Time to Break the Cycle of Bland Branding

Eighteen months or so ago, I wrote a piece that advocated for the “bland brand” trend to end. And here we are, still mired in the look, and I’m saying: Enough already.  

Enough of the clean Helvetica type and the quirky scripts. The sea of beiges, plums, and mauves. The social media feeds popping with cute yet mysterious brand-based utopias. 

The better-for-you food (BFY), beverage, and wellness marketplace is saturated with lookalike brands. It’s harder than ever to stand out. 

Or is it?

Why Bland Branding Has Stuck Around

Blanding has been around for a while now. We’re not talking about black-and-white generic packaging, but a sameness among brands with a specific look and feel tied to a demographic group. You’ll recognize the style: ample whitespace, an approachable typeface, soft pastel colors, no logo. It appeals to BFY personal care and food/beverage brands because it’s soothing and implies wellness. 

As the millennial generation grew into adulthood and gained influence and buying power, brands locked onto a design style purpose-built for this audience. This cohort likes to curate their lives to sync with what they see on social media and favor brands that echo their preferences. Millennials, especially women, latched onto a visual aesthetic that infused everything from fashion to home décor to product packaging. In 2016, writer Véronique Hyland dubbed Pantone’s Color of the Year hue Millennial Pink — and the dusky rose color and its companions (see the Lululemon colorway for inspiration) — were soon everywhere. 

And they’ve stayed. 

As a creative, I’ll concede that the bland brand look isn’t bad. Nobody will find it offensive. It’s pretty. A bland brand is one that no one will hate — as opposed to a brand that insists on a category leadership position, demands attention, implores you to join in and follow along.

My objection is the sheer volume of brands coming into the marketplace that are just using a standardized kit of parts. It’s the most reductive and least inspired approach to design: “copy-and-paste what’s popular, follow the leader, and let’s go.”

I’m not picking on design here. I’m picking on the mindlessness approach to creating a brand that is not sharp, provocative, distinguished, and willing to take a punch. The problem is that when your look and your tone are just like everyone else’s, you wind up competing on features and benefits; you become a commodity. That’s not a big idea, and it’s not sustainable.

Time for the Bland Aesthetic to Change

Aside from the look-alikeness of store shelves (browse Target’s beauty section and you’ll see what I mean), there’s an even better reason to drop the bland aesthetic. Because millennials’ dominance in the brand landscape is waning. 

Generational influence is shifting. For starters, there are enough people in the Gen Z cohort (born from 1997 to 2015) to have real cultural and buying sway. They’re rejecting everything they see that their older siblings like, including those pretty pink package designs. In their minds, it’s not cool to be millennial. They’re not into perfection or simplicity; they favor maximalism and uniqueness in everything from music to food to fashion.  

At the same time, Gen X (born from 1965 to 1980) is reclaiming its place as a group that wields cultural power. Gen Xers look askance at millennials, whom they see as disaffected and disillusioned. Xers want to work hard, play hard, be loyal, be kind, show up, and stand for something. They’re tired of their pantry and bathroom counter looking like an Instagram post.

So … Time to Update Your Packaging?

The post-Covid retail landscape is ripe for change. Blanding is the antithesis of branding as we define it: determining the promise you are going to make to the world, the way in which you will keep it, and how you want people to feel about it. Your brand should be expressive, personal, honest – and of course, different. But how?

If your products have been sporting that soft pink since 2016, it may be time to refresh your packaging. But you probably need to do some deeper work first. Because if you jumped on that trend when it emerged, you certainly don’t want to fall for whatever color and typeface happens to be hot right now. Redesigning every three to five years just to keep up with the Joneses is a silly way to spend money. 

Before you even touch design, you need to do the strategic work to nail the essentials:

· Your WHY: What does the brand stand for? What is our contribution? How do we make a difference? What is our promise?

· Your AUDIENCE: Who are we making our promise to? Who receives the bat signal that we send up into the night sky? What does our brand (not just our product lineup) mean in their lives?

· Your PRODUCTS: Do we make the right products for the people we want to reach? If not, what should we make? And what should we stop making? 

When you’ve built a strategic foundation for the brand, your packaging becomes an almost inevitable expression of your uniqueness. You won’t copy competitors’ look and feel, because that direction is not even on the table.

If, in fact, you have your brand’s mission and vision dialed in but still find your team chasing creative trends, I’d suspect that you don’t have a packaging problem but an audience problem. You may be targeting the wrong group of consumers, or misunderstanding the one you’re aiming for. 

Shelf space, mind space, and ad space are all at a premium. Nobody is sitting around waiting for you to stand out or matter. Time to declare who you are, really understand your fan base, and adopt a look that only your brand can own. 

Identifying audiences — including consumers you’re overlooking who are just waiting to fall in love with you — is our superpower. Let’s have a conversation about who you’re reaching, who you’re missing, and how to attract your people with knockout packaging.

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Founder, President, & Chief Strategist
David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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