January 25, 2022

Startup branding: convention is for losers

Startup branding: convention is for losers
Table of contents

We all seek recognition. It’s a human instinct that’s evolved with us since we were chipping flints to stay warm. So, it’s plain to see why brands would behave in the same way. After all, they’re only creations of us humans.

Over the course of the Industrial Age, the emergence of brands has grown exponentially. Over this period of growth, we’ve seen brands, along with audiences, cluster in tribes. For brands, these most noticeable tribes can be looked at as visual conventions, known individually as brand identities. The opportunity lies here for organisations. To sit within the comfortable conventional confines with their competitors or to take the risk (that is so often referred to in business and brand strategy) and break the mould. Do things differently. Look or behave in a way that isn’t so familiar for their sector.

To understand what’s happening now, it always helps to go back. We started really branding things back in the 2000BC - literally branding, with hot iron into cow’s rump to signal to other stock owners, that signified what belonged to who. And that’s essentially still the rule for today. The act of branding, it’s the art of differentiation. The process by which we go through to help products, services, organisations reimagine themselves. To set themselves apart. To stand out. To be recognised and to be memorable. To tap into what could excite people. That’s what art does. And that’s the job at hand here. That’s branding.  

But a brand itself isn't a symbol. It’s not a colour. It’s not a typeface. It’s a collection of memories and perceptions that culminate in a reputation. And the way we store these reputations for different brands differs for every human on the planet. That’s where the commercial opportunity lies.  The opportunity of purchasing the most expensive real estate in the world, a corner of someone’s brain. This is where brands live. Not on screens, not on billboards, not on shelves.  

It's a lifestyle, baby

Of course, a red-hot stamp isn’t our only tool these days. Nor is livestock our only canvas. The opportunities in branding are so vast, and commercially, there’s an increasing appreciation for the value of it. Legacy brands are relaunching their identities redesigned for a new age. Venture capitalists are pushing their portfolios to invest in brand from the outset.

So why are brands, more notably, startups, slipping into conventions? Who said they must? Call them what you like. Tropes. Trends. Styles. They’re omnipresent. They’re lazy. And, in the long run, potentially commercially ineffective.

One trend really going for it is the minimalist lifestyle startup. You know the ones. A sleek sans-serif wordmark sitting in acres of clear space on a natural colour background supported by textured, gritty yet aspirational photography. Delivered with a tone that arrogantly ‘knows you’.  It’s become a predictable trope for venture-backed lifestyle startups like Outdoor Voices, Bonobos, Lyst, AYR, Reformation, Allbirds, and Thinx.

While the use of sans-serif fonts and minimalist design are nothing new, it seems that all of these startups are drinking from the same identity spring.  The glaring reason for this of course is that conventions and tropes are great signposts for audiences. Where there’s a desire for such brands in specific audiences, these minimalist beacons shine out on their Instagram feed horizons.  

Who dares, wins

So the thought of contributing to a trope or a category language with your brand’s identity will obviously feel appealing, but as history has taught us, those who dare — win. Those who can break their category language shine brighter than any of the other beacons. And in the world of branding, there are increasingly exciting ideas coming to the fore. Brands shifting from the reassuring to the inspiring.  Take Arrival: ‘Making cities better places to live’. You can already imagine the friendly tone of voice, the soft colours, jovial photography. But imagine again. They’re shaking up the world of autonomous transport with branding that looks more suited to a space exploration company. With automotive and digital design that follows suit.  Another one of the huge success stories of the decade is Oatly. Rejecting the conventions of their category, because their product itself has been designed to do just that. Not a sans serif font in sight. No ingredient photography. No ‘health’ signifiers on pack. It’s full-blown, unadulterated tone of voice delivered through a signature and bespoke typeface unique to them.

Through this, they’ve developed more than a category language, it’s now more of a category approach. We’re seeing alternative milk products popping up on shelves with strange bird-people illustrations and more debranded approaches in this category.  Even venture capital firms themselves are bucking the trends. Northzone, an early-stage venture capital fund, looks and behaves more like a publisher than a typical VC. Bolstering its thought leadership and personal craft qualities to "put founders before figures, and position boutique venture as the aspirational choice."  

Bucking on the world stage

More impressively, is a recent brand launch from Block.

https://mms.businesswire.com/media/20211201006139/en/932239/4/5452282_Block_lockup_positive_white_480.gif?download=1**
“Made up of Square, Cash App, Spiral, TIDAL, and TBD54566975, we build tools to help more people access the economy.”

It’s big. It has a lot of parts. But it’s new aligned branding impressively leaps laterally from the usual big tech brands. Note Meta’s most recent "blanding" exercise.  The hero element of this identity is an iridescence. It’s carried through most touchpoints, influencing every asset and visual property. Distilled into a brave new brand mark. This is a mark that does away with the flat, simplified, pixel performing characteristics of the category. It goes full colour, texture and motion.  It’s an identity that says that this organisation knows itself and where it’s going. It exudes confidence. The true characteristics of a leader. And it’s a great thing to see in the world of branding, hopefully serving as a reminder that through this process, we’re supposed to stand out. We’re supposed to differentiate. Because when leaders lead, audiences don’t just follow, they participate. And participation is the utmost goal for any contemporary brand — startup or established.

It is becoming more obvious to audiences that the potential in brands is not evident in their ‘cool’ factor — it’s in their element of surprise. These brands pounce on a moment of inspiration, and of belief in an idea. Their idea of how things should be to forge new visual or verbal ground. They master the art of differentiation. And through differentiation — they win.

