branding trends

2021 Branding Trends – Ninjawards

Each year, Cubicle Ninjas’ reviews the industry’s creative highs and lows to publish a curated list of notable efforts in each specialty. Think of it as a highlights reel of the years’ best and brightest, along with some cautionary tales.

One of the core ninja principles is to always question the status quo. The Ninjawards provides a platform for inspiration, constructive criticism, and ultimately, recognition of bright new areas of design or technology. We hope our thinking unlocks new perspectives about the future of your creative in Branding!

Allowing Brands to Have a Unique Personality Again

For the last decade, brands have steered towards formulaic similarity, where differentiation was almost seen as a negative for medium to large organizations. In the current unpredictable and unstable world, there is a push towards embracing a distinct, personal point-of-view. Organizations have to appear brave and confident and act as an advocate for their industries, audience, and brand. This differentiation is driven by younger generations who seek out brands and products that have a true personality rather than cookie-cutter copy cats.

Standing for Something as a Brand

Every year, consumers are becoming more educated and more invested in activist movements surrounding causes like income inequality, racial injustice, healthcare policy, climate protections, and more – and they are seeking out brands specifically for their stances in these areas. Organizations that learn from past and current world events, rather than shy away from them, benefit from a deeper understanding of their audiences’ values and can use that insight to further shape their brand across all touchpoints. By actively supporting the philanthropic priorities of their market, brands can expect increased engagement with their audiences while consumers can enjoy a stronger, more personal brand experience.

The Unboxing Experience

With COVID-19 has come a significant increase in online shopping, a trend that will continue well into 2021. Without the in-store shopping experience, companies have had to build a relationship with the consumer through their messaging, packaging, digital presence, and service offerings alone. Creating an immersive, seamless consumer experience should be the goal of any branded organization, but in 2020 it became essential in order to drive increased engagement. An ecosystem of custom packaging, branded collateral, product presentation, digital tools, and personalized messaging helps brands connect with consumers and build brand loyalty.

Crisis Management

Crisis management has been key throughout 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as activist movements seen throughout the year. Across industries, organizations had to find ways to carefully yet effectively enact new policies for the safety of both their employees and their consumers. Then, they had to communicate those policies. As the year wore on, we saw these communications evolve from hand-written notes hung with tape to professionally-designed, printed, and installed signage. We saw obligatory social media posts transform into fully-fledged philanthropic brand campaigns. And we saw initial chaos and uncertainty build into messages of hope, strength, and empathy. Although 2020 is behind us, we expect to see more of these initiatives unfold throughout the new year, and anticipate brands will maintain the agility they learned in 2020.

Reviving the Artisanal Spirit

When face-to-face interaction becomes a liability, human connection can feel impossible to achieve. In 2020, this challenge extended to brands as well as they faced the possibility of drifting away from their audiences. Reconnecting the relationship between brand, consumer, and product sometimes requires a different kind of personal touch. This year, we saw brands re-emerge with artisanal spirits to help strengthen connections with their communities and markets, reigniting the thrill of shared (yet socially-distanced) experiences. Rethinking the brand approach and reviving a feeling of tactile, hand-made craft allowed brands to strengthen their identity and reinforce a sense of human empathy with consumers.

Editability

The brands that stood out this past year were successful because of editability – their ability to swiftly adapt. From consumer-facing touchpoints (e.g. physical signage, social media, digital marketing) to internal initiatives, agile companies were able to tailor their brand to meet the challenges of 2020. Those brands that leveraged their systems to seamlessly pivot towards changing needs made an impact this year and will continue to do so in the future. How can a brand be beautiful, personal, and editable though? That’s the challenge. Those that were too finicky and relied on an overwhelmed corporate lost in 2020. Having the agility and willingness to remap your brand is key to evolving with the times.

Restrictive Redesigns

Consistency is a hallmark of strong branding, but sometimes it can go too far. Early in 2020, Google redesigned their app icons, causing uproar amongst users and designers alike. While the new icons are clearly aligned with the Google brand, they contain almost no differentiating features. The result is a sea of look-a-likes that makes it nearly impossible for users to quickly find the app they need. Icons and logos are meant to be recognizable at a glance. When they’re all the same shape and color, the user experience is one of confusion and frustration – consistently.

