When the web first started gaining popularity in the 1990s, a popular saying was, “no one on the Internet knows if you’re a dog.” The implication was that cyberspace (as we called it then) was an anonymous place where people could create and share contact without others really knowing who they were.
As it turns out, the sentiment was truer than anyone could have possibly realized, and anonymous posts on social media are literally changing world history.
On the business side, the effect of this has been every bit as profound: billions of people shop online, but very few of us actually know who is creating the products we buy. In many cases, our purchasing decisions are guided by the persona of the brands you choose – including their aesthetic. This has created unprecedented opportunities for designers to play a critical role in driving success.
A term that retailers often use is “fungibility,” meaning that items are interchangeable. In fact, if you go onto Amazon, you will literally see the same item – made by the same company! – for sale under several different brand names.
Needless to say, this isn’t great for brand differentiation. But it does present a way for savvy brands to cut through the clutter and differentiate themselves from their competitors.
If you think about it, having a unique brand is the only way for sellers of common products such as coffee mugs and leggings to cut through the clutter. After all, when products are literally the same (or only slightly different) and are selling at the same price point, there really isn’t much that companies can do other than create an emotional reason for people to choose one brand over another.
What does brand differentiation look like in this context? It starts with defining what a brand stands for beyond simply listing products for sale and creating a company narrative that will resonate with shoppers is important.
Just look at how Dollar Shave Club built a brand that so disrupted the industry that the company was acquired by Unilever for $1 billion (US) in cash. There was nothing inherently special about the items the company was selling, but they created a highly unique brand that enabled them to gain the attention of major global CPG companies. Hey huge part of this was the look and feel of their products and their website.
Simply put, the Dollar Shave Club brand is amazing. Rather than simply focusing on razor cartridges, which has been the industry standard for companies like Gilette for decades, they created a lifestyle brand based around pictures of their products rather than images of men shaving.
The photography on their website for outpaces anything that the incumbent players were using when the Dollar Shave Club launched in 2011, and it created a unique brand persona that resonated with choppers. There were no photographs of attractive male models with towels around their waists shaving in front of a mirror.
Build it or Buy It?
There are plenty of examples of successful consumer product brands building their brands through design. It’s not that Dollar Shave Club products aren’t good, but there are plenty of other companies that are also making good products for shaving. Difference is that they took a delivery at approach to their visual brand and created something unique that resonated with the market.
The good news is that this approach isn’t restricted to large global companies. In fact, any company of any size can build a brand that will help them stand out from the crowd and establish a singular identity.
There’s a common misconception that companies need to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars – or more – to hire a top branding agency to help create their look and feel. After all, when you read about GM spending millions of dollars on a font for a new car, it’s easy to get a skewed view of what it takes to build a successful visual identity. But even new companies can tap into the creativity pipeline and get incredible results without breaking the bank.
There is actually no reason to reinvent the wheel, because there are plenty of resources for companies that are looking for amazing creative concepts to incorporate into their brands without having to start from scratch. All it takes is an open mind and a recognition that having an amazing visual brand can make all the difference between modest success and becoming the next unicorn.
Cover photo credit: Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash