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The One Part of Your Brand Immune to Trends

When It Comes to Building Genuine Connection, Visual Brand is a Distant Second to Story

By E.M. Ricchini

In a world where consumers are besieged by content, many brands feel like they must be a constant presence in the lives of potential customers if they want to succeed. Ad blockers, social media mute buttons, and the practice of deleting emails before opening them is commonplace, and only adds to the challenge of capturing audience mindshare. Brands are in a neverending competition to win attention, and stay relevant. For most brands, this means creating and maintaining a strong visual identity.

Take, for example, millennial cult-favorite Glossier and its ubiquitous pink pouch, or the unmistakable half-smile that adorns every Amazon-branded item. Scrolling through Instagram and seeing a bubblegum pink bag tucked into the corner of an expertly-styled lifestyle spread reminds beauty-savvy users to stock up on Boy Brow and Cloud Paint in the same way that seeing a pair of golden arches towering over a freeway signals weary road trippers looking for a bite to eat that they can experience something familiar in a far-away place. It’s not enough for brands to have a recognizable logo anymore. They must have a strong visual identity, and they must be everywhere.

As with most business practices, though, there’s a renegade organization trying something completely different by stripping its products of all memorable visuals. Forgoing modern trends and taking a no-frills approach to packaging, this brand is leveraging something even more memorable than visual appeal: its story. By eschewing flashy boxes and bottles, this brand hopes to make a name for itself based solely on its story. Its name is a fitting one: Brandless.

Even though it has removed the visual elements that seem so necessary to crafting a successful brand in 2018, Brandless certainly has a brand. It’s a brand based on a compelling narrative rather than identifiable visuals. Consumers are not seeing the brand as the antithesis of brand; instead, they are seeing it as trustworthy and authentic, dedicated to both quality and social impact.

Per its website, Brandless seeks to dismantle the belief that recognizable branding is synonymous with quality. It asserts that there’s a hidden cost — one it dubs “Brand Tax” — that is built into the price the end user pays when they’re purchasing an item from a national brand. They claim the average person spends up to 30 percent more for grocery store items under this system — a figure that can jump to a whopping 370 percent when applied to beauty products.

By arguing that heavy branding only benefits companies and not to truly serve its customers, Brandless is attempting to strip away this mere “illusion” of quality in order to provide a selection of actually high-quality, unbranded products for its customers, without the surcharge.

Their products are made to the highest standards: sustainable, non-GMO, and socially ethical — Brandless puts consumer dollars to use for some social good by providing meals for those in need with every purchase. All this for only 3 dollars an item. Such high standards often move in tandem with higher price points, because it costs a lot to be socially conscious. These type of products are usually reserved for specialty aisles, with a premium price tag. However, by cutting out branding, marketing and advertising, and procuring their products directly from the manufacturer, Brandless makes it possible to have it all.

Visuals are Meaningless Without a Story

Anyone who’s ever attempted to brand a business knows that branding — or even re-branding — can be a pricey undertaking. With so much importance being placed on memorable visual elements, brands can lose sight of the narrative that fuels their organization. A $15,000 logo is just that — a logo. It can be aesthetically pleasing and memorable but it doesn’t define the content of the brand in the mind of the consumer. It doesn’t inspire trust or connection.

Mentioned previously, Glossier is a star when it comes to aesthetic branding. Glossier’s contemporary Parisian aesthetic is evinced beyond their packaging, and permeates all its messaging. Its advertising and product photos showcase an “it girl” lifestyle, complete with stunning models and a dreamy 70s wardrobe. Glossier’s aesthetic also embraces diversity — their models come in all shades and ethnic origins.

However, the message being sent by Glossier’s compelling visual aesthetic is not anchored by their products. Critics have noted that despite the diversity of their models, many of Glossier’s products are not suited for all skin tones. A dive into online communities of makeup artists shows that Glosser’s success in the space is hotly contested. One user claims that a product she purchased turned out to be petroleum jelly in a fancy tube. (That product, a “do everything” salve, retails for 12 dollars for half an ounce, whereas a 13-ounce jar of Vaseline sells for less than 5 dollars.)

Glossier’s cult popularity has uncovered a pattern that’s become prevalent in Insta-society: are some brands just well-known for the visuals, and doomed to fail? Beautiful visuals might seem like enough to make a business successful, but if the product isn’t held to the same standards, the narrative begins to come apart at the seams. Lasting customer relationships require more than a memorable aesthetic: It’s a compelling and consistent story that is evinced throughout the organization that ties brands to their customers, not just their logos.

Simple Packaging, Low Prices

By labeling themselves brandless, Brandless is seeking to foster a more authentic, trust-based relationship with their customers. They are signaling they don’t need aspirational photographs, or the siren call of familiar symbols, to lure in customers. Their sole goal is to empower customers to do good and experience quality, without breaking the bank. While Brandless is extreme in eschewing a particular visual identity, other brands are embracing a more authentic relationship with customers by focusing on the substance of their story first, and their style second.

AOA Studio is an up-and-coming beauty brand that’s often recommended as a comparable but less expensive alternative to Glossier. AOA was founded by a husband and wife team with a simple vision: provide affordable, cruelty-free beauty products for those who want to play around and have fun without spending too much money. While Glossier was facing backlash after wrongfully labeling one of its products vegan, AOA was being put on PETA’s “Cruelty-Free Shopping Guide.”

Because AOA, much like Brandless, gets their products directly from the manufacturer, they’re able to sell them at the low price point of just 1 dollar each. Beauty bloggers who have purchased AOA products say they’re somewhat shocked when they arrived in the mail without any outer packaging — just minimally branded tubes and compacts placed in an amorphous black bag. What it lacks in branding, it makes up for in every other way, getting positive reviews from beauty bloggers and lifestyle publications alike.

Both Brandless and AOA recognize that what matters most in connecting with customers is having an authentic and compelling brand story that is evinced throughout the organization. While a compelling visual brand can help to spread that story, if the visual identity is not rooted in story, a business is bound to fail as customers leave disappointed.

No pink pouches or iconic logos are needed for AOA or Brandless — their offerings go far beyond visual appeal, and their early success has shown that for brands, a pervasive story appeals to consumers in a powerful way and leaves more of a lasting impression than simply curating an aesthetic ever could. When brands are aware of and stick to their narrative, it makes the inevitable snafu more manageable because it’s customers are more likely to trust and come back to a brand they believe in than one that’s relying on trends to get ahead.

Proven Stories Sell

It’s a system that works. A brand story does not have to be complicated or even completely unique in order to thrive; it just has to be persuasive enough to power every part of an organization. A visual brand that evinces a core brand story can be a valuable asset, but when it becomes its own entity, customers will be disappointed with the entire customer experience and the product.

Brandless proves that, even in the age of content, it’s possible to be a success with only a compelling brand story, and the products to back it up. Brandless has a personality of their own, but it stems from the core purpose of the organization rather than tactical marketing efforts or a visual identity. Companies with a strong story succeed without needing the help of trendy aesthetics, and therefore stand the test of time.

How long will it be before Glossier’s of-the-moment aesthetics needs a re-brand? Brandless may be visually bland but their story is timeless. Their success proves that sometimes the best course for a brand is to forego traditional branding and embrace the power of story instead.

E.M. Ricchini is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Download our free StorytellingBlueprint, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.