer better, you peel another layer back and discover ‘oh, it’s really corrosive down here’.
Every time we discover that something is too complicated, we know we need to explain it better by rebuilding it or doing something differently. The goal is to hammer home that we’re trying to make this difficult thing better for you, but it’s incredibly challenging.
Luke: We all make efforts to engage in our customers’ lifestyles. How do you make decisions about your brand voice to speak to a certain kind of customer?
Josh: We start with the premise of ‘how would you personally explain this to somebody?’ If you were just talking to someone in the real world, you wouldn’t start throwing around crazy insurance terms like “deductible” and “out of pocket max” — instead, just say what it is!
Huy: Yeah, I feel the same way; how would you describe this to your mom? The other rule we have at Casper is: no jargon. We sell a product in an industry full of jargon like “max cooling gel”, and “lift layer”. I think just being really up front about what you’re selling in the plainest english possible is key. But we definitely agonize over it — of all the things we iterate on, copy is the one thing that everyone gets involved in.
Luke: Would you say ‘keeping it simple’ with copy plays well into a product that is so inherently simple, or would you recommend simple language as a copy strategy to any company?
Huy: It depends. Using simple language has helped to contrast us against the industry and I think it’s what a contemporary brand like Casper should be doing. Being frank and honest goes a long way.
Meng: I agree. We were talking about how our brand voice is very straight-forward and honest, and being self-aware is one thing that is specifically important for our brand. We have to realize we are talking about periods, and there is blood, and it is gross, but you don’t need to cover it up and use medical language and try to make it look not-gross — just be honest about it and use plain language.
We have a brilliant copywriter who writes in the language in which she naturally speaks. She uses emojis, shorthand like “af” or “rn”. People will write letters to us and try to correct us grammatically! But this way of writing has been very helpful for our customers to understand what we’re trying to do.
Greg: In terms of where Maple started, when we were finding ourselves, we approached the tone of our copy as if your favorite chef or waiter was energetically describing a new dish to you. As we’ve evolved, we’ve tried to keep that irreverence and personality in everything we do.
Lately we’ve been working on a sizable project that deals with communicating about our ingredients in more detail. We had to figure out how to talk about serious things, because in the past it’s been kind of like, “Ice creeeam!”, or something we’re just really excited about, and now it’s become more about how to unpack and talk about an ingredient like “grass fed beef”.
Luke: How has scale impacted your branding?
Greg: We had to consider a much more complex reality in terms of our packaging, our product, and also the internal apps that Maple uses on a daily basis in our kitchens, as well as the consumer app. That philosophy of fluidity and tinkering as we go is a reality all the time. Everything is always changing, whether it is a new delivery neighborhood or a new internal function, we’re always designing against change.
Meng: We’re growing so fast, it’s amazing and also very scary. Because we have been growing, we have a bigger budget to do more things now and we’re doing so many things we’ve never done before. When I started it was just me, but now there are seven of us on the design team at THINX. Every time we go to a new market, host a new launch or a new event, we always have to figure it out for the first time, and it is all done in-house.
Huy: When it comes to creative execution, the scope of what we need to handle has become very complex. We are now dealing with a lot more performance testing, running multiple end tags in our TV advertising for instance. It’s been a tricky balance between art and commerce. When I first started we would take much bigger swings, but now we rely a lot more on user testing and putting out feelers to build a case for bigger projects
Josh: I would echo that. The big story for us is internal growth; when I started there were just 40 employees, and now there are 400 or more. Just adding stakeholders to the conversation, there are so many dependencies on operational needs to make things happen. For instance, including our customer service department in some of our branding discussions was something I didn’t think about before, but now I realize there are so many important voices to have in the room pretty often. It’s also been a really satisfying thing to have more team members that can contribute to brand decision-making in a big way.
Luke: I want to talk about design maturity. When we’re talking about brand design, over the last two years at Paperless Post, we’ve learned a tremendous amount about what works, what resonates with certain customers, and what doesn’t; learning from hypotheses that succeed or fail. We continue to iterate on our practice, and we maintain an ongoing goal of becoming more mature as a brand, to be more thoughtful about what we’re saying, how we’re saying it.
Have you experienced any pivotal design epiphanies that have informed meaningful adjustments to your design practice?
Josh: We launched initially with our animated characters, and relied very heavily on them for about three years. We arrived at a point where we realized that we relied maybe too much on them, and through research we found that while people did identify them and knew it was from Oscar, but they don’t have that trust component that we really needed to preserve. We are in the process of figuring out the balance. We found that we had to go back to the beginning and ask ‘what is our brand foundation and strategy around these things?,’ and now we’re building back up from there.
Huy: One of our biggest epiphanies was that we needed to come up with an aesthetic that’s more ownable. I think we nailed a really memorable ‘look’ with our illustration style, but early on before that we had a really general ‘lifestyle’ photography aesthetic that involved, you know, a couple in bed, in an urban-style loft, with hanging planters, moroccan style rugs…
Luke: But I love all those things!
