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  • 07.10.17

The Dark Side Of “Friendly” Design

Since when did businesses, from Mailchimp to Monsanto, start friend-washing? And when are they going to stop?

Everywhere you look a “friendly” brand stares back at you. Help Remedies sells doll-sized packets of over-the-counter medicine with tongue-in-cheek labels (“Help. I have a headache”) with a different color for each malady. An eco-water company calls itself Boxed Water Is Better. Casper, which has disrupted the mattress and bedding industry, used a whimsical zoo of anthropomorphized creatures to launch its suite of bedroom pieces and became a $100 million company while doing it.

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Friendly branding, it seems, sells.

But now that it’s the favored visual approach of everyone from Chase to Pepsi, we have to question whether the obsession with friendliness has gone too far. It has become the catchall way of trying to engage consumers in a more “personal” and “authentic” way. But in its ubiquity, it’s being exposed as a shallow, limiting approach to branding that can ignore some fundamental facts about the world we live in.

How We Got Here

No one could have predicted that when Google launched its first web page in 1996, those clunky sites would evolve into the sprawling network that we rely on for everything from political activism to finding love and buying groceries. Digital is our new normal.

As fast as our lives have become digital-first, companies have changed the way they engage us. Companies spend more on digital advertising than on television advertising, and customers can interact with brands on Twitter and Facebook Messenger. Brands look, feel, and behave very differently too, understanding that in a world where Instagram is the antidote to boredom, things need to be visually appealing and compelling for anyone to spend time with them. The early web was text-heavy, monotonous, and had web-safe typography; now we see rounded edges, vibrant color palettes, and smiling faces everywhere from Mailchimp to Monsanto.

The shift didn’t happen overnight, but in the wake of a financial crisis that plunged the world into a deep recession and shook people’s trust in traditional institutions, a new wave of companies were snapping at the heels of big corporations that looked complex, out-of-touch, and unapproachable. Smartphones were everywhere, allowing on-demand and direct-to-consumer services to penetrate the market. Everything from Dropbox’s easier solution for file management, with an illustration style to create a more human brand, to a more cost-effective and a fun alternative to hotels with Airbnb were appearing online. Their warm and friendly branding quickly became a shorthand for “we’re different.”

It wasn’t long before pared-back logos, flat illustrations, and sans serif typefaces prevailed. Oscar launched in 2013 with cute cartoon characters plastered all over the New York City Subway and the tagline, “Hi, we’re Oscar, a new kind of insurance company.” It grabbed people’s attention by turning our expectations about insurance upside down. It seemed affable and approachable–a clever strategy when you’re trying to disrupt a category known for being painful and bureaucratic.

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The Problem With Friendly Branding

But there’s a dark side to friendly branding. We discovered this while building a new brand for Laurel Road, an online lender focused on student loan refinancing, last year. During our research, we discovered that other companies in the fintech space were trying to humanize student loan refinancing, injecting warmth and optimism into their brands in an effort to convince their audience that student debt wasn’t such a bad thing.

Their approach has attracted investor dollars, but the friendliness and positivity that saturates the fintech space are not only undifferentiated, they lull customers into a false sense of security. Student loan debt is the top financial concern for millennials, and while student loan refinancing provides an alternative payback route, it is still debt. An over-friendly brand minimizes the concern and burden associated with paying it back.

A financial advisor who we interviewed also pointed out that overly positive branding that focused on lifestyle-related messaging and imagery made life look a like a never-ending series of networking events–something associated with young coastal elites. It didn’t feel representative of a more down-to-earth consumer from a broader demographic that we, and many other fintech and refi brands, want to reach.

We unearthed insights with our clients about their customers’ focus, commitment, and ability to overcome challenges. This led us to position the brand in a way that embraced the reality of their situation– incorporating full-bleed imagery showing diverse terrain to signal the journey customers are on toward achieving their goals and paying back their debt, and a color palette that nods to academic achievement. 

Other companies, like Palantir, a data mining company that helps clients protect themselves against cyber threats, have taken a similar approach. By juxtaposing a gray color palette and a squared-off, cyber-esque typeface with real-world visuals and an unfussy, reassuring tone, Palantir has created a brand that feels serious but not cold or isolated. This is also evident in many of the newspapers people interact with on a daily basis– the New York Times, for example, is an institution that needs to engender trust and take on a serious tone, but it also has to channel humanity. The use of the original logo and stymie typeface, harking back to their roots as print newspaper of record, along with expressive, vibrant art direction helps them achieve this.

In the post-truth world that we’ve come to know in 2017, friend-washing isn’t just disingenuous, it could be bad for business. Brands that fail to respond to people’s skepticism about the messages that companies try to send them risk being discarded as people’s tolerance for “fauxthentic”‘ brand expressions reaches an all-time low. Brands looking to future-proof their business will “stop lying to people” and offer honest ways to address people’s fears through a simplified narrative and more realistic promises that they make to people.

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So What Should Brands Do?

When building a new brand, it’s essential to step back and survey the scene. What’s going on in the world and how is that affecting people’s behavior and the way they interact with brands? What are the current trends in the space you’re moving into? And how is that space likely to look tomorrow, a couple of years from now, and further into the future? Are competitors clustering around a particular approach? Who is the most innovative of them all, and why? Does it get them noticed? Is there opportunity to move beyond the mainstream and occupy a unique space? How bold and daring are you willing to be in doing this?

If the space looks unilaterally “friendly,” then dig deep and seek out the untold stories of the people you’re looking to connect with. Ask yourself how they can be brought to life with humanity and honesty. Use the resources you have at your disposal–shape, color, type, tone, messaging–as an alchemist would; weave potent truths and ideas together in a way that adds new value to people’s worlds, rather than offering them more of the same.

Jessica Lehmann is associate director of Strategy at Brand Union New York, where she leads strategy for a number of clients in the tech and innovation space, including Harman. A graduate of the WPP Fellowship, she spent time in Shanghai at Ogilvy as a digital strategist, and at The Futures Company in New York where she worked on everything from fragrance to breakfast cereal.

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