Direct-to-consumer Branding needs a Refresh. Here’s How.

Trends for venture capital investment are cyclical. Some moments are focused on chunky, Elon Musk-style moonshots and R&D. Some cycles involve tweaking real estate and calling it a tech play (hello WeWork). Some are bullshit and some aren’t. The latest is an obsession with VCs funding companies seeking to re-invent consumer categories.

Warby Parker led the first wave, re-thinking how people buy their glasses while taking aim at the Luxottica death star. They stood out with good clean design and a brand with depth and a few JD Salinger winks and nods. Razor whiz-kid Harry’s followed suit, taking on Gillette. There are now multiple disruptive players in every conceivable consumer category: Hims is running after the decidedly unsexy but huge market of erectile dysfunction and hair loss, Quip is trying to re-invent how you buy your toothbrush, and Brandless is selling CPG products and putting a shiny Valley varnish on what’s essentially a generic store brand.

The core of each of these upstarts isn’t necessarily the product, but a strong brand, narrative and sensibility (plus the ability to build data and know a ton about customers). The trouble is, the category has become a pastiche of itself. Call it the commodification of an aesthetic. While writer Kyle Chayka coined the term ‘Airspace’ to describe how every coffee shop from Berlin to Tokyo looks the same, we’re now witnessing a similar creeping trend in consumer branding.

Remember the first days of organic food products? There was a sincerity and depth to the first offerings, followed by focused-grouped, watered-down and uninspired fodder during the gold rush. This is now happening with direct-to-consumer.

One of the superstars of the brand design industry, Anthony Sperduti, says he’s actively turning down such work because it’s become boring and uninspired.

‘Most brands haven’t figured out who they are and are chasing the success they have seen before them,’ Sperduti says. His firm, Partners and Spade, is behind some of the most tasteful work in the category, collaborating early with the founders of Warby and Harry’s as well as brands like Sonos.

‘We helped set this world up and it’s biting us in the ass a bit,’ he adds. ‘You can’t just apply good clean design and a certain typeface and expect it to be a billion-dollar brand. Method did that ages ago.’

Sperduti’s lament is spot on: instead of highly impassioned companies with razor sharp founder vision, new companies on the scene appear to be fattening up quickly to be sold off to the very companies they’re disrupting.

Part of this is obviously the gold rush. Part is the need to blend in where most of these companies are marketing and building initial awareness: Instagram. There is a flood of Helvetica and millennial pink, stuff that feels confident and looks appealing in a feed but in reality is profoundly vacant. So what can brands do to not fall into the commoditised design trap?

First, doing the hard yards on sense of purpose and meaning — understanding deeply what problem you’re solving and the hurdles you need to get a buyer over to fall in love.

Second, realise that many people (including VCs) claim to be experts on ‘brand’, but only understand it at the shiny surface level and don’t go much farther than a typeface and photo treatment.

And third: contrarian tacks at such saturated times are often useful. ‘DTC brands have been focused on a minimalism, no fuss, digital cleanliness,’ says Todd Goldstein, designer at the iconic branding firm Pentagram. ‘The contrarian move for the right brand today would be much moreexuberant, splashy even. Something with more of a human touch in terms of illustration and art direction: joy, fun and playfulness running through it.’

The new brands that stand out need to break out of the boring, clean formula to convey love, depth, and ideally humanity — imperfections and all — underneath the facade.