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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.

David Lemley

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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How To Use Strategy as a Benchmark for Evaluating Creative

I’m just not feeling it.

I’d like to see a different shade of blue.

I love it!

In food and beverage marketing (in any field, really), the output of the creative process is highly subjective. We look at design assets — logo, packaging, social advertising — from the perspective of our own likes and dislikes. It’s human nature.

But creative decisions are not about us. They are always about the brand and its audience.

I don’t mean to be critical here. Nobody in your conference room has the tools to evaluate creative output in a way that guarantees it will resonate with your consumers. Not business leaders, who frame decisions rationally. Not design leaders, who frame decisions emotionally. None of us are taught how to think and talk objectively about creative.

So my team and I work hard to educate the marketing and brand leaders we work with, to focus discussions about design on brand objectives, and remove personal biases from the room.

It isn’t easy, but it’s essential to the success of your brand.

Brand Strategy Focuses Creative Exploration

Your capital-B Brand — which we define as the promise you make and the ways in which you keep it — underpins every decision your organization makes. Not just design. A brand strategy intentionally limits your choices. It places guardrails around product innovation: “We don’t make pumpkin spice-flavored products.” It focuses your retail channels: “We aren’t a big-box brand.” It defines your pricing model: “We are a premium product.”

Because we tend to think the creative process is playful, we assume it should happen without boundaries. In fact, brand strategy gives it the right kind of parameters. (Imagine that I set a piece of paper in front of you and said, “You can write or draw anything you want, and in an hour I’m going to come back and tell you whether it works for me.”)

I like to think of brand strategy as a three-lane superhighway surrounding a city. The three lanes are your what (your competitive advantage and your audience), your how (your culture and onlyness), and your why (your mission and promise). The highway keeps all creative exploration and output within the city limits.

Brand strategy produces confidence and clarity in all decision making. Design is the physical manifestation that your strategy is right.

Reframing the Conversation About Creative Output

With strategy as the anchor point, the conversation about design options — regardless of the deliverable — changes. And designers need to shift their frame of reference for spearheading these discussions. (Leading creative evaluations is something Retail Voodoo excels at, and a key reason why so many of our design alumni have gone on to become rockstars in other organizations.)

When designers talk about their work in business terms instead of attributes like color and type, business managers are familiar with the language. The people who have to live with the decisions designers are making respond to their work differently. It steers the dialog out of emotional territory and prevents comments like “I feel it” or “it’s a vibe.”

Even if you have the smartest, bravest, most experienced execs in the room, if you don’t have the strategic framework, you’ll get input like, “I read on Bevnet that ombre is a trend in packaging,” or “I walked into Whole Foods yesterday and saw …”

By focusing the discussion not on preference but on how well the solution supports the brand strategy, creative directors typically gain approval in one or two rounds, even on big, transformative stuff.

When you’re preparing to lead a creative evaluation, here are some questions to consider:

  • Will this resonate with the people we want to attract? (NOT: Will it make us in the room feel good?)
  • Will this stand out on the shelf in a way that can’t be unseen? (NOT: Does this fit within the conventions of our category?)
  • Does this communicate our story in a way that engages new customers and appeals to people who already love our brand? (NOT: Is this on-trend in color and typography?)

Signs That You’re Off Strategy

It’s easy to be seduced by a big idea. And in my experience, creative directors and agencies are really good at rewriting strategy to map to a killer design concept. So beware of falling in love with a solution that’s off strategy. How do you know if this is happening?

The most common sign is that the creative and marketing leads are willing to change the strategy vocabulary to fit the design. Or the creative team has to figure out how to accommodate someone’s personal preferences in the solution (“The brand manager wants blue, so how can we work blue into this design to make them happy?”)

Occasionally when working with food or beverage brands, we run into a senior person’s bias that we can’t overcome. So we treat it like the TV show Chopped: “OK, we have to use lamb brains and lemon meringue pie and pumpkin seeds.” And to the extent we can, we’ll connect those weird ingredients back to the strategy, so the solution makes sense.

Filtering Creative Conversations

Those personal preferences for visual expression — someone loves blue or hates serif type — will always be there. Mission-driven brands also have other cognitive biases that are important to recognize: They think their audience is just like them. And they think that a track record of success proves that their instincts are right.

When you and your colleagues evaluate any creative output, counteract those biases by applying a filter: It’s about our audience, not about us.

