Branding is ‘the’ buzzword of the 21st Century. It is the consumer’s bible by which we live by to distinguish what is ‘right’ about certain products and services and what is ‘wrong’. Branding is there to create a connection with our inner selves, and just as we as humans are infinitely varied and different, so too are the brands that we are exposed to. Yet what if you turned your back on brands, or at least say you have. If a brand is a corporate identity, are you not in effect turning your back on identifying yourself to the general public? With the debut opening of the first Muji store in the New York Time Building at the end of the year I think it’s a fitting time to introduce the American public to the consumer antithesis, the ‘no brand’ brand.
A lady, sitting next to Raymond Loewy (many call him the father of Industrial Design) at dinner, struck up a conversation.
‘Why’, she asked ‘did you put two Xs in Exxon?’
‘Why ask?’ he asked
‘Because’, she said, ‘I couldn’t help noticing?’
‘Well’, he responded, ‘that’s the answer.’
If there was ever a quote best expressing the brand that is Muji, this would be it. Yes I called Muji a brand so before you double take and make sure your reading the same article let me tell you a bit about Muji.
Muji is essentially a lifestyle shop, specializing in providing simple, affordable goods while considering production and environmental impact, selling everything from wall mounted CD players to a re-used yarn elephant cuddly toy. The company is huge in Japan, with over 285 shops and 3400 employees and a range of offspring within its primary business including Cafe Muji, Meal Muji, Muji Campsite, Muji Opticians and Muji+Infill, an “off-the-peg architect designed open plan, energy efficient house”. Muji is all about minimalism, avoidance of waste in packaging and production and a strict no-logo policy. Even the name Muji is derived from the much longer ‘Mujirushi Ryōhin’, which translates as ‘No brand, quality goods’.
The great quote with Raymond Loewy is a perfect example of why Muji’s success is growing exponentially and why I can’t stop being drawn into one of the 3 shops in London every time I’m there. This corporate entity from a different land, exotic, mysterious with its indecipherable Japanese product descriptions, sucks you in like a fly to light. Normally the only readable text in the shop is the name outside although for the Japanese, the store must be like an Ikea. A lifestyle that you buy into with affordable solutions for modern living. In the West the identity of the company changes dramatically, it truly lives up to it’s name as a ‘no brand’ brand so, inadvertently yet entirely understandable, Muji has made a brand out of no brand. Why? Simple, human nature. As a human being, we remember things by association.
We remember that the last time I saw someone wearing a hooded top was that violent youth in the bar the other night, or the last pair of Doc Martins I saw were worn loose, by a guy with a shaved head and a swastika tattoo. We brand things by associations in our lives which are often played up by the companies and retailers themselves through promotion and advertising. You can argue the ‘no brand’ brand allows an openness in interpretation and association so you may brand Muji as an environmentally aware retailer, the next guy sees it as a Japanese company with a philosophy synonymous with ancient Oriental teachings or for someone else as the guys that sell those cool T-shirts that come in 10cm cube packaging.
The real question is whether a ‘no brand’ brand is more beneficial than a ‘brand’ brand? This is of course entirely contextual. For a company, a brand is beneficial in making money and provides them with a consumer base who care about what it means to buy certain items whether it’s clothing or electronics. Yet, people grow up and move on, as do their tastes and ideals. I know a lot of people who refuse to wear obviously, physically branded clothing because as much as the clothes may be top quality workmanship, the brand association doesn’t fit into who they are as a person or they don’t feel clothes need to say anything about them as a person. This is the audience of the ‘no brand’ brand or at least it tries to be. Brands evolve over time, often exploiting certain aspects of their character to form a niche market. A good example is American Apparel. Over time their vertical integration system of manufacture, distribution and promotion has become synonymous with being sweat shop free and environmentally conscious.
In our visually saturated environment, simplifying can often physically ‘de-brand’ something. Anonymous design, as promoted by the Super Normal Exhibition, is a very powerful factor in creating something that is embraced and used, rather than idolized or displayed. Yet there needs to be a degree of availability and accessibility to the idea that means people don’t aspire to this type of design and feel they need to belong a certain type of ‘design conscious’ class. A good example of this paradox is Japanese design studio, plus minus zero, helmed by superstar Japanese designer Nauto Fukasawa. The products available exude simplicity and elegance, but due mainly to it’s availability, the design still only caters for the ‘design conscious’ or those who appreciate the ideals and design theory offered by Fukasawa. Hopefully retailers like Muji, who combine simplicity and accessibility will pave the way for