Why Do All Millennial Companies Look and Sound the Same?

Surface Media’s CEO on the branding trends du jour. Also, pineapples!

“So our brand is transparent, sustainable, honest—organic with a capital O. We believe in our team, culture culture culture, and we inspire, and our values drive our mission, which drives our strategy, which drives our spirit, because we are 360 degrees of disruption, yeah, and we can now say we are 100 percent plastic-straw-free. But, above all else we are unique.”

This is how the typical pitch goes to someone like Emmett Shine of Ginlane, or Laureen Moyal of Paperwhite. Or, at least, that’s how I imagine it going. Ginlane and Paperwhite are both leading brand identity studios—boutiques catering to companies that want to lead with smart, impactful design. They’ve done some fantastic work. But that has created a crowded marketplace of followers and imitators.

Do you ever feel like today’s “cool millennial companies” are beginning to look and sound the same?

I do. Packaging, advertising, social media—it should all be clear and coherent. But glancing at posters on the subway in New York, or billboards along the freeways in Los Angeles, sometimes I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be buying a direct-to-consumer toothbrush, an erectile dysfunction pill, a suitcase, a popsicle, or a pair of khaki joggers. It’s not that the pastels-and-pineapples (why is it always pineapples?) aesthetic is inherently wrong. But when it becomes a uniform, it does a huge disservice to all parties. Pioneering brands—think about SoulCycle, Sweetgreens, Oatly—get diluted. New ones, which might be genuinely hip or innovative, lose out on the chance to differentiate themselves.

So how did we get here?

Simple: Hundreds of youth-oriented brands are getting art direction from a just handful of studios, which are all funded by the same group of venture capitalists. (See: Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins, General Catalyst, and so on.) Often, they’re investing into the same companies—many are on one anothers’ advisory boards, or speak on the same panels at conferences. They also tend to have expansive portfolios. And if you’ve got a stake in one design studio, and are launching five new products…well, that’s just good business, right?

Until it’s not. I’m concerned that, in terms of design, the brilliant minds behind some of the world’s most disruptive products and services have effectively created one big echo chamber. Eventually, that’s going to start showing up in the dollars and cents.

Yes, millennials use certain design cues to spot brands that fit their sensibilities. But now, mass-market packaged goods, the health-care industry—even banking institutions have co-opted the look. Twenty- and thirtysomethings are many things, but they aren’t stupid; all that quote-unquote cynicism means they’re adept at separating the wheat from the chaff. And if they keep seeing unimaginative and repetitive plays on the same colors and fonts and logos, they’re going to start rolling their eyes. (Spoiler alert: They already are.)

What’s the fix? First, let me reiterate: Unless you’re in the pineapple business, don’t include pineapples in your branding. This extends to coconuts. Or any fruit. Succulents, too. Just, don’t. Also, ditch the stock-art library: Original content is always king. Oh, and stop using the word community, unless it makes sense. Consumers of toe-fungus cream don’t want to connect with one another. They just want the foot funk gone.

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