Millennial Christmas List
Why Blands Aren’t So Bad
Over the past 9 months, I’ve been working from home and minimizing my exposure to COVID-19, so companies that fit into my life easily and make my life easier (like Uber Eats) have become my best friend. In the past several months, convenience has become king in what I wear, eat, and buy. The customer convenience and experience that I value so much has become increasingly relevant, even outside of this business environment. For the past 10 (ish) years, certain Direct-to-Consumer (D2C) brands have focused on customer-centricity above all else. Customer centricity is intentionally woven into their business model, visual branding, and content branding. These brands are known as ‘blands’.
You might have noticed an increase in Instagram ads and online articles about millennial D2C blands, such as Quip, Casper, and Away. Ben Schott recently wrote an article on Bloomberg that argued that the laundry list of similarities between these brands is what makes them bland.
Like many things, you often know a bland when you see one, but there are several specific characteristics that make up a bland. Let’s look at these characteristics using one of the earliest blands — Warby Parker.
Warby Parker is an online retail company founded in 2010 that sells glasses. It is one of the first blands I interacted with, because a lot of my college friends were Warby Parker customers and raved about their stand-out customer service. Outside of general customer centricity, Warby Parker, and other blands, have a few other identifying characteristics:
- Business Model: Blands are D2C brands that are digitally native and target younger consumers, Millennials and GenZers. The D2C business model lets brands control end-to-end brand experience. This allows blands to provide distinct value at every point in the customer journey. By being digitally native, blands can meet consumers where they are — the internet. The engaging digital experience and customer service is key in marketing to younger consumers.
Warby Parker started as a purely online retailer, which might seem unusual for a glasses company. What differentiates them is their home try-on program. When you purchase glasses, Warby Parker allows you to order 5 pairs of glasses to try on and compare before choosing your final frame. And it’s all for free. The home try-on program is a key example of identifying and uniquely addressing a challenge throughout the customer journey. The approach works. Seeing my friends try on Warby Parker glasses and find the perfect pair introduced me to the brand, and led me to purchasing my current frames from Warby Parker.
- Brand Voice: Blands have strong, narrative based stories that place themselves as the persistent underdog in a world of corporate mediocrity. Their tone is clear, authentic, and purpose-driven. One key message of most blands is ‘cutting out the middle man’ which allows the company to cut costs and provide affordable, yet high quality products to consumers. Here is how Warby Parker introduces themselves, clearly illustrating the typical bland voice.
Other blands introduce themselves similarly:
Away — Travel Bland
Quip — Oral Health Bland
- Visual Branding: You can also identify blands by their color palettes and fonts. Blands usually have neutral color palettes and bold, san serif fonts. The colors are muted, even chalky, without being completely pastel. The design aesthetic is clean and makes a statement without being overstated. This design style also aligns with the expectations of digitally native consumers,
Warby Parker’s branding is simple and neutral. Here are some of the colors found on the home page.
In this color palette, there’s nothing too jarring. The colors are safe, and you might even call them bland. This is a visual design trend across sectors, but it’s one that’s almost always used by blands.
There are more characteristics that blands share, but those 3 are the most obvious.
Warby Parker was one of the pioneers of the bland playbook, and one of the more innovative blands, but the model remains popular 10 years later for many reasons, all driven by customer experience. Blands win the customer experience game, but still have a negative connotation. After all, they’re being called bland. This negative connotation comes from the idea that these brands claim to offer a unique and innovative solution, but follow the same blueprint to success. While this criticism is true, these brands have been successful.
The Success of Blands
Blands reflect the values of their customers — millennials. Control over the brand experience allows blands to do this at every point in the buyer journey. At the point of brand discovery, blands speak directly to the ‘millennial aesthetic’, whether through an Instagram post or website content. Blands reflect the life a potential customer wants to live. As consumers engage the brand more, they find that the bland’s “origin story” aligns with millennials’ focus on impact and purpose.
Throughout the purchasing process, blands are centered around customer convenience. Many blands use curated and personalized purchasing experiences, extended product trials, and subscription models to make buying the product easier. This leads to the distinctly contemporary situation of millions of people having subscriptions for toothbrushes, but shows the strategy effectively keeps consumers hooked. Blands also cultivate trust by delivering quality products and creating communities. This trust encourages consumers to continue purchasing, either through a subscription or through purchasing new products in expanded product lines.
The bland playbook allows brands to grow quickly, but the most successful and sustainable blands break out of the initial mold. For many companies, this means expanding into brick-and-mortar locations. In the pandemic environment, this may not seem like a strategic approach, but combining digital native brands with select brick and mortar locations and concept stores was a winning strategy for blands pre-pandemic. You can see an example of this in Warby Parker. In 2013, Warby Parker opened their first brick and mortar store. In fact, my Warby Parker glasses were bought at a physical location.
Blands’ physical stores serve a different purpose than typical stores, as stated by Anjali Lai, a Forrester’s senior analyst. These stores are about encouraging customers to engage with the brand and brand community, acting as a physical billboard for their digital commerce, and allowing customers to get the instant gratification they may need. This digital to physical trend can be seen across many blands. In Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, physical Everlane, Brooklinen, Buck Mason, and Warby Parker stores have opened within 2 blocks of each other. These store openings create a sort of “D2C neighborhood” where blands can benefit from sharing customers.
Blands get a bad reputation for claiming uniqueness, while implementing a standardized business model that is shown to be successful. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the bland business strategy — D2C, digitally native, simple product strategy, and winning customer service. The ‘problem’ of blands is a false dichotomy. Using the latest trendy business model doesn’t prevent a brand from developing an innovative product or creating new business value. Even if the bland playbook shows a lack of business model creativity — it works, and when it stops working, blands will respond by changing.
My postings reflect my own views and do not represent the views of my employer.