Have you ever purchased a Bland?
Every once in a while you read something or you see something or you hear something that makes things. Click into place in your mind and once that happens for you. The world is a little different forever. Today's episode will probably be one of those things. So i don't know if you've ever purchased the goods or the services provided by an upstart disruptor company before or not. If you have it can take many forms. You may subscribe to a shave for razors new razor from harris harris. Not saying you may have purchased one of those heavily discounted mattresses that come in a really cool box. You might even have done that. After hearing an ad on a podcast were hoping. To debunk the old school notion that you need a firm mattress or you may have cut out the middleman and purchased glasses from one of those sleek online stores that just need your prescription and your money and the lenses are on their way ohi. We're worby parker. You might have subscribed to a hipster clothing brands. Online monthly wardrobe subscription. I myself have been guilty of that one. You may have gotten your luggage or your coffee or your health insurance or your socks or your groceries from a startup. That does just that. And that's how you know that they really care and are really good. Just wanna make a difference in your shopping experience if you have done any of those things. Then congratulations you have purchased a bland. There are a million bland's there are more every minute. They all sell themselves as unique harris not say and they are all exactly the same and they are everywhere so today. We're going to learn about them just in time for your last minute holiday shopping. I'm jordan heath rawlings. This is the big story which is mostly not a bland but it could be ben. Shot is a visual columnist. For bloomberg opinion he he created the shots original miscellany and these shots almanac series. He writes for newspapers magazines around the world. I back hello. I want to ask you first. Where did you come up with the concept. The idea that we're talking about today because it really reads to me like you just have flash of insight and something occurred to you. Yes it sort of came like that. What it really was was a consequence of the quarantine lockdown in manhattan one of the strange things about manhattan basically empty. I mean you could literally walk down fifth avenue in the middle of the day and wouldn't be a single car so it was empty in march and april as it you know. The numbers became more ominous. And what you could see is the wood for the trees the trees for the word so you could see reliance on delivery workers and on package deliveries and homelessness because everything stood out because there was no crowd and the other thing you saw pretty much everywhere you went people delivering these boxes fedex and amazon and ups box after box after box and they all have these beautiful logos on them that all have similar look and feel and this tide was something that i've been feeling about branding in sort of the a phase western capitalism. That was this of the rise of the bland. We'll start then. Maybe by introducing us to it through the toothbrushes That you wrote about that. That was incredible. And i hadn't Even considered it. Until i saw them all in the same place like that. What are the brands Tell me the type and maybe even just lists their names because it's insane so people may have heard of quip so quick with this subscription toothbrush silver thin stylish sort of like the apple mac of toothbrushes and quip has been around for a bit then about a month ago two months ago now colgate introduced a toothbrush called home. Now what's interesting about is Has its own separate little website and it looks remarkably like quip and once you start looking quip next remarkably light gobi and burst and boker and rush and gleam and shine and there are dozens of these look like subscription toothpaste companies. Which have these very sort of edgy. Funky cool pastel modern. Sort of unthreatening sense. But it's a subscription toothbrush. And if you told my grandfather that people be spending money on a subscription tooth toothbrush. I mean he'd slapped me. It will just be outrageous to him but this has now become the new face of capitalism consumer capitalism. Why do people spend money like this on subscription toothbrushes. Well i mean. That's up to say the not good toothbrushes and maybe maybe actually a subscription means that you change your your toothbrush hair more often. It's beneficial teeth. And i'm not saying these products are bad. I'm just saying that they've created a new sense. And what's interesting about these products. And i dumped them. Bland for reasons. I'm sure we'll come onto is that they try in a sort of fly under the radar of rational thought that cool in that convincing and chummy and they sort of wanna friend and then not really like horrible old school brands. This sort of pounds. And that's what's actually interesting about hum by colgate is that it has all the look and the feel of one of these. Cheerful new breed brands. But it's got the big colgate logo the nathan so this tension between one of the cool new like upstart brands and one of the old. Fm cg sort of monolithic brands. How do you define something as a bland. do