Huy: Yeah, exactly! But one epiphany we found was we needed to be able to create an aesthetic that’s recognizable from top to bottom. That’s where we’ve been trying to push it. When we kick off new projects, our briefs always include a challenge to make something that distinctly feels like Casper, and concentrating on being more idea-driven, and less focused on a literal ‘way of living’.
Meng: We’re now known for our photography. When we changed our photographic style, that was a moment where we really matured as a brand. Before that, you probably didn’t know about us. We showed girls in their underwear having a pillow fight in a loft that wasn’t theirs. All of a sudden we realized we didn’t want to do what other underwear brands were doing already. We wanted to create something that was specifically ‘us’.
Now when we take photos of our models, we want to empower people because our brand is all about empowering women. We don’t want to sexualize women’s bodies. We intentionally made the decision that our models would not be sexy … not that they aren’t sexy in their underwear and their amazing bodies — it’s hard for that to not be sexy … but we made the decision to not sexualize them intentionally. In our photography, our models are posed either weirdly or dignified so you can appreciate the natural beauty of their bodies.
Greg: I always return to this lesson having to do with the agency vs. in-house settings. Andrew Sullivan once said his blog is more like a broadcast than a publication. That’s something I always think about with our work. In-house work in startups moves so quickly. It’s not only about keeping up with that speed, but letting the speed motivate conversations about all the things the team is making. Try to ride the wave, instead of worrying that ‘your ship isn’t ready for the wave’.
Luke: How has brand design and voice helped to support product education?
Greg: At Maple, we’re mostly trying to get out of the way when it comes to onboarding. Our priority is to get people through the flow quickly, because we don’t always know how they arrived at our site. Our customers just want to order, so for now, getting them through the checkout process quickly is our priority.
Meng: From a brand design perspective, I think it’s really important to make the messaging beautiful. I believe in order to educate people, you first have to get their attention — you have to get people to look first, especially in our category. We decided that we’re going to get your attention by making our marketing look really beautiful and inspirational — or new, or weird — and once we have your attention, we’ll then educate you about our product.
Luke: At Paperless Post, we talk a lot about user experience and the challenge of unifying all moments of brand and product interaction, from marketing to check-out. We aim to create the most effortless flow for each of our customers, but that often requires a lot of collaboration across the strategy and design of multiple teams. Between Brand and Product design efforts, how have you faced similar challenges?
Huy: At Casper, it’s been an interesting process. In past experiences, I was familiar with working in a model that whoever had the most time to work on something would lead a process. Early on as a small team we tried to keep it all under one roof, and our roles were very multi-disciplinary. It’s changed since then; we now have digital product designers, brand creative designers. To offset that, we try to keep everyone as physically-close to one another as possible, mixing brand designers, product designers, and copywriters at a project’s kick off, rather than treating tasks like a hand-off from one team to another.
Meng: The brand voice and visuals certainly have to work well with the product. At one point we offered products that weren’t always well-aligned in that way. Before this version of products we have now, we used to offer products that featured a lot of lace; black lace with roses, flowers — very ‘Victoria’s Secret’ — and some people liked that. But after we figured out our brand, we realized it would not be so inclusive to offer products like that. We are in this culture where people don’t want to be defined by their gender. Our product is a solution for all women and transgender people. We want to be inclusive, so the design team and product teams decided together that our next version of product would feature mesh instead of floral lace. Our thong still does have lace, but it’s now more geometric. It’s a conscious effort to be more inclusive for all genders.
Greg: At Maple, we still have the gift and curse of being pretty small. There are four of us on the design side who handle everything. We try to be multidisciplinary across all aspects of the company. But, in terms of product design, there is a whole set of considerations. For instance, a year ago we introduced an animated button to give customers the option of buying a side with their meal. When we stripped away that button and simply showed our sides in the flow, we noticed customers buying a lot more sides! When considering instances like that, there are clearly situations that are primarily digital product decisions. But the aesthetic is so important to the brand, so we always want to make sure everything feels and looks thought-through. We all work together, across teams, to ensure that happens.
Luke: The term “disruption” has been used a lot in recent years when speaking about branding. Whether this refers to a new, singular product that stirs up a market, or a new way to use a very familiar product, both versions of disruption will result in ripple effects of behavioral change across an industry. This sort of influence is something many brands are after, but it’s not always easy to measure or quantify. Have you noticed whether your branding efforts have contributed to change in your respective markets?
Greg: The landscape of food delivery has become much more nuanced and specialized in recent years, I would say. When Maple first started, the competitive landscape was packaged in tin foil and plastic ‘I Heart NY’ bags. In terms of how targeted that experience has become, there is now a much more diverse playing field; there’s more custom packaging, and also more custom brands who are now considering people in a way that I don’t think were represented as much before. Like, I can now get watermelon jerky delivered to me, and I don’t think I could have two years ago…maybe I’m speaking out of turn about the jerky — I’m not sure — but that’s all to say there are certainly more considered brands delivering all sorts of niche food now, versus when we launched.
