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Dare to Stand Out: Navigating Differentiation in the Age of “Blanding”

Explore how to make your brand truly distinctive in a sea of similar designs with our insightful blog post on differentiation in the 'age of Blanding.' Learn why genuine brand identity matters more than ever in a world prone to conformity, and discover actionable strategies like Branded Features and Branded Moments to elevate your brand above the rest.

Doesn’t it seem that despite being surrounded by ‘good design,’ creativity has hit a curious plateau? That, with each corporate rebrand, organizations seem to be trading in their individuality and differentiation for what they think constitutes ‘good design’?

Make no mistake, we’re genuinely happy to be done with busy website backgrounds, tiny text, web 2.0 gradients and borders—especially borders. And, there’s no question that we all benefit from intuitive, accessible platforms and beautifully crafted products. That said, this rising tide hasn’t come without its setbacks: The downside of an entire generation of designers drinking from the same hose of inspiration is ubiquity. So here we are: well into what some are calling the age of Blanding.

What’s wrong with a beautiful—if unoriginal—brand, you might ask? In short, an indistinguishable brand—no matter how foxy—is a vulnerable brand. When your strongest advantage is only skin deep, it ultimately doesn’t take much to have it scratched away. In the words of Warren Buffet (someone who knows a thing or two about spotting genuine differentiators at the corporate level), “Only when the tide goes out do you learn who has been swimming naked.” And in case you haven’t noticed, the economic tide is receding, revealing the vulnerabilities of brands that chose conformity and beauty over courage and substance.

If you’re reading this thinking “well, shit… that’s me,” you’re not alone. A study sponsored by JKR found that just 15% of branded assets tested were truly distinctive—a frightening notion when combined with the reality of a looming recession—and the inevitable race towards commoditization that comes with it.

So what can be done to strengthen your brand from Blanding’s receding tides? Let’s take a look at two possible scenarios:

  1. If you’re considering a large corporate rebrand or starting something new entirely…
    Fight the low-hanging temptation to rest your brand’s laurels on being the “best” in a given category. “Better” is graded on a curve that has an endpoint. And as we know, “better” delivers diminishing returns. Ultimately, if it’s easy to do it becomes table stakes and will be competed away.

    Conversely, brands that aim to genuinely differentiate prove far more resiliant during economic downturns and find new avenues to create real value where others are left competing for scraps. It’s important to note that “differentiation” isn’t merely a question of visual identity. As we know, the strongest brands consistently resonate across every touchpoint and interaction, from how they look, to their internal culture, client relationships, product strategies, and everything in-between.

    But what about heavily regulated industries like finance, pharma, real estate, law, etc? Even in industries where some level of ubiquity and conformity is inescapable, opportunities for differentiation exist, if you’re curious enough to look for them (see Michael Porter’s Five Forces).

    And—this one is important—because branding requires courage, leadership, vision, it demands deliberate C-Suite involvement. It’s remarkable how often the branding process gets imprudently delegated to an internal designer or “someone in marketing.” A rebrand of genuine substance requires inputs and perspectives that encapsulate the entirety of an organization – from the “top” down…
  2. What are some ways to differentiate that extend beyond a full rebrand?
    We get it—there are any number of reasons your organization may feel some trepidation at the notion of a full rebrand project. Fortunately, there are still functional strategies you can utilize to further differentiate yourself from the competition and help foster organizational resilience. Let’s explore two of our favourites:
    • The Branded Feature. A branded feature is when you take a feature of your product or offering and—instead if merely describing it—you brand it. One example for those of us old enough to remember is that of Chrysler and Corinthian Leather. In 1974, when automotive giant Chrysler aimed to differentiate itself as a luxury automaker, its then-advertising agency, Bozell, coined the term “Corinthian Leather” to describe the otherwise quite common leather upholstery used in certain luxury vehicles. The resulting advertising campaign has since gone down in the history as one of the smartest ad spots of all time.

      A more recent example is Apple’s Magsafe technology. But, a branded feature can also be a repeated and distinguishable design element that becomes intrinsically connected to your brand, such as McDonald’s golden arches, Starbucks’ green and Tiffany Jewlery’s iconic baby blue jewelry box. None of the examples we just went over are remarkably beautiful or necessarily aesthetic, but they became ubiquitous with the brands themselves, and the thoughts, feelings, and associations they intended to create
    • Branded Moments. No business can do everything well. Instead, a smarter strategy is to excel at a few things that are memorable—i.e. “Branded moments”. As the Heath’s explain in the “The Power of Moments”, every brand experience has transition, peaks, and pits. Those defining moments can become powerful signature or branded experiences.

      My favorite example is that of “The Magic Castle” in Los Angeles; an underdog hotel that struggled to compete with the city’s better-known commendations and instead of trying to be “best”, chose to be different. The hotel setup a pool-side popsicle hotline: A red phone guests could pick up to order a complementary popsicle, delivered on a silver tray.

Finding your brand’s edge can happen in a number of different ways. But we promise – it doesn’t require inventing new products, designing a new logo, or building a new corporate website. You just have to be curious enough to look within. Strategic initiatives like Branded Features and Branded Moments are approaches worth exploring, because they’re designed to accentuate what already makes your brand remarkable, and take it to a whole new level.

Interested in exploring ways to differentiate your brand and further cement your strategic positioning? We’d love to talk.