At first, they came to podcasts—the direct-to-consumer lifestyle brands looking to sell me shoes, or razors, or toothbrushes.
Then they came to Facebook and Twitter, before making their way to Instagram.
And then all at once, they were everywhere I looked; I couldn’t escape from learning about products that would make me a healthier, comfier person.
You’ve likely seen them, too: ads for Allbirds, Harry’s, Quip, hims, Brandless and others. They all operate under a similar business model: to circumvent traditional retail stores to sell their products directly to you. And that’s catching the eyes of venture capitalists around the world.
After all, when you cut out the middleman, there’s more money to be reaped for both company and consumer. But there’s something else eerily similar about many of the Internet’s famed lifestyle brands: they all design their ads the same way.
In a world of over-saturated feeds, startups are going counterculture by stripping away distractions, endorsers, and flashy graphics. Instead, their ads are broken down into two parts: the product and a plain background.
New companies taking on old industries are not only putting their spin on the products; they’re ditching age-old marketing and design tactics for simplicity. And it seems to be working.
Built for the ‘Gram
Because Instagram’s all-image-everything focus differs so greatly from the text-first mentality of other social networks like Twitter and Facebook, it became the go-to place to show yourself off.
New shoes? Instagram. With your friends? Straight to Instagram. Trying to promote a nonexistent festival that will ultimately lure hundreds of people to an island with only one entrance and exit? Definitely Instagram.
The platform is an advertiser’s dream; ads are almost visually indistinguishable from photos posted by your friends, the captions are less prominent, and photos can be tagged with brands—all potentially without consumers being aware that what they are looking at is an ad.
And on other social networks, the story is becoming more of the same.
In writing, that sounds more nefarious than it likely is, but it speaks volumes about some of the reasons why startups are implementing simple designs in their ads: the ads are looking more like influencers while the influencers look more like ads.
Take, for example, the marketing design strategy for Allbirds. Below is a comparison of posts from Allbirds and Nike Run Club from Instagram.
Pretty different, right? Nike’s is significantly flashier and is more abstract and artsy than Allbirds’. Still, the Allbirds post isn’t particularly subtle—you’re probably not going to be fooled into thinking your friend took that picture. But let’s try something different: below are two shots about Allbirds. One is from the company; the other is from an influencer.
All of a sudden, the line between paid and organic content becomes blurred. The composition of the Allbirds photo—a man wearing the shoes petting a dog—looks ordinary enough to pass off as a photo from someone you already follow. If it popped up in your timeline as an ad, you may never notice it at all.
Through research online and conversations with industry experts, I learned that small startups, large companies, and PR agencies are all pursuing this specific design trend for their brands.
Not only does that mean that more brands are becoming savvier in their desire to reach customers, but it also allows smaller players to punch above their weight class. Whereas complex, groundbreaking advertisements through mediums like TV were often reserved for the most influential companies, smaller teams can create content that’s on-par with the industry; and in many cases, a few talented designers can sway a company’s success.
Perhaps the most fascinating takeaway from my exercise into learning more about the internal operations of these startups is that it paints an encouraging picture for designers in small teams. Rather than being at an inherent disadvantage due to team size, identifying and acting on current design trends can garner incredible success.
There’s more than meets the eye
Jacob Chang, Director of Insights at JÜV Consulting, says that there’s something deeper going on here. The simplicity is very intentional—but not because companies are looking to be sneaky. Rather, direct-to-consumer brands are attempting to be less deceptive and more genuine with their advertising to appeal to younger generations.
“The most important consideration that Gen Z values above all in brands is a compelling narrative that is both authentic and befitting of their overall image,” Chang said. “While there is a myriad of stories that are shared by companies constantly, it is this authenticity factor that catches our attention, leads us to talk about it, and ultimately increases brand perception.”
“Whereas complex, groundbreaking advertisements through mediums like TV were often reserved for the most influential companies, smaller teams can create content that’s on-par with the industry; and in many cases, a few talented designers can sway a company’s success.”
Throughout my conversation with Chang, one of his most-used words was “efficiency,” a benefit he attributed to how startups can market their product. Since most small companies have a solid idea of their customer bases’ desires and needs, they can use certain buzzwords and designs to be efficient in how they present their advertising.
The basic format of the ads help efficiency, too; their formulaic nature makes for quickly reproducible content that can be shared across platforms.
Dianna Cohen, founder of marketing agency Levitate, shares the same mentality. Though these types of ads capture the eye on social media and offer a cost benefit, it’s all about how modern consumers are seeing the brand.
“The consumer has more power than ever,” Cohen said. And with that power, consumers are deciding which companies they want to support based on their values.
This presentation style also presents a sense of comfort for viewers that can ultimately turn into trust in a brand. Internet lifestyle brands are decidedly proactive—not just with posting, but also with customer service. Toned-down posts humanize a company, making them more approachable.
“Eventually, as the advertising process flattens and technology becomes more accessible, the only thing separating these companies is their outward appearance.”
Over time, this unified style of simple ads paired with good customer service builds a community—one that is fiercely loyal to a product to a point of unpaid promotion. It also creates minimal distractions in a world where users can now purchase the items they see in their feed directly in the app.
Cohen said that this is a frequent result of how these brands engage with social media; with the right presentation—both in advertising and public relations—consumers can become attached to a brand in intimate ways. All of a sudden, Cohen said, you find an “Allbirds guy,” or a “Flamingo girl.”
Wrap this all up together—the targeting of newer generations, purposeful minimalism, building a community—and you have a brand recognition plan full of voice and visual literacy. Eventually, as the advertising process flattens and technology becomes more accessible, the only thing separating these companies is their outward appearance.
All things must come to an end, and both Chang and Cohen said that the current method of advertising isn’t going to be around forever. Cohen said there’s already significant fatigue in the type of stripped-down ads we’re seeing today, especially in key cities. She also mentioned that brands, now more than ever, are making their own decisions on where they want to go and how they want to reach new customers.
But there was also a common sentiment between the two: ads are going to get more personal. If that sounds scary, it’s because we’ve already been on the bad side of things—ads for items you’ve searched or, in some strange coincidences, products you’ve just talked about.
The future of everybody knowing everything about you can quickly sound like one you don’t want to participate in.
“Internet lifestyle brands are decidedly proactive—not just with posting, but also with customer service. Toned-down posts humanize a company, making them more approachable.”
Luckily, brands are starting to understand this. Instead of using personal and targeted ads to point out what you should be buying, companies will use demographics to make ads and experiences more relevant to your values. If, for example, you express your love for running, you might see ads that are about how a product is used in running or how a brand has a community of active runners local to you.
For centuries, the best method to sell stuff was to push products wherever possible, whether it’s been billboards, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, or social media. With savvier consumers come new ways to connect, and scaling back a ruthless mentality of “sell, sell, sell” in favor of creating ways to authentically interact with potential buyers will ultimately prove to be fruitful in the future.
In the current day, however, design and advertising is trending to wherever the younger generations take it. Millennials and Gen Z are loudly identifying their preference for socially conscious decisions, and it’s up to brands to adjust accordingly.
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Jake Underwood is a marketing professional at Moleskine Digital Studio, maker of Timepage and Actions. Previously, he’s had bylines at Motherboard and MacStories.net covering apps, productivity, and technology.