you have like a working definition in your head. Well i returned to the amazing judicial opinion on obscenity and pornography and the judge said you know when you see it And bland's have a similar sort of sense. What they really are and again. You knew them when you see them. They are brands that claimed simultaneously to be unique in in products and groundbreaking in design and purpose and singular in delivery while slavishly abang and identikit formula of business model. Look and feel and tone of voice and it's the business model the look and feel in the tone of voice once you identify them and group them together. You realize that. they're all the same but individually. They all seem to be unique. And that's the trick. Glands poll how do they do that they do it through look and feel and tone of voice so they tend to be neutral and clean and pastel. They tend to make claims to be underdogs. They always have an origin story narrative the humble they do one thing well they have these values these important values of consumer and community environment and aspirational that not cheap. So there's a huge blueprint and the article. I wrote for bloomberg opinion about two and a half thousand words and it goes through in tremendous detail. How these blance operate in terms of ascetics but also in terms of business with this is what i'm also really curious about. Is you know why do so many of them exist and you know in so many spaces because again the reason i started you off with toothbrushes. Because it's just such an innocuous everyday thing that you would never imagine There are twelve different companies vying for market share in but but that exists on almost every product now There must be a method behind this. Well i mean they pulled him thing to say that they are direct to consumers so what industries and brands and the brands that people may have heard of the old school the originator. Some of the earliest bland's were casper. Mattress company won't be parker the glass company away. The luggage company harry's this scripture shaving foam oskar the new york health insurance company and quip when you line them up they all sort of how this sensibility and because certain brands did very well sweet. Green the salad company. We'll be park especially the i'd losses company. They came in and they disrupted a very old established business model and then what happens is people in the same industry. Go hang on. We can do that too. We can then knockoff. Worby parker and there are dozens of. We'll be parker wanted wannabes. So people who say oh. The eyeglass industry is ripe for disruption. And why should this the only disruptor and then there are people who say. Aw we want to be the willoughby park of car hire or the will be part of a window. Cleaning we'll be puffer. Coffee pods says suddenly will be parked become. So my point is it works horizontally vertically horizontally people try and copy within that same grouping and vertically people borrow the success and say well how can we spin this off in other fields. What is their pinch to consumers because it's almost uniform. Yeah edens uniform. I when you line them up you realize so there were there were there. Were lots of elements to it. The first of all is the that underdogs so often they're funded by almost incomprehensible amounts of venture capital or angel investment but to say oscar for example. There strap line is. We didn't create oscar because we liked health insurance quite the opposite. There's the notion of their on your side. It's the man who's being you know having it good for too long. And they are absolutely out to disrupt the man and be good to the consumer. Now of course often. As i say he's a hugely wealthy funded companies and they eventually become the man but the sense of dog and that's linked to the origin story. The origin story is remarkable. They all have the same sense. Just this this bizarre notions candidate once upon a time. Five of us started talking about our teeth or keeps stephen. Dmitri met the first week of college back when they both had very full heads of hair. It's this notion that they're just regular joes who ally you know. We need a better sneaker. We're going to set out an inventor and it's really there are literally thousands of sneaker browns and all you re doing anything that innovative you know. It's funny we touched on it at the very beginning when you talked about the look and the feel of the toothbrushes and it kind of brushed up against it A minute ago when you talked about kind of the origin story. And all i can think of when i hear this is like that sounds like apple like that. Sounds like a you know the very beginnings of their brand. Is that where this all comes from. Well i mean you can't have a conversation about any of modern branding without apple and almost all of these brands. Aspire i think sort of publicly or privately to be the apple of their space and the reason why is that apple is incredibly clean and simple and distinctive and it has some of the greatest design. Heads it's almost comprehensible market value. The difference between these blands and an apple is apple has been doing this for forty four years right. So apple has been fighting and it's been stumbling and it's been working incredibly hard and it's constantly wrong-footed its users. So i'm