By Cosmo Jameson

Written by
Professor Passionfruit Illustration
Table of Contents

We all seek recognition. It’s a human instinct that’s evolved with us since we were chipping flints to stay warm. So, it’s plain to see why brands would behave in the same way. After all, they’re only creations of us humans.

Over the course of the Industrial Age, the emergence of brands has grown exponentially. Over this period of growth, we’ve seen brands, along with audiences, cluster in tribes. For brands, these most noticeable tribes can be looked at as visual conventions, known individually as brand identities. The opportunity lies here for organisations. To sit within the comfortable conventional confines with their competitors or to take the risk (that is so often referred to in business and brand strategy) and break the mould. Do things differently. Look or behave in a way that isn’t so familiar for their sector.

To understand what’s happening now, it always helps to go back. We started really branding things back in the 2000BC - literally branding, with hot iron into cow’s rump to signal to other stock owners, that signified what belonged to who. And that’s essentially still the rule for today. The act of branding, it’s the art of differentiation. The process by which we go through to help products, services, organisations reimagine themselves. To set themselves apart. To stand out. To be recognised and to be memorable. To tap into what could excite people. That’s what art does. And that’s the job at hand here. That’s branding.  

But a brand itself isn't a symbol. It’s not a colour. It’s not a typeface. It’s a collection of memories and perceptions that culminate in a reputation. And the way we store these reputations for different brands differs for every human on the planet. That’s where the commercial opportunity lies.  The opportunity of purchasing the most expensive real estate in the world, a corner of someone’s brain. This is where brands live. Not on screens, not on billboards, not on shelves.  

It's a lifestyle, baby

Of course, a red-hot stamp isn’t our only tool these days. Nor is livestock our only canvas. The opportunities in branding are so vast, and commercially, there’s an increasing appreciation for the value of it. Legacy brands are relaunching their identities redesigned for a new age. Venture capitalists are pushing their portfolios to invest in brand from the outset.

So why are brands, more notably, startups, slipping into conventions? Who said they must? Call them what you like. Tropes. Trends. Styles. They’re omnipresent. They’re lazy. And, in the long run, potentially commercially ineffective.

One trend really going for it is the minimalist lifestyle startup. You know the ones. A sleek sans-serif wordmark sitting in acres of clear space on a natural colour background supported by textured, gritty yet aspirational photography. Delivered with a tone that arrogantly ‘knows you’.  It’s become a predictable trope for venture-backed lifestyle startups like Outdoor Voices, Bonobos, Lyst, AYR, Reformation, Allbirds, and Thinx.

While the use of sans-serif fonts and minimalist design are nothing new, it seems that all of these startups are drinking from the same identity spring.  The glaring reason for this of course is that conventions and tropes are great signposts for audiences. Where there’s a desire for such brands in specific audiences, these minimalist beacons shine out on their Instagram feed horizons.  

Who dares, wins

So the thought of contributing to a trope or a category language with your brand’s identity will obviously feel appealing, but as history has taught us, those who dare — win. Those who can break their category language shine brighter than any of the other beacons. And in the world of branding, there are increasingly exciting ideas coming to the fore. Brands shifting from the reassuring to the inspiring.  Take Arrival: ‘Making cities better places to live’. You can already imagine the friendly tone of voice, the soft colours, jovial photography. But imagine again. They’re shaking up the world of autonomous transport with branding that looks more suited to a space exploration company. With automotive and digital design that follows suit.  Another one of the huge success stories of the decade is Oatly. Rejecting the conventions of their category, because their product itself has been designed to do just that. Not a sans serif font in sight. No ingredient photography. No ‘health’ signifiers on pack. It’s full-blown, unadulterated tone of voice delivered through a signature and bespoke typeface unique to them.

Through this, they’ve developed more than a category language, it’s now more of a category approach. We’re seeing alternative milk products popping up on shelves with strange bird-people illustrations and more debranded approaches in this category.  Even venture capital firms themselves are bucking the trends. Northzone, an early-stage venture capital fund, looks and behaves more like a publisher than a typical VC. Bolstering its thought leadership and personal craft qualities to "put founders before figures, and position boutique venture as the aspirational choice."  

Bucking on the world stage

More impressively, is a recent brand launch from Block.

https://mms.businesswire.com/media/20211201006139/en/932239/4/5452282_Block_lockup_positive_white_480.gif?download=1**
“Made up of Square, Cash App, Spiral, TIDAL, and TBD54566975, we build tools to help more people access the economy.”

It’s big. It has a lot of parts. But it’s new aligned branding impressively leaps laterally from the usual big tech brands. Note Meta’s most recent "blanding" exercise.  The hero element of this identity is an iridescence. It’s carried through most touchpoints, influencing every asset and visual property. Distilled into a brave new brand mark. This is a mark that does away with the flat, simplified, pixel performing characteristics of the category. It goes full colour, texture and motion.  It’s an identity that says that this organisation knows itself and where it’s going. It exudes confidence. The true characteristics of a leader. And it’s a great thing to see in the world of branding, hopefully serving as a reminder that through this process, we’re supposed to stand out. We’re supposed to differentiate. Because when leaders lead, audiences don’t just follow, they participate. And participation is the utmost goal for any contemporary brand — startup or established.

It is becoming more obvious to audiences that the potential in brands is not evident in their ‘cool’ factor — it’s in their element of surprise. These brands pounce on a moment of inspiration, and of belief in an idea. Their idea of how things should be to forge new visual or verbal ground. They master the art of differentiation. And through differentiation — they win.

By Cosmo Jameson

Written by
Professor Passionfruit Illustration

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