Sameness is stupidity. Use design to fit in, and you will spend more money standing out.

Differentiation is the key to a strong brand. You have to stand out, to be noticed. Yet we are seeing a strong trend towards sameness in branding. In fact: sameness rules. Branding has become blanding. So what should you do? Stand out or fit in? In this article, we will look at the pros and cons of sameness in branding.

Cows in a crowd; is everyone an idiot?

Originally, ‘branding ‘ was the practice of marking livestock; making your cow stand out in a crowd. Good luck finding your cow if everybody is using the same brand mark! Yet this is exactly what is happening in branding and design today. Like many trends, this one can be traced back to the “global village”. Now that we are globally connected, design trends are equally globally connected. We are all looking at the same sources of inspiration and, as we all know, looking is stealing. Before you know it your new hip and unique coffee shop looks exactly like the one that just opened in Stockholm, or SoHo, and serves the same vegan, flourless raw chocolate cake.

We know we should stand out, but we end up doing the same. So is everyone an idiot? No, there is more to it. Global brands are run by smart and experienced professionals, supported by world-renowned designers. So some logic is at play. Here are a few reasons why sameness is applied.

The global village causes blanding in branding

Four excuses for sameness

no.1: short term sales
A friend at a big New York ad agency recently told me: “Marketers aren’t interested in long-term brand building anymore. They just want, or need, to go for the next quarterly sales numbers.” The intertwining of data and marketing leads to a short term vision: It is easy to measure short term impact, but harder to measure long term gains. So, as a marketer if you want to have quick and quantifiable results, it makes a lot of sense to jump on the trend wagon to make sure you are in tune with the style of today.

no.2: do it for the Gram
Instagram has become the primary communication channel for a lot of consumer brands. This could influence how brands are built nowadays. Too many ads basically killed Facebook, so Instagram and its advertisers are doing their best to disguise ads as everyday content. This means that branding has to be unobtrusive and subtle. Outspoken visual choices have to be avoided. Instagrams limited space for logos favours less subtle choices. This might be the reason fashion brands ditch the rich serif typefaces over sans-serif options.

Blanding in branding: brands looking the same

no 3: Millennial Stress
Research shows 50% of millennials are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety. One of the main reasons: unprecedented freedom of choice combined with an abundance of options. The subconscious “solution” to this overload is freezing like a rabbit in your headlights –aren’t you loving all the animals we are working into this article! Too many options lead to choice-fatigue: I don’t want to have to make yet another choice. So you could argue that sameness helps your potential buyers: you reduce their stress. You are too kind! No really. Design should help people make decisions more easily, sameness only makes choosing more difficult and makes you easily replaceable.

no 4: no time
When designers mess up a project, a lack of time always seems to be the excuse. This is often true enough. The renowned fashion brand Burberry hired the world-famous designer Peter Saville to come up with a redesign of their iconic logo and told him: ‘You have four weeks’. What did Saville do? He played it safe, and kept things simple. We are not saying design gets better without deadlines, but true creativity needs time. Especially in large and complex organizations.

Why we believe in socks, not sheep.

Research shows that brands that differentiate perform better and stick to people’s brains. In 1933, psychologist Hedwig von Restorff showed that distinctiveness drives memorability. The ‘Von Restorff Effect’ predicts that when multiple similar things are presented, the one that differs most from the rest is more likely to be remembered.

Researchers from the University of California measured the brain activity of respondents, who, whilst wearing EEG caps, read a series of sentences of which some contained semantically incongruous words like “Turtles are not as smart as mammals like socks or dogs.” The data showed a large spike in brain activity when participants read the incongruous word “socks” in the sentence, suggesting a significant degree of involuntary attention and processing.

That attention and impact can increase by moving away from (aesthetic) norms is something we also see in the arts. You only have to look at movements like Dada and surrealism to see the enormous effect that can be achieved by not chasing the perfect aesthetic; by not fitting in.

We at GRRR apply lessons learned from science and the arts in our designs –with effect. This regularly leads to bold work, like for Stedelijk Museum, where a strong visual statement led to an increase of 36% of time spent on their website. And the Dutch National Theatre sold 13% more tickets thanks to an outspoken visual identity.

To bland or to brand?

As a marketer, you need to know when to use a strategy of sameness, and when to stand out visually. Here are some pointers for you:

  1. If you are not yet established, make sure you stand out. Surprising color combinations, or bold copywriting sticks in people’s minds. Be the awkward, yet intriguing new kid on the block that everybody notices.
  2. If you are established, make sure you stand out somewhere. Like the Dutch saying: repair the roof when the sun is shining. Take risks with your brand when things are going well for you, and you might stand a chance of staying on that wave.
  3. Whatever you do, always focus on your core values and story first. You might not need a visually distinctive style if your story or service is unique. If the story itself stands out visual distinctiveness should not get in its way. This is the strategy we chose in our work for The Ocean Cleanup and the City of Amsterdam.

In our experience, it is great to mix both strategies. With commercial intent, you shout with bold design choices. But within that same visual brand style, you should be able to whisper when you are functional, like when applying the brand to user interfaces.

Finally, it seems blanding is like any other trend; temporary. We already see organizations and brands waking up and becoming more expressive in their visual messaging. We would love to help amplify this movement towards expressive brands.

Also need a brand or a bland?

Want to talk to us about how this would work for your brand? Our creative director Rolf Coppens would love to help you find out. Call 020 -320 7708 or mail Rolf Coppens.

  • Creatief Directeur

    Rolf Coppens