the one. I had a an apple laptop. And we're going to get rid of the cd drive. That is impossible. This is insane could you. How are we going to download software without a cd player linked into my incredibly heavy laptop and they constantly do they take away the headphone jacks from that. Everyone's in uproar and then everyone goes and buys bluetooth headphones. So is this remarkable example of a brand that actually takes incredibly brave decisions. Gets things wrong gets things right moose ford and it's a riot at this point. After fool decades now it started off being the great giant killer against ibm. But now it's up the way more successful in some ways than idea. And it's now just like a crisp silhouette shiny from screen and everything you know about. Apple is summed up in that one silhouette but it took a long time to get there. Now what the bland's do like the away suitcases or mossy apple of suitcases. is they. try and start. Where apple ends they think right. We are just going to stop exactly going to learn everything that apple did and that's going to be baseline but they didn't invent necessarily and they don't innovate. They just copied the playbook and copying someone else's playbook is really truly successful business design strategy in my opinion how to blends actually make money. Do they make money. It seems like there's too many of them fighting for the same space for for any of them are at least very few of them to be reasonably successful. Well some do make money and some spin off. And i mean this is. This is the other thing is that brands are in to exit so a lot of these brands not all of them are not there to set up multigenerational companies. They're not bad. Become these huge successful long term companies. What they're trying to do is accelerate customer acquisition to launch velocity before spinning off an ipo or seeking acquisition from a competing company. So uba and postmates or lululemon who bought mirror or petsmart and chewy so often it's about blitz scaling to acquire as many customers as possible to look as big as you can and then essentially selling through an ipo so you float on the stock exchange or you essentially said it to one of your original competitors and there's a sense to which these some of these bounds almost engaged in a form of corporate blackmail. So they come along to. Let's not name names but they come along to say widget. X. like x. is a big consumer market and there's a couple of very big brands and they disrupt that they disrupt market ex gets disrupted and this super bland comes along and all the work they spend a fortune to acquire customers and then the companies they were competing against the old school lumbering big old fashioned browns thing. Oh my god. We have three options. Either we just get absolutely crushed by this competition. All try and spin off our own super cool. Bland which is what colgate tried to do with Or we just by the upstart me. Bring it in and we just own it. We own competition and that happens not infrequently of course the consumer who bought this suco. Cool upstart bland. It's like hang on a sec. I light you because you're like cool and not the man now. The man is brought us. So where do i stand but by this stage. The founders have escaped and they've made that hundred million dollars and everyone's happy. So how do plans do when they're acquired by mega corporations like how does hyung-doo for colgate do people buy do. They know it's colgate and and that's why it doesn't succeed. Well the truth. I don't know i hamas relatively new. Okay i mean. I laughed out loud. if you go to the Little mini site. It as i say looks like no other colgate toothbrush. Colgate toothbrushes on their website. Look like this and Looks completely different. Sort of tomato red. It's what cool. Sand sarah childish. All noah case. It's very friendly. it's very sort of gender fluid. It's very much of this particular design aesthetic moment but what's hilarious is underneath. The harm is the colgate logo. Now i have no idea. This is true. But i'd be willing to bet ten bucks. There was a meeting where the design people say. We should just call it. And then there's the branding old school people go to put the colgate logo without realizing that. Sorta destroys the entire point because it sort of negates the entire sense of an upstart because it's making claims to this old fashioned brand. Now the answer is how. How plans do well some do well. In some dote summit hugely successful has spun successfully and some will fall by the wayside. I think it's been a weird year. Because the ipo market. Obviously kobe has been strange. I think some will make a lot of money and the rest will make no money. And a vast amounts of venture capital will be burned in the interim. Is there such a thing as a unique bland or is that an oxymoron. I mean one of the ones you had in your piece is frank and should know. You're talking to us from canada frankin okay. Proudly canadian company is often trumpeted as a canadian owned and operated success. Story up here Bland's unique i think the onset of his by definition no because what they are trying to do is buy into this sort of cullman ascetic now within that they can do good work and bad work and they can be better than others or worse than others. I think the. I think the the initial