The goal is to get everyone to rally around a design translation not because it’s their favorite, but because it will whisper in the ear of your target audience in a way that competitors cannot. You won’t hope the solution works — you’ll know it will.You may be struggling to evaluate creative output with your team. It’s a common challenge — one that we’re really good at solving — so let’s talk.

David Lemley

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.

Connect with David
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Good Creative Lasts a Moment. Great Strategy Lasts for Years.

I get it: You’re in a hurry. There’s a deadline, perhaps a category review with your dominant retail partner. Or maybe someone new in your organization wants to put their stamp on the product. So you want a new packaging design for your food and beverage product, and you want it now.

A new package or identity is exhilarating. It can make a splash in the market. But it’s oh so temporary. If your creative isn’t doing the heavy lifting of translating your brand strategy, you aren’t winning.

The secret to great packaging and identity is strategy, not beautiful design. Strategy and creative execution are inextricably linked.

Great creative without great strategy is wallpaper that will be wildly outdated in 18 months. Great strategy without great creative is a binder that sits on your conference room shelf.

Skip the strategy part and go straight to playing with typography and color, and someone else in your category will make the same moves within about six months. So you’ll have to redesign all over again.

Unless you do the strategy work first.

Why Brand Strategy Should Lead Brand Creative

Brand Strategy as a Foundation for Creative

In the world of consumer goods, great design is table stakes. But what makes creative last is a strategy that looks beyond your management team’s understanding of the universe. A brilliant brand strategy allows you to ignore what your competitors are doing (moves that often inspire a we-gotta-do-this-NOW approach to redesign) and build a deep and powerful relationship between your brand and your audience.

Strategy, of course, isn’t just a marketing activity. All roads lead back to your WHY: your brand’s unique point of view and the promises you make. It’s a risk-management and resource-management philosophy. Strategy drives every decision your organization makes: the products you launch, the channels you sell through, the audience you attract, the opportunities you don’t pursue. And yes, the way you package and present your products.

The output of strategy isn’t killer creative. Rather, it’s a defined framework for making decisions, including creative. Brand strategy is creative’s superhero suit—it repels competitors, fends off trends, flashes a signal that summons fans. It allows you to make the right moves that will disrupt your category and remain a force for 5 years or more.

This is the reason we audit a client’s brand positioning against the category and all adjacencies — before we start any design work.

Sometimes, this takes a bit of convincing. Prospective clients who come to our firm for a packaging design makeover may want to skip the strategy — perhaps because they don’t understand its importance and value, or they have limited time or money (or think they do). We explain that taking 8 to 10 weeks to do it right means they won’t have to redo the design in 12 months.

So if you think you need packaging, how do you know you need strategy?

· If something is broken but you don’t quite know what it is

· If you sense that your brand’s relevance is eroding and your sales are trailing off (this is not something packaging alone can fix)

· If you’re pretty confident that you know your audience well (you may know your current people, but who are you not selling to that wants your product?)

· If your sales trajectory is inconsistent with your competitors’ and you aren’t sure why

· If redesigning is just a thing you do every X years

Design Follows, It Doesn’t Lead

Some marketers believe that doing the design work will answer the bigger questions, that they’ll turn up the strategic stuff as they go through the design process. But letting design lead the initiative is a lousy move because the brand team will get emotionally invested in visuals before they get invested in the strategy.

The discipline of package design will never illuminate a new audience or new product or channel strategy or pricing structure; those are all things that only brand strategy can do.

Repeat after me: Creative is always the output of strategy. They’re always done sequentially, not in tandem.

Which isn’t to say that your design team shouldn’t be involved in the strategic work. Inviting senior creative people to the table is a real time-saver. (And if you’re up against a deadline, a pretty great reason to make time for strategy.) When you bring senior creative people in to ride shotgun on strategy, they can get to the solve in just a round or two of ideation. It brings alignment and prevents burnout … “We’re on Round 37!” You’ve created a North Star that provides guardrails for design exploration, focuses feedback, and drives decision-making.

Early in my career, I was guilty of making really beautiful stuff that was so transformative that it pointed my clients’ business in a new direction … and then I came to understand that beautiful stuff doesn’t really cash the check. So our team’s work always starts with our competitive audit – a benchmarking exercise that informs brand strategy and identifies opportunity. Armed with that insight, leaders can make really bold moves that only your brand can make. Including packaging design that doesn’t copy what’s already on the shelf — but transforms the shelf.Ready for a smarter approach to your brand’s creative expression? Let’s have a conversation.

David Lemley

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.

Connect with David