Has Minimalist Branding Jumped the Shark?

In a recent Adweek editorial, Simon Thorneycroft, founder and CEO of packaging design agency Perspective: Branding, bombastically declared it “beyond time to reject the minimalist craze and reintroduce a touch of romance, mystery and, dare I say, emotion, to brands. Because less is simply not more.”

The crux of his argument is this: what was once a disruptive design strategy–an antidote to the noise and clutter of traditional brand design–has become so commonplace that it has lost meaning. Worse, he argues, minimalism has always been accompanied by the “insidious threat” that bare-bones packaging connotes a transactional, commodity product that can’t be differentiated from competing products and “garner no loyalty” in the minds of consumers.

In my humble opinion, Thorneycroft’s line of reasoning is flawed and his denunciation of minimalism too black-and-white and blanketing to be useful. Minimalism, like any design approach or element, can be executed well or poorly. To say it is unequivocally bad is like saying the color blue is “over.” That’s nonsense.

Further, his claim that minimalist design engenders “the same level of emotional engagement as one experiences while putting coins in a parking meter” is pretty sensational. I am a repeat consumer of three of six brands he calls out as archetypically minimalist–RXBar, Brandless, and Naked Nutrition. For me and seemingly many other consumers, their minimalism IS part of their appeal, and it connotes, in my mind, very specific meaning. For me, it triggers associations with clean, straightforward ingredients, minimal processing, and sustainability–the opposite of the “mystery” Thorneycroft so desperately pines after. I also just like how they look in my home, on my desk at work, and in my possession. They speak to my aesthetics.

Of course, there are minimalist brands that do a bad job of appealing to consumers just as there are bad traditional brands. But rarely is that to be blamed on collateral, logo, or any other design element. As my colleague Ryan explains in his most recent Clubhaus post, a business’s logo isn’t its brand, any more than its packaging its brand. A brand is the culmination of the experiences a company cultivates and the reactions and feelings it elicits in its customers.

Thorneycroft suggests good brand design should “generate a visceral response” in consumers. And perhaps it should, but only because consumers associate it with all the other more meaningful, less tangible elements of identity. A minimalist design is just as capable of that as any other approach.

Image from RXBar