Branding and advertising are infamous for making us covet things we don’t actually need. The super sleek sheen of a Tesla or an iPhone or a bra designed by NASA’s top scientists are alluring, but at the end of the day, they are merely luxuries. The question of getting people to need something they want is sales 101. But more and more, branding agencies are tackling the inverse.
How do you get people to want the things they need? Is there a space for surprise and delight in the most boring, pedestrian motions of daily life: applying a bandage, brushing our teeth, wiping our bums? Welcome to the world of utilitarian branding.
In our work with clients, we constantly espouse that nothing sells itself. No matter how brilliant your app is, if it isn’t differentiated in a meaningful way, it will get lost in an increasingly crowded market. Why don’t they get it?
Later at the supermarket, while staring at the endless wall of variously-plied toilet paper, I totally get it. Everyone draws their own line in the sand around the things they deem to be purely functional. I don’t want toilet paper, it’s just a basic thing I need to keep existing. As such, I’ve probably purchased a different brand every trip, based on price, stock, or some arbitrary impulse about the cartoon mascot. The big issue – and market opportunity – is that the basics are often invisible to customers. You’re not competing against another brand, you’re competing against indifference. All it takes is a little branding love to transform a random purchase into a deliberate, ongoing relationship.
Who Gives a Crap
Australian brand Who Gives a Crap might be the platonic ideal of millennial branding. Take a thing no one enjoys shopping for – toilet paper and tissues – give it gorgeous design, ship it directly to people, and donate 50% of the profits to build toilets in the developing world. If you had crowdfunding launch, subscription service, purpose-driven, or irreverent copy on your card, you just hit bingo. In my entire life, never once did I imagine someone complimenting me on my toilet paper. But through great branding, they’ve managed to bring some delight to the crappiest part of your day.
Welly and Tru-Color Bandages
The best branding addresses a pain point, and the good folks at Welly understand this better than anybody. Co-founded by Eric Ryan, the same mind behind Method and Olly, comes vibrant, delightful, and stackable first aid kits. The tin kits include bravery bandages for those who love an adventure, single-use antibiotic ointments, and other first aid essentials like medical scissors and tweezers. Like Who Gives a Crap before them, they are taking something dull and infusing it with an abundance of life.
Beyond creating customer loyalty, utilitarian branding can have a profound effect on our identities and the way we move around the world. Earlier this year, 45-year-old Dominque Apollon had an emotional reaction to the most “boring” act possible: putting on a bandage.
It's taken me 45 trips around the sun, but for the first time in my life I know what it feels like to have a "band-aid" in my own skin tone. You can barely even spot it in the first image. For real I'm holding back tears. pic.twitter.com/GZR7hRBkJf
— Dominique Apollon (@ApollonTweets) April 19, 2019
“Ever wonder why bandages were only available in one skin-tone shade?” asks wellness brand Tru-Color. “We did, because there’s beauty in individuality, no matter the skin-tone.”
For years, various apps, products, and solutions have promised to transform our lives on a massive scale. The truth is, sometimes the most transformative moments in our day come from the smallest corners.
“I definitely didn’t expect the complex emotions that would swirl as I watched it just … blend in,” writes Apollon. “A seemingly trivial exercise I’ve repeated 1000x on my body with ‘regular’ ones since childhood. This felt like belonging. Like feeling valued. Sadness for my younger self and millions of kids of color.”
In the eyes of Apollon, this “purely functional” product has a purpose far beyond the utilitarian.
Put Utilitarian Branding to Good Use
There are countless of other examples. Virgin America turned the drudgery of the airplane safety video into a viral pop song. Shhhowercap manages to turn the least sexy object alive into a bona fide power statement. Quip adds an elegance and futurism to toothbrushes normally reserved for astronauts.
All of these are brilliant in their own way, but when I think about the most impactful opportunities for the future, it’s applying these lessons to underutilized resources. How many more people would interact with say, the DMV, a public health clinic, or a library if they looked and operated with the speed of the other brands in our lives?
The UK went to big lengths to redesign its postal service, as well as the products and experiences it offers. For some, that slightly improves a boring errand. For others, that could be the difference between getting a passport, opening up your first bank account, or getting a driver’s license. In other words, freedom and autonomy.
We will always be attracted to the biggest, shiniest inventions in tech. But if you really want to make an impact on people’s lives, start small.
Emotive Brand is a brand strategy and design agency in Oakland, California.