Meng: The THINX brand has started a conversation about periods. We still have a long way to go, especially in today’s atmosphere — women are still fighting. But we’re very proud to be the brand who has started a cultural conversation. If you visit our Facebook page, you’ll see a dialogue that starts with one person asking a question like ‘does this product actually work?’, followed by multiple people responding with an explanation in defense of the product. Others will say things like ‘you shouldn’t be talking about this topic in public’, and people will respond to that in defense of women’s rights! So we’re very happy that we started a conversation. Also, larger brands who have been working with menstrual hygiene products for many years can now be observed discussing the topic of periods in a way that they hadn’t before. Part of it is because we started a conversation!
Huy: You definitely see a lot of larger mattress companies trying to be cute or whimsical like Casper. I think one of the interesting things that’s happened in the past few years is the expectation of what being a direct-to-consumer startup today means. The branding has to be on point, customer service has to be awesome, and the whole brand story has to feel super resolved from the start. That’s the most interesting narrative of the last few years to me; that no matter how scrappy a new company actually is, you have to act like a fully resolved brand on day one.
Josh: At Oscar, we definitely notice a lot of peer insurance brands borrowing a similar aesthetic and tone of voice. It’s part of the reason we want to take a departure from our character design too; I feel like there are versions of each of our characters living somewhere.
Luke: At Paperless Post we’re always investigating our brand design efforts to understand our potential for art direction and brand voice, as our audience — and our product — continues to grow in complexity over time. As an in-house team, we’re able to observe these live changes and immediately address the needs of the company as we grow alongside it. This constant iteration is also what keeps us curious and motivated to do our best work.
What is it about leading design in-house for one brand, instead of in an agency setting for many brands, that you’re most drawn to?
Huy: For me, it’s about seeing things from early concepts, to putting it out into the world. We have the ability to tweak things to the nth degree and make it as excellent as possible and that’s something I find very gratifying.
Josh: I’ve worked on both sides of the fence. I would agree that bringing work to completion is really important. Also, seeing how design can help to move a business is probably the most interesting thing to me; all of a sudden you are the client. It’s such a big learning exercise. When we work with creatives outside of Oscar, what always works best is when they feel like they’re on our team, sitting with us, working with us; they pretty much become an extension to our design team.
Meng: When you work in-house, you really get to see how to maintain a brand. Agencies are really good at doing things from the start, and while building a brand is definitely hard, I think it’s even harder to maintain a brand. When it’s constantly expanding, and so many different things are always happening, how do you make sure that everything you touch is on brand? I think people who work in-house will be better at brand maintenance because they care, they are with the brand everyday, and they understand the brand’s needs inside and out.
Greg: I would echo all of those answers. Being able to make stuff and have it actually be in the world and exist as a real thing is so great, but then also fixing this thing that you’re really excited about; learning how to make it better, and then actually making it better is really gratifying.
I also would like to echo what Josh said about being part of the conversation early on — it’s so huge. I think when you’re in an organization, change can be as simple as having a conversation and contributing an idea to a room of people who you know and respect and just saying “what if we did it this way?”, versus that heavy lift of building a presentation deck, selling something through, and trying to navigate the politics of an organization you’re not that familiar with when working on the agency side of design.
About the panelists
Greg Hathaway is the Creative Director of Maple. He leads the brand efforts there, which touch everything from advertising to packaging design and digital product. Before starting at Maple in early 2015, Greg was an Assistant Creative Director at MoMA in the museum’s department of advertising and graphic design.
Huy Vu is a Brooklyn-based graphic designer and amateur Knicks fan. He currently heads up the creative team at Casper and prior to that was the Art Director at Jack Spade.
Josh Long has been working at Oscar Health for the past three years as the Director of Design. Before Oscar, he worked as a designer at some notable agencies in NYC helping companies develop products to serve their business and users better. Outside of working at Oscar he teaches design at the School of Visual Arts where he’s able to share his thoughts on design and help create the next generation of designers.
Meng Shui was employee №4 at Thinx and is now Head of Design Strategy. Over the past 2 years she went from branding something no one wanted to talk about to building a brand that’s breaking taboo and shifting our culture using the power of design. Before Thinx, she studied for her Masters of Branding at the School of Visual Arts while running her own design studio.
Luke Williams is the Brand Creative Director at Paperless Post, a company specializing in customizable digital and paper invitations and cards. Together with his team, Luke is committed to establishing a reputation for Paperless Post as the preeminent social events platform, dedicated to fostering personal connections through the finest design available on the web.
About Paperless Post: Design Talks
Paperless Post: Design Talks are our chance to bring members of the design community whom we admire into our New York office to talk and share knowledge about their work. All talks are free and open to the public but RSVP is required as space is limited. There is always time set aside to talk and mingle with other attendees and the speakers over craft beer and snacks.
Find out more about our team at paperlesspost.com/jobs