B2B Branding Design Trends: How Millennial Influence is Changing the Look of Conservative Industries

The millennial aesthetic — soft, approachable and authentic — is infiltrating B2B brand design.
graphic of design elements

In the months and years ahead, what should B2B marketers expect from branding design trends? For better or worse, pretty much what they’ve been seeing in consumer marketing for the past few years.

In early March 2020, New York magazine published an article asking “Will the millennial aesthetic ever end?” Its author, Molly Fisher, describes this look: “It aims its appeal at everyone…Simplicity of design encourages an impression that all errors and artifice have fallen away.” She points to brands such as Glossier, Thinx underwear — even Elizabeth Warren — as exemplars of this design trend, which embraces clean lines, soft neutral colors with cool accents, white space, and bespoke illustration and photography. Think millennial pink and Instagram-friendly.

But is this branding design trend relevant for 2020? While it’s not novel for B2C — top consumer brands may in fact be shifting their focus to Gen Z — B2B brands have only recently begun implementing the aesthetic. It makes sense: millennials, long the target of consumer branding, are aging. But though they may be aging out of their prominence as the most courted consumers, they’re aging into sought-after status in the B2B marketplace. With the oldest pushing 40 and the youngest in their mid 20s, millennials are taking on mid-level to senior positions in organizations. They are now making purchasing decisions — and if they’re not making them, they’re influencing them.

Millennial-friendly design trends for B2B brands

So how can you spot the millennial aesthetic? Read on for five of its primary characteristics:

Trend 1: Soft, organic color palettes

When you think of a generic B2B brand, you probably associate it with “corporate blue.” A B2B brand design usually wants to communicate authority and expertise, and until recently that often meant using conservative colors: corporate blue, forest green, maybe an accent color or two. Sometimes a brighter brand color might be selected, but only in “aggressive” fields such as cybersecurity or litigation. It was a rare brand that picked magenta or turquoise as its signature hue, let alone pink.

Enter the millennials. These buyers value authenticity and personality. They want brands to look unique, but not in an attention-seeking way. Thus, the brand design trends they gravitate toward tend to use soft, organic colors, such as “succulent green,” “rose gold,” and “periwinkle grey.”

For example, check out Zendesk’s web redesign. The company, which sells customer service and CRM software, used to serve up a crisp if unremarkable site that fell nicely within the branding design conventions of the B2B tech space. However, a recent redesign opted for something completely different. It went straight for millennial pink, with accents of other millennial-friendly colors such as deep aquamarine and ochre.

before and after

Trend 2: Illustration

There’s been plenty written about millennials’ desire for authentic, human brands. We explored this trend a few years back and noted that its rise was understandable: in a world where “fake” news can dominate the political conversation and Instagram stars turn out to be imposters, all consumers have become increasingly cynical.

In B2B marketing, we see authenticity reflected in conversational text, behind-the-scenes videos, employee blogs, and immersive events. Increasingly, we’re also seeing it in the imagery chosen for corporate communications. Stock imagery featuring generic businesspeople in bland offices is out. So what’s taking its place in B2B branding design?

One way to be sure corporate imagery is proprietary and unique is to commission photography. For example, Guggenheim Partners hired a photojournalist to document its people in action, ultimately creating a vast image bank for marketing collateral.

However, this strategy may not work for every company: the photos may age quickly, custom photography is expensive, and some work environments may be difficult to shoot effectively and safely. Some savvy brands have worked around these limitations by opting for unique illustrations rather than custom photography. They’re taking a page from millennial-friendly consumer brands, which have embraced hand-lettering and bespoke illustration in recent years.

While most B2B companies using illustration are in the tech space (Salesforce, Dropbox, Slack), we expect to see the strategy spread across markets. Already we’re seeing this B2B design trend as more brands develop bespoke iconography systems. The insurance giant Chubb, for example, has a robust and colorful system of icons for symbolizing its lines of business.

