Skip to main content

Instabrands — Fad or Future?

Base NYC associate design director Jeffrey Waldman explores the current visual landscape of Instabrands: How did they come to be? Who are they and why do they feel so similar? And is there anything beyond their polished surfaces?

I’ve become intrigued by a series of visual trends being played out across the screen of my smartphone. I’m not talking about app or UI design but rather a plethora of direct-to-consumer brands I’ve mostly never heard of. It feels as if every time I open Instagram there they are, offering up a dizzyingly wide array of products—from trendy-looking cookware to strangely sleek-looking natural deodorant. I’ve come to think of them as the Instabrands.

For a while I found myself admiring their branding: a sweetly awkward chunky serif typeface here or a singular embrace of bold color there. Then I began seeing the same set of elements played out across myriad brands. As this small collection of accepted visuals reverberated throughout the Instagram echo chamber, they began to lose meaning and precipitate a feeling of brand disorientation.

Through their aesthetic choices, the Instabrands have cemented themselves into the current visual landscape. With art direction full of pink terrazzo counters and bright, succulent-filled living rooms, it can feel as if these brands act like Instagram users themselves, tirelessly trying to be on trend. I wanted to look more deeply at the implications of their branding. How did the Instabrands come to be? Who are they and why do they feel so similar? And is there anything beyond their polished surfaces?

How did we get here?
Ten years back the early internet-born D2C brands came onto the scene. Warby Parker, Harry’s, Glossier—brands that are now household names. Their products felt like that of trusted brands, but by cutting out middlemen retailers they were noticeably cheaper. Perhaps most importantly, they wowed customers with the novelty of experience. Think back ten years: buying glasses online—totally radical. For these early DTC companies, branding was part of the story but wasn’t the hook. These brands made an impact in the marketplace; from 2013 to 2017, $17 billion in sales moved from big consumer brands to small brands.

Confined to squares
More so than the early DTC brands, the Instabrands focus on aesthetics. This definitely isn’t a form of blanding as the Instabrands lean more toward bold or carefully-curated than bland. This makes sense, there is now more choice in the market, the model of DTC is no longer special.

Instabrands focus on acquiring new customers primarily through social media, and perhaps their branding is most focused around getting us to stop mid-scroll and take notice. By inhabiting a format designed for quick consumption, the Instabrands haven’t left themselves room to really say much of anything, let alone express their differences. With so many of them acting alike as they vye for our attention, it seems like it’s time to disrupt the would-be disruptors.

Hard to see beyond the surface
Line 5 of the Base Design manifesto concludes with “we play with codes.” The idea is simple, but powerful. Certain categories have come to be associated with visual cues. Picture the branding for a chocolate maker: always brown and gold, right? Well, it doesn’t have to be. Many of the Instabrands produce utilitarian products like mattresses, luggage, paint—think of the staid visuals associated with their brick-and-mortar counterparts. By comparison, the Instabrands have undeniably elevated branding in their categories and had some fun with the codes.

The Instabrands have successfully established that they're contemporary—definitely not my parents' boring brands. The issue is that the Instabrands have drawn from a relatively small set of codes. Take that chunky awkward serif I liked so much, pair that with a pastel color palette, and voilà. You’re a friendly brand. Or take a quiet sans serif, place it small in a large, monocolored canvas, and you’re sophisticated. Apply that chunky serif at a small scale with lots of white space and you’re both friendly and sophisticated! The Instabrands have now shown that their contemporary air can come in various flavors — warm, chic, or warm and chic. However, hinting at a few select personalities doesn’t actually say much about these brands — their differences, promise, values, or missions.

“Instabrands focus on acquiring new customers primarily through social media, and perhaps their branding is most focused around getting us to stop mid-scroll and take notice. By inhabiting a format designed for quick consumption, the Instabrands haven’t left themselves room to really say much of anything, let alone express their differences. With so many of them acting alike as they vye for our attention, it seems like it’s time to disrupt the would-be disruptors.”

A chance to differentiate
When brands wear the same clothing in order to simply look cool, it’s hard to perceive much else about them. I’ll admit it, initially I thought the Instabrands were as surface as influencers themselves. However, with some research I’ve found there is more than meets the eye. As the Instabrands transition to look beyond being simply Instabrands, they can do more than just look good. They can actually begin to do good—as some already are.

Doing good can translate into good business. Last year, 72% of Americans said they feel it is important that the companies they buy from reflect their values. Some of the Instabrands are already listening. Boie is the first brand to make toothbrushes that are fully recyclable—a surprisingly tough feat. Allbirds engineered a box to ship its shoes in that’s also the shoe box itself—no wasteful box-in-box. Due to their innate use of social media, the Instabrands have deep insights into their audience and can react more nimbly than traditional brands to match consumers desires.

Allowing consumers access to greener products, more sustainable shipping, or goods that better align with their values differentiates Instrabrands from established competitors, as well as themselves. It makes sense, new brands for new types of customers. Many of the Instabrands have the platform to graduate into truly multi-dimensional brands. Evolving their already-crafted identities, ditching overplayed tropes and utilizing visuals and verbiage true to themselves will allow individual brands to have a distinct voice. If not, they may simply fade into the memory of thousands of past internet fads.