Gradient Abuse in Logo Design

Over the years, gradients have proven themselves to be an enduring design trend. They come, they go, and they always come back. In 2020, that wasn’t always for the better. When using gradients in logo design, less is more. Too many colors or not enough contrast can hinder the legibility and harmony in even the strongest design. If you do opt to use gradients in your logo, try creating solid color versions first so you can assess the efficacy of your design without getting distracted by the color application. A gradient should elevate the logo and speak to the brand story. If you’re adding one just for show, your design may not need one at all.

Branded Face Masks

In 2020, face masks became part of our new normal, and some companies outside of the medical field began selling them as branded merchandise. However, this calls into question the ethics of a company profiting from a global pandemic. Is it fair to say this is commercializing a health crisis? And how do consumers feel about their desire to protect themselves and others being turned into a marketing opportunity? Honestly, it depends who you ask. If nothing else, this year has shown the importance of organizations understanding their industry and audiences before making a decision that could heavily alienate them.

Branded Face Masks

On the other hand, do these companies deserve praise for contributing to the availability of face masks and providing options that consumers are more likely to wear? In an age when consumers increasingly expect organizations to give back to society, a brand that dedicates resources to providing protective equipment during a pandemic could receive wide approval for doing so. These types of subjective moral dilemmas often don’t have a right or wrong answer, which is why it’s key for organizations to understand the state of their industry and the mindset of their audiences so they can make informed decisions that don’t lead to PR disasters. In 2021, we expect to see brands faced with more grey areas and higher consumer expectations than ever before and encourage them to put resources toward auditing the current state of their market to help guide them through these challenges.

Characters in Logo Design: “Give it a Face”

In 2021, we can expect to see more characters and mascots in logo and brand design as audiences look for personal connection. This strategy helps personify the brand, give a face to the name, and creates a unique story around the organization that’s almost inherently differentiated from the competition. From fashion lines to insurance brokers, we expect this branding tactic to continue to gain traction in 2021.

Emoji Design

Users love to express their emotions on digital platforms, especially texting and social media. Designing custom emojis and incorporating them into branding creates a reaction and response, and ignites engagement with your brand. This fad adds a fun and playful feeling, and is especially attractive among younger audiences. Social media powerhouses like Snapchat and Bitmoji popularized this trend, but we expect to see more brands hop on the bandwagon to draw in new users.

Sustainability

As the world ground to a halt in 2020, we were given a glimpse of how our everyday habits have an impact on our environment. Although the trend for eco-friendly products has been a mainstay in recent years, the past year has shown a dramatic increase in brands actively pursuing greener alternatives, both in their production and packaging. As more consumers seek to lessen their impact, we will continue to see more brands take the lead in embracing more eco-friendly initiatives.

Maximalism

Could the days of harmonious and overly clean design be drawing to an end? It’s possible if the maximalist aesthetic keeps growing. This trend calls back to popular 90s styles – which surged in popularity for nostalgia-craving millennials in 2020 – though draws inspiration from multiple eras and movements. It creates a sense of dissonance and dynamism through creative, extravagant, and colorful elements that speak to both past and future aesthetics. Consumers just might be ready for this loud design trend in 2021!

3D Design/Illustrations

With faster and more accessible 3D software, more brands are finding creative ways to incorporate 3D art into their branding – bucking standard flat design and even taking a step beyond the sometimes-in, sometimes-out skeuomorphic trend. This new generation of illustration seeks to embrace the pop aesthetic, leaving behind the texture and detail for simpler, colorful forms that add whimsy and personality to a brand.

Optimism

To put it lightly, 2020 was a difficult year. The hits seemed to keep on coming and left people anxious and exhausted. In 2021, brands will be looking to bring hope and optimism back into the lives of their audiences, not just through brand voice and messaging, but in visuals as well. We’re likely to see branding trends skew towards uplifting and inspiring visuals, fun and energetic shapes, and vibrant colors and patterns.

Anti-Design

In 2020, all of our expectations went out the window. In 2021, conventional rules in logo design will be broken and trend towards intentional chaos. The traditional standards of logo design will shift toward asymmetrical layouts, overlapping elements, and distorted type. The anti-design movement, as it’s called, will bring forth inventive arrangements in logos. But beware, unrecognizable letterforms and strange compositions can make logos difficult to decipher and hinder brand recognition.

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