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Blanding, or the Branding Paradox

In my 25 years in this business, I’ve come to believe one thing above all others: Brands are like people. Some are understated. Some are loud. Some are funny. Some communicate exclusively by exclaiming! Some have terrible grammar. Some, you imagine, have great abs.

As with people, brands aren’t created in a vacuum; they’re products of the world around them. Formed in relief around the strengths and weaknesses of the competition, a brand is as much about what it isn’t as what it is. The point is differentiation. Always has been, always will be. By definition, that’s what branding is. Which is precisely why I’m so baffled by the current epidemic of what I call blanding—branding designed not to stand out at all, but to blend in. With results that are, in a word, bland.

The main offenders are in tech, where a new army of clones wear a uniform of bland camouflage. The formula is a sort of brand paint-by-numbers. Start with a made-up-word name. Put it in a sans-serif typeface. Make it clean and readable, with just the right amount of white space. Use a direct tone of voice. Nope, no need for a logo. Just don’t forget the vibrant colors. Bonus points for purple and turquoise. Maybe throw in some cheerful illustrations; people like those. Blah blah blah.

And I do mean blah.

These tech blands behave like teenagers: They dress the same, talk the same, act the same. They “wear” cool brands. They loiter at the arcade. Like teenagers, blands don’t have a very defined sense of self or, if they do, they lack the confidence to be it. It’s a school-of-fish mentality where the comfort and safety of the familiar outweigh the risk of something even remotely different. In identifying themselves through the looks and mannerisms of others, the only thing blands are saying about themselves is that they don’t have anything to say about themselves.

A made-up cool sounding name + direct tone of voice + vibrant colors + sans-serif typeface + cheerful illustrations = the tech brand recipe

It all comes down to personality, or a lack of one. That’s how people identify with your brand. Without a personality—or some amount of it—there’s nothing for people to hang onto. Except maybe a sans-serif typeface in vibrant colors like purple and turquoise with cheerful illustrations. Thus, blanding rings hollow and ends up backfiring. And ironically, the brand becomes generic.

The trend in tech has infected other sectors. It’s both fascinating and troubling to see even some of today’s most established brands erase their identity and, in one fell swoop, neuter their brand. Take Peter Saville’s controversial redesign of Burberry’s wordmark. The radical use of a neutral type, eliminating all decorative elements. In Burberry’s case, these details weren’t superfluous; they happened to evoke style and class and heritage and something that was, for lack of a better word, Burberry. Why?

Tweet about Burberry's controversial rebranding by Peter Saville

Blanding has left us with a cultural backwater of superficial brands that have been simplified to the graphic equivalent of a Trump tweet. I’m not advocating for getting back to fanciful, illustrative logos. I’m talking simply about brands being more expressive. That doesn’t mean loud, it just means personal. Honest. True. And different. Real brands blend out.

At Base, our process with clients is a little like therapy. Digging down to find the truest sense of a brand can be painful, but it’s cathartic and it’s crucial. We’re always looking for the secret ingredient. Something elusive, a contradiction, a surprise. Something to talk about, believe in, tickle, intrigue, agree with or disagree with. Some combination of the you that others see, and the you that you want to see when you look in the mirror.

Does your company have a big nose? This is how people will remember you, whether you like it or not. So you might as well own it. Call your company Schnozz. Make a proboscis monkey your mascot. Donate a percentage of profits to preserving their habitat. Commission deluxe, XL facial tissues, brand them and give them to clients. Live the truth that big noses build character. Then translate that to visuals that feel like you, not somebody else. Just stay away from the sans-serif in vibrant colors like purple and turquoise and cheerful illustrations, ok?

Thierry Brunfaut is Base Creative Director, Founding Partner, and author of the 5–minute poster series – This article was co-written with ex-Base writer and friend Tom Greenwood. Thanks Tom.