Is there ever a case for “ordinary” branding?

Jim Northover looks at how being neutral or even boring might not necessarily be a bad things for brands.

The NHS (as seen in the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony) – a case study of an "ordinary" brand? Image by flickr user Shimelle Laine
The NHS (as seen in the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony) – a case study of an “ordinary” brand? Image by flickr user Shimelle Laine

For years we’ve been telling our clients, and ourselves, that branding is all about differentiation – standing out, getting noticed, offering something special, relevant or valuable – or just being different.

So, when a fashion trend like normcore comes along lauding a certain “ordinariness” – the polar opposite of what the fashion world traditionally sees as its business – what are we supposed to make of it in branding terms?

There is an attraction in neutrality. When everyone else is shouting or talking, silence is golden. But we’ve learnt to equate proactivity with success – neutrality is just for boring losers. And who wants a boring brand?

Well, maybe there’s more to ordinariness than being boring. Take the NHS, for example. Now there’s a case for normcore. I want my NHS to be ordinary – a service that’s not threatening, but neither is it uncaring. I want it to be there in an everyday kind of way.

I’m also quite happy for my utility services to be normcore. Think of having all your home infrastructure services provided in an ordinary way – giving you electricity, gas, telecoms and broadband in a consistent, everyday way. Simple, no hype, just plain ordinary. How wonderful!

And just imagine, under a newly elected government, a re-nationalised normcore rail service could be just the ticket.

Of course, normcore doesn’t imply underperformance. Your normcore trainers, jeans and T-shirts still need to fit, wear well and, in their ordinary way, look good. Normcore, as I understand it, implies getting on with your life without worrying too much about self-conscious appearances.

So, what might a normcore brand look and feel like? Clear, straightforward, competent, functional, familiar – characteristics that wouldn’t be bad starters for a design brief.

I know that many will say that normcore is just another fashion, and in the fashion world it probably is – already being discarded as last year’s fad as I write.

In the branding world though we don’t see ourselves as being about fashion, but we are certainly about spotting cultural trends that might add new meanings to what we do. Perhaps normcore could lend something new to how we lead our lives and the brands we help create.


Jim Northover co-founded Lloyd Northover and is currently chairman of Industry Partners and director of Jim Northover Ltd.

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  • John Lowdon April 14, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    Exactly right. The only worry is that I think we may have a generation of designers coming through that don’t speak normcore. An alien and scary concept to them. “How is this going to win a D&AD pencil?” I hear them mumble through their beards. Brand tone of Voice needs turning on it’s head too. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to base a brand personality on someone like Charlie Brooker. It would be honest, unapologetic, knowledgeable, daring and witty rather than… well ‘like Innocent’…

  • Guy Butters April 14, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    UKIP is another case in point. The last thing they needed was to look slick. It might be argued that their’s is a case of brilliant ‘anti-design’… a kind of Poundland-chic?

  • John Frieda April 15, 2015 at 10:32 am

    Apple is an example of disruptor brand turning normcore, even down to their staff attire…they used to be bright, fashion conscious and trend setting/appropriating (see original iMac/iPod ads).

    Their strategy now is to seem like a standard part of everyone’s day to day life, always in the background, but still playing a fundamental role in facilitating it. Google and Facebook too are catching on to this, relying on consumers to accept them as the default search engine or social media platform, so ensuring their brand will exist for many more years. Brands becoming part of the subconscious in a sense.

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