If you spend any time on Instagram, you’ll have noticed that we’re in the middle of a pervasive design trend. It can be recognized through some visible design codes: a muted, frequently pastel colour palette (usually pink), a simple sans serif typeface, a minimalist aesthetic, oh yea, and watch out for friendly emojis and hand-drawn illustrations.
From dental floss to mascara, craft beer, insurance and mattresses to skincare – brands across different categories are resorting to a millennial-approved design aesthetic. Even the recent Burberry redesign seems to be playing to the friendly codes of millennia-land – reductive simplicity at the expense of distinctiveness or heritage.
It seems that craft is officially dead and we’re in the midst of a global pastel-wash. We’re experiencing the “millennialisation of design.”
Any colour, as long as it’s pink
It’s not just niche challenger brands who are embracing an Insta-friendly aesthetic though. It’s the same with the places we work, the stores we buy our coffee from, and the places we stay when we’re away from home.
In his piece on global gentrification, Kyle Chayka explains how platforms like Airbnb, Foursquare and Instagram have harmonized taste globally:
"The coffee roaster Four Barrel in San Francisco looks like the Australian Toby’s Estate in Brooklyn looks like The Coffee Collective in Copenhagen looks like Bear Pond Espresso in Tokyo. You can get a dry cortado with perfect latte art at any of them, then Instagram it on a marble countertop and further spread the aesthetic to your followers."
Everywhere you look, it seems brands and experiences are being distilled down to the lowest common denominator that’s not going to offend anybody. Branding and design are used to appease homogenized tastes, thereby sacrificing any little bit of individuality and authenticity they own. In other words, everything is becoming vanilla.
How pink became the new black
While aspects of the modern, minimalist look and feel have been around since the 1950s, millennial design as we know it was born from the internet. Coding limitations meant websites needed simple design and easy user flow, and the big players like Apple and Airbnb did it well from the get-go with their monogamous colour palettes and consistent style.
Soon, the new kids on the branding block were all launching brands with the same sharp yet rounded, easy-on-the-eyes millennial design. But it’s not just start-ups. We’re now seeing even the big brands—those with years of legacy behind them—millennialising themselves as well.
While minimalist design may be characterised by space, simplicity and stripped-back typography, millennial design is what start-ups, mainstay brands and agencies alike now seem to think the young people are after.
The worst part is, it’s all nice enough design. It looks good. It’s easy on the eye. Whether you’re a millennial or not, it’s safe to say that many of us are falling for the simplicity and clarity that millennial design offers us. It says “we have common ground”. It says “our products are simple, honest and thoughtful”. I suspect though, that we’re also bored with brands that all look and feel the same.
What does this mean for brand building?
Instead of sticking out with a unique proposition, point-of-view and aesthetic, today’s risk averse marketers prefer the road more travelled, effectively creating homogenous brands that are one and the same.
MasterCard’s 2017 rebrand was a sensitive evolution of a global icon, but could you argue the new identity is somehow less interesting than its predecessor? Absolutely.
And then most recently – this:
Just kidding. This didn’t actually happen, but can you imagine? If Disneyland launched today, would it have a Helvetica typeface and a pastel colour palette?
Though there has never been a more difficult time to be yourself, there has never been a more important time to be yourself. After all, branding is about creating distinctiveness. It’s the art of standing out, not fitting in.
So can you do both? Can you appeal to those coveted millennials, whilst building enduring brand equity in the same breath? Sure you can. Challenger brands like Chobani have found a resonance with a young audience with category defining design, whilst established players like McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Nike have been showing us how it’s done for decades.
So, the next time you write that brief about making your brand more relevant to millennials, just remember, no one is you, and that is your power.
Tanja Crnogorac is a strategist at creative agency Jones Knowles Ritchie in Singapore.