Look at any tech or direct-to-consumer company today and you will quickly notice a visual trend: Simple, sans-serif logo. Short, punchy tagline. Clean, approachable branding.
Companies like this are popping up left and right, offering different products or services to the same demographic. While our assumption is that a brand wants to stand out, these do the opposite.
Designers may sneer at the lack of originality, but the creators of these brands and products have discovered a fascinating approach: Why stand out if you can fit in?
Entering the shared brand universe
There’s the obvious side effect to any trend: Everything starts looking the same.
It’s become difficult to differentiate between today’s tech brands, they all look so similar. And I don't think it's because the creatives who work on them are unoriginal – perhaps quite the opposite.
One recipe for success is to fit into the existing space. By borrowing values and a visual story from other brands, you’re playing off established associations and perceptions in a consumer’s mind. It’s not a far leap for them to trust your brand if it looks like one they already enjoy buying.
Say a consumer purchases a mattress from Casper. Buffy looks like the same company but sells a comforter. Brooklinen the exact same but it sells bedsheets. Thus, the consumer follows the breadcrumbs between these brands for the complementary products they need. They’re familiar with the visual and messaging style, and it translates easily across a spectrum of commodities.
One consumer can be a customer of all of these brands, and these brands maximize on that potential. It works.
If you want to be the Casper of razors, just look exactly like Casper. If your comforter company wants to reach the same consumers as Chobani, design your branding to match.
Lookalike companies are borrowing from a trusted, established aesthetic. The brand itself isn't at the center anymore. It's part of a family that’s familiar and comfortable to the consumer. It doesn’t have to work too hard to fit into our lifestyle because visually, it’s already part of it.
The risk of feeling and looking replaceable is real, but it seems to pay off.
The benefit of playing to trends
Compared to 10 years ago, the quality of design (especially UX/UI design) has improved greatly. Today we're able to execute on a simple product within days, because we’ve established conventions for everything we do. We don't have to rethink and redesign everything from scratch. Modern design systems and standards are a practical convenience; they not only save us time, they work.
Conventions are shortcuts for our minds, allowing us to execute faster. Likewise, trends are shortcuts for how we perceive the world around us. By leaning on trends, these modern brands have found a loophole to reach customers.
We can talk about cheating or cutting corners. We can scoff at the apparent lack of innovation. But what is a visual brand if not a cue for your associations, preconceived notions, culture, upbringing, lifestyle? These brands are doing what brands are meant to do. In that light, they’re doing it well.
The question is whether the benefits outweigh the consequences.
What do we lose?
Creativity and originality are nearly synonymous. But maybe originality is an idealistic value. Maybe homogenization is a practical one. Perhaps we don’t always need to be “different” to achieve our goal.
I struggle to find an answer to it. On one hand, I'm a creative person who values original ideas. To me, a brand is a personality that should be unique. To me, good design means making something that lasts. Something strong enough to stand on its own.
But my ideal view of design may not be the right solution for all problems.
As designers, we can play trends and conventions to our advantage. It can be a smart and strategic decision to join the "shared brand space.” If I look at it purely from a commercial perspective, I can as easily see why the sameness is so effective. There are two sides to the coin. It’s a fight between my mind and my soul.