Is our desire to be different in freefall? And could Covid be the unexpected cure?
The dilemma of originality in advertising has been keeping the industry awake for many-a nights, and the issue never seems to untangle itself. As time passes, things feel less original, more bland, more tasteless. But isn't that true of every industry?
Lisa Desforges, strategy director at B&B studio, wonders if it might just be an age thing…
The Money Calm Bull, by MoneySuperMarket.
Dare to be different
The older you get, the more all new music starts to sound the same. Of course, it doesn’t actually sound the same, it just seems that way to you, because you no longer understand the nuances between styles, or relate to the context that gave rise to their creation. The question on my mind is whether the same is true for brands. Do they all look the same because I’m old and out of touch and running out of letters of the alphabet to assign to the latest generational demographic? Or is it because they are, in fact, all doing the same stuff?
Finding the formula
I’ve worked in branding for enough years to know that most of what passes for brand strategy is fundamentally underwhelming, and a lot of it is laughably shit. There is no 'formula' for success if you want your brand to be memorable, differentiated and compelling – indeed, your positioning and strategic approach have to be at least as creative and bespoke as you want your branding to be. Difference goes deeper than design.
Yet that doesn’t stop brand owners wanting to emulate the success of their peers by analysing, labelling and reskinning their behaviours. A recent Bloomberg article by Ben Schott offers a savage analysis of the identikit formula of successful DTC brands, or blands, as they’ve become known in the industry. The trouble is, as Schott notes, it works. Or at least it did, for a time. Now that the formula has become so obvious that marketeers at all the big multinationals can copy it, I fear the death knell has been tolled.
Tick follows tock
But fear not. Trends analysts are already predicting the next big formula. As blanding was partially a result of the over-curated world of Instagram, a brighter, buzzier and bolder trend is now emerging driven by TikTok’s more animated platform. In line with its more ephemeral, anything-goes attitude, TikTok-friendly brands thrive on user-generated or quick, low budget content, and grab attention at a glance through high-contrast colour palettes and iridescent or glittery finishes.
While the TikTok approach to branding could hardly be called bland, it will certainly start to feel so when everyone is doing it. Stand-out and cut-through demand difference; disruption doesn’t always mean disorderly.
Provocative (but not polarising!)
At B&B we are lucky to meet a lot of great brands with all the right adjectives – a desire to be brave, different, provocative and disruptive. Very often, they want to achieve this while appealing to as broad a target market as possible. And this can be done – we can all name the maverick brands out there that are universally loved – but it will only happen if you’re willing to risk polarising some of the people, some of the time, particularly at the start of your journey. The key is to narrow your target, speak specifically to them, and be patient.
It’s this desire for fast and universal appeal that drives the trend towards formulaic branding. As more and more founder-led businesses are funded by commercially-driven venture capital backers or wily entrepreneurs simply looking to blitzscale, the more branding becomes surface-driven, safe and same-y. A nod to brand purpose – the driving force of founder-led start-ups a decade ago – still remains essential, yet feels, unsurprisingly, a lot less sincere.
So, if the 2008 recession catalysed the start-up boom and, in doing so, spearheaded a period of real creativity in branding, what can we expect from the financial crisis that looms today? Surely as our lockdowned lives become ever more monotonous, brands will seize the opportunity to transcend bland and develop a bit of bite? We can hope.
And what of brand purpose? We’re all guilty of choosing the ‘ethical’ brand that enables us to maintain our consumption patterns while patting ourselves on the back, but are we finally now willing to embrace those rare brands that encourage us to rethink and remodel our behaviours? After months of enforced mask-wearing and infrequent flying, are we more or less ready to experiment with more sustainable but less convenient products and services?
Let’s end on a positive. Let’s imagine that the cumulative effects of Covid mean we don’t simply return to formulaic branding for fast profit, but that we gain the insight and wisdom to reward those brands that not only feel different, but are dedicated to making a difference.
The true changemaker brands – those that bravely push boundaries through new business models to create a better, fairer society – won’t have to worry about blending into the blur of bland. Fearlessness has its own shade of sparkle.