Trend 3: Sans-serif typography

Serif typefaces have long been used to bestow gravitas, exclusivity, and authority. In the fashion industry, serifs are have often been used by high-end brands such as Ralph Lauren and Tiffany & Co. Or at least they were until recently. Recently, a surprising number of luxury brands have introduced new, simplified, sans serif wordmarks: Burberry, Balmain, and Saint Laurent among them.

font comparison

Could the same branding design trend be coming to B2B industries? In the past, many B2B companies felt that serif fonts communicated expertise and experience. Think of prestigious brand such as McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, even Yale and Harvard. However, as in fashion, a number of power players have moved to sans-serif wordmarks: BCG, HSBC, AmLaw 100 firm Seyfarth Shaw, and Bristol Myers Squibb (which also embraced millennial pink).

logo before and after

What’s behind the move? For many, it’s what designer Peter Saville calls “modern utility.” Sans-serif fonts are easier to reproduce, whether on a designer jacket or on screen. The simplification also supports the penchant for clean lines that’s a key part of the millennial aesthetic.

However, in B2B industries, sans serifs can play an additional, humanizing role, particularly when the typeface style is light and open. This B2B design trend subtly suggests that a firm is approachable and flexible, not stuffy and rigid, which is exactly what millennial professionals want to see.

Trend 4: Motion graphics

Hewing to B2B brand design trends and writing compelling copy doesn’t deliver much value if customers won’t pause to look and read. This can be a challenge when marketing to millennials: they are notoriously selective with their attention. By using motion graphics on a website, the visitor’s gaze can be directed to the content they should prioritize. Motion graphics can also provide a bit of texture to a site, enriching the online experience. One of the most well-known applications of motion graphics is Apple’s page for the Mac Pro: its animations begin on scrolls, sleekly exhibiting the features that make a pricey investment worthwhile. This visually stunning graphic commands attention, helping to boost conversion rates.

Zendesk provides another good example. Its graphics are subtle: zooming into a photograph on scroll, demo-ing solutions on hover. The motion graphics attract attention and also underscore the brand’s playful spirit. For example, Zendesk uses a whimsical film clip — “dancing” odds and ends — as a background to introduce Sunshine, its CRM platform.

 Trend 5: Ultra-minimalism in web design  

Millennials like things clean and simple. They love Voss water, Method soap, Muji pens, and Uniqlo basics. As such, many B2C brands have gone ultra-minimalist with their websites. Check out the sites of Herschel Supply, Brooklinen, or Canadian furniture maker EQ3.

Adopting this minimalist branding design trend can be more difficult on B2B websites, however. While e-commerce retailers can rely primarily on photography to demonstrate their products, B2B offerings require more explanation and demonstration. This often means more text and less opportunity for white space.

Nonetheless, we’re seeing an overall trend for more stripped-down B2B web design, particularly on homepages. Visitors to Quid.com, the website of a big data-visualization firm, are greeted with a black screen, a multicolored network map, and the words “Turn text into context.” While other pages are, by necessity, more information-laden, the site’s overall look and feel maintains a significant amount of white space around simple sans-serif text and full screen images. Codetasty.com is another example. The company, which provides integrated development environments, makes a simple, focused first impression. Visitors see an open laptop screen, surrounded by a purple field of subtly animated blocks. The only text appears in a call to action.

Millennial mania: Should you follow this B2B design trend?

Buying into the millennial design aesthetic has pros and cons. On the positive side, it will project a more human and welcoming presence to prospects and clients. Executed correctly, its simplicity, motion graphics, and careful use of white space should provide a refreshing customer experience. These are valuable attributes when targeting the growing audience of millennial B2B decision-makers, who value authenticity, purpose, and convenience.

However, companies may risk sacrificing visual differentiation by embracing this B2B design trend. As Molly Fisher voiced in the New York piece, seeing similar design across companies, industries, and platforms can grow tiresome — and even confusing. For example, someone researching customer-messaging platforms could easily conflate competitors’ websites, as these examples show.

exhibit of three similar sites

Ultimately, there’s no universal right answer. If a company is a new entrant to a market — particularly in the tech space — implementing the millennial aesthetic may bolster credibility. By adopting the design trends of the industry, a newcomer asserts its right to be there. However, to position a company as a challenger brand or market disruptor, conforming to conventions may not be the best strategy. A more unexpected and differentiated design system may offer much-needed differentiation.

We expect to see millennial design trends continue to filter into B2B markets. To talk about what design strategy is right for your company, contact us.


Dru Desantis portraitAbout the author
Dru DeSantis is a cofounder of DeSantis Breindel. She shapes strategic brand identities and powerful brand activations from digital ecosystems to multi-channel campaigns, engaging audiences and achieving critical business objectives.

 

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