revolutionaries probably onto something. I think everyone has followed in the footsteps. Isn't that's not to say that they're bad especially important emphasize. I'm not saying that bland's put me as a blinds has a pejorative sense to it. Matt is sort of easy and fun to slightly. Mock them when you put all of their origin stories together and you realize that they're identical since you could move around all the different words between these brands. And they don't make sense because that it really claim to originality because true originality is actually quite shocking. Some of them are is superb. I sit here in wearing. We'll be pocket losses. And i love them. I'm not saying that these are bad products. I'm just saying it's absolutely fascinating. How common they are in. Look and feel and tone of voice and business model when what they are saying is we are unique and special and there's no one quite like us when there are literally dozens of people like them. Can you take an existing product or brand and make it into a bland in order to make it cooler. Could we make this podcast into a bland. I mean it's funny. I don't wanna get us into trouble. But there's a huge overlap between the people who advertise on po costs. The browns advertisement costs and bland's this is sort of huge overlap and again. There's nothing wrong with. It's just kind of amusing and poke costs. Have this sort of sensor of that kind of friendly there in your ear. They had this pinky punky music. This sort of up speak. It's all like hey welcome. It's a nice warm bubble bath. Everyone's welcome personally attacked here. That's okay but listen. It's hugely successful. And that's that's the aesthetic of disk communications medium in the way that twitter has its own. Instagram has an attack. In fact you bite an entire article. And i may well do about the overlap between instagram. Acetic and blanding and again there are so many buyers that have seen to only exist on instagram. The plant lumberjack shirt to which you could find thousands of examples on instagram. that instagram is useful for selling axes. I mean really. People really need beautiful elaborate stylish access tons out. They do so yes. There is an overlap between all of these things. And i suppose for me. The question is how long does this movement last have we reached peak bland and one of the things that totally stomach was reaction to this piece. This is probably had more action. Little missed anything. I've ever written and i think almost like a stand up comedian. What i did was. I just put my finger on something that people sort of been feeling for many months if not years and once you put a name to it that got that exact. I think these are all the same these brands and people sort of feel vaguely conned. I think but i should say to. Ceo's of companies mentioned in this piece. So i'm not going to name wrote to me to say you know what hands up you got us. One of the guy says. I don't know why writing to you but you absolutely nailed it and i feel as you say i feel will see but you know it's working so i'm gonna stick with that you just mentioned have we reached peak bland. How would we know when that happens when new attempts at this Start to just be ignored when they start to lose priority in your instagram feed. Which you know is how. I encounter them How will we know when the business model is changing. Well i think like everything sees it. I in the rear view mirror. It's a bit like when you have a headache. You never noticed a moment. The headaches gone you go. I have a headache for that. And i think you know. I think that's the case with lots of sort of cultural movements. You really see the moment. I mean occasionally. When when bob dylan stood up and free. Trade hold on goes electric. Amac shouts judas. Well all right. That's exactly a moment where the culture changed. But you don't really see those moments. I do think bland's have tipped and i do think this piece was lucky enough. I think to call it on the crest of the wave. And i think we are at a moment and actually i'm writing a piece which i will happen to come back and talk about and should be interested on what i think is next. And it's a sort of some of bland and it's using a lot of the same techniques in a slightly disruptive and alienating so i think there are signs of the backlash or rather than next step but again you tend to see it in the review riviera. Then thank you so much for coming on and talking to us about this One of the most fascinating things. I've read this year. Thank you ben. Shot visual columnist for bloomberg opinion. That was the big story for more from us. Head to the big story. Podcast dot ca or find us at frequency podcast network dot com. You can of course find us in any podcast player. You prefer apple. google stitcher. Spotify doesn't matter you can also write to us. The big story podcast. That's all one word. All lower case at our dot rogers dot com and as always. We are on twitter at big story f. p. n. claire broussard stephanie. Phillips and ryan clark produced the big story analysts nielsen is our digital editor. Joseph fish was an associate producer all this week and we were so grateful to have him. And we're so grateful that you listened. Thanks for doing that. I'm jordan heath rawlings. Stay safe this weekend. We'll talk tomorrow.