B2B design is softening up

Coley Porter Bell on how B2B developed its softer side.

Design, like fashion, functions as a mirror to the culture of the day. And culture has come a long way in the last few decades, especially when it comes to business culture.

Back in the 50s, business was a very serious shirt-and-tie affair. Personality and expression was subsumed under a literally uniform model of showcasing inherent trust with formal attire, in a way that appealed to our human inclination to minimise risk, and at a time when in the City the expression ‘my word is my bond’ still counted for something.

But then tech changed everything. Desktops changed office layouts, laptops and smartphones bred flexible working, and the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook started hiring grads straight out of university who were never asked to take off their sneakers and baseball caps. Tech – and tech companies – flattened hierarchies by ushering in a new Age of Informality.

Moreover, as advanced economies have changed from manufacturing to services, people have become the most important resource a brand has. Successful businesses don’t just produce stuff these days, they have brains that develop ideas and innovations that give them their competitive edge. So strong relationships and employee creativity have become crucial to company performance. And the best way to motivate people? Treat them as people.  

So what does this mean for business branding today?

Whereas branding for business was blue, grey, formal handshakes and a professional tone of voice, businesses are now revealing a more real, and human side to themselves. Businesses are less corporate and more about the people who work there and the brand values they embody.

This should be a welcome step in the right direction and in tune with how we make decisions about the brands we choose. Neuroscience tells us that people respond to brands instinctively and don’t put on a business or consumer hat.  Whoever you are marketing to, even in the B2B space, everyone’s a consumer.

So it’s good to see B2B brands adopting a more human approach. In particular, we’ve noticed the following trends:

The development of personality

We are seeing a move away from dull greys and blues to more vibrant and eye-catching colour palettes, together with more playful and unexpected imagery, simple accessible language and copy that’s refreshingly direct.

MailChimp’s 2018 rebrand oozed personality. As the marketing platform grew, they developed a new brand system that maintained a balance between ‘sophisticated’ and ‘surreal’, proving that growing up doesn’t mean ignoring your peculiarities. Setting their brand colour as yellow – eschewing typical blues and greens – sets a fun but not unsophisticated visual when paired with black. And the new illustration style enables them to communicate their complex tools and marketing practices in a simpler and more human way.

Similarly, ecommerce company Klarna looks and feels more like a lifestyle brand than a bank with pink as an accent colour. Harneys Offshore law firm also injected a human touch into its branding with smart but playful illustrations and a vibrant colour palette across all its print and digital collateral. Their personality sets them apart from the wash of blue law firms that typically dominate the offshore and global legal brandscape.

The recent redesign or Dropbox is punchy, colourful and full of contrast. The old logo of a literal blue box has been evolved to a collection of surfaces to show that Dropbox is an open platform and a place for creation. 

Designing for a higher purpose

It’s increasingly common that businesses are looking beyond what you’re selling them. These days they want to know what you stand for, so that narrative is increasingly communicated through brand and design.

We recently worked with Lonza Pharma & Biotech to create a distinct brand that would resonate with with their customers and connect with their staff emotionally. Using our bespoke Visual Planning approach we defined a positioning that put the brand at the heart of a greater endeavour, the ongoing quest for medicines to make a better world for everyone.

The two brand pillars ‘next’ and ‘together’ focus on human aspects of giving patients the hope of tomorrow and the fact that partnership is at the core of Lonza’s business. We developed a complete brand world around these simple ideas: a visual identity that is bold and simple, a new tone of voice using simple language (in an industry where there is a great deal of complexity) and an adaptable, environmental global toolkit so Lonza’s offices would feel bold, colourful and inspiring places to work.

'System 1' ways to bring brand values to life

With consumers making decisions about brands using the System 1 intuitive and emotional side of their brains, it’s good to see B2B brands using more emotionally engaging media and experiences to bring their brand values to life.

Based at the old BBC Media Village, White City Place aspires to become a creative hub for West London that attracts artistic talent. As well as having a dynamic moving identity of overlapping squares, to convey a place work place ‘where nothing stands still and everyone bounces off each other’, Stanhope worked with Fathom Architects to design London’s first mobile podcasting studio, the Pod.

When Dr Martens rebranded, it wanted to take its staff on the journey. All employees received a vinyl with an on-brand record sleeve, curated newsletter and a new brand manifesto. A large majority of employees now recommend it as a great place to work, up 5%. 

Lessons for B2B design

It’s been a necessary and welcome development that B2B companies are beginning to reap the benefits of designing to be more human and personable. And to those that haven’t yet crossed that Rubicon, our advice would be speak to the heart not just the head. It’s okay to be funny, to break the design convention of your rivals, and showcase how your brand actually impacts real lives. 

Ultimately, speak human to human. And reflect your brand in kind.

Elayne Read is senior brand planner at brand design agency Coley Porter Bell.

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