It’s a Bland NewWorld
Blanding: noun, bland-ing
The activity of striping out any uniqueness in a product or companies brand expression. Resulting in an experience lacking in individuality etc.
“They are busy blanding our website”
We’ve heard a lot about it over the last couple of years and it seems reasonable to say that the inevitable backlash has already begun. But is it too soon to brush ‘blanding’ under the carpet as just another passing fashion?
Cover Photo: David Vintner @davidvintiner.com
Most of what we hear about ‘blanding’ centres on the trend of simple san serif logos. But more broadly it’ can be seen as a general lack of differentiation in most of the companies and products that we interact with every day. In the last 10 years we’ve witnessed the homogenisation of everything from visual expression and verbal identity to product design and customer experience. Walking into a hipster coffee shop in Sydney is sadly a near identical experience to walking into one in Shanghai or New York. And It’s not just the logos of high end fashion houses that all look the same, speak to a few insiders and you’ll hear how the industry is suffering from a type of ‘creative cannibalism’, which is then being aped by the fast fashion retailers and regurgitate on mass to the high street. In short ‘blanding’ is pandemic.
But for the sake of argument let’s stick with the current Zeitgeist around simplified logos and visual identities. There are varying tones, but the mainstream trend originally kicked off in Silicon Valley with the likes of Apple and Google, went on to run roughshod through the fashion houses, and simultaneously seeped down into every crevice of our lives (even coke and starbucks have embraced it to some extent). Beyond trend there are a number of hard commercial drivers at work here, and these can be broken down into five themes ‘format’, ‘overload’, ‘disruption’, ‘hyper-connectivity’ & ‘authenticity’.
For decades brand identities have had to live across diverse media, and be as comfortable in print as they are on screen. But the rise of smartphones means more interactions are at a smaller scale, and this is stretching old identity systems to their limits. So it’s not hard to see why brands have opted for straightforward, easily-transferable and super-scalable identities that perform better at smaller sizes. On it’s own this seems a weak reason for banality, after all there’s always been plenty of space for creativity to exist alongside simplicity. But when you put it together with a few other themes it starts to make more sense.
‘Blanding’ accepts that the battle to stand out is somewhat lost, but the war to not be ignored can still be won.
Year on year the volume of marketing content has been growing, simultaneously returns on spend have been diminishing. This comes as no big surprise to consumers, we are only human and we have a limited amount of bandwidth. So it’s in this over saturated market that simplicity and ease of consumption has trumped differentiation. This may seem to run counter intuitive “how can a brand devoid of visual uniqueness, demand attention?” And the simple answer is that it doesn’t. ‘Blanding’ accepts that the battle to stand out is somewhat lost but the war to not be ignored can still be won.
It’s no secret that changing consumer preference and sector disruption is happening quicker now than ever before. And some of the world’s fastest changing markets also happen to be some of the most strategically important for many global brands. In this new, ever-evolving world, what’s relevant today is retro tomorrow, and constantly changing your identity system to keep pace is not commercially viable. To confront this, brands are opting for a level of simplicity that allows them to mean whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they are. Creating core brand identity assets that are something of an empty vessel and can accommodate an ever evolving message that keeps pace with market change.
While it’s true to say that we are all hardwired to value difference, it’s equally true (and often under discussed) that we are also hardwired to value familiarity. And this has increasingly become a problem in the creative industries. Everyone across the world is staring at the same things, on the same platforms and at the same time. Our pool of reference has become the creative equivalent of a social media echo chamber. The latest trend, be it in brand design, fashion, product or any other. Quickly becomes contagious and spreads globally in the bat of an eye, and ‘blanding’ is a symptom of this.
Big successful companies set the new visual language. In this case, strong simple identities that match their strong brand and answer their commercial needs. Understandably the smaller players then look to borrow some of the glow and quickly adopt the style. The problem is these players seldom share the same strength of brand, product or commercial needs of the brands they ape, and it’s here where this new visual language is reduced to nothing more than an aesthetic bandwagon that everybody jumps on. This leads neatly on to our final theme…
As far as I’m aware it was Marty Neumeier who first coined the phrase “your brand is not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is”. And this has never been more true. Brands are now judged on their product, actions, behaviours and our interactions with them, rather than what messages are coming out of the marketing department. It’s safe to say customers engaged more with the authenticity of the brand than the uniqueness of the visual language, and this is where the compound effect of all the above starts to really hit home.
Take Veja, a company famously and very successfully rejecting the traditional marketing model by re-injecting the costs normally allocated to advertising into a socially and environmentally sustainable value chain. Their visual identity lives firmly in the world of ‘blanding’. And it can, because the brand is about authentically delivering a quality product through ethical actions, and not just marketing smoke and mirrors. Customers understand this and are drawn to it.
Given all this, it becomes clear that like other historical shifts in communication and aesthetics, ‘blanding’ is fundamentally linked to an advancement in technology. But to successfully execute, it needs to be driven by commercial necessity and be backed up by a brand that can be judged more by the quality of its product and the strength of it’s actions than it’s identity. It’s these factors that could push it beyond a simple fickle fluctuation of fashion and into the realms of a new visual epoch. So love it or hate it, ‘blanding’ could be just in its infancy.
Answers to coffee shop photo: L to R Shanghai, Sydney, New York
David has twenty years of branding experience across four countries in three continents. Including five years managing Landor’s regional design practice in China. He now works as an independent consultant with brands across the globe, helping them better understand who they are, and how to bring that to life in a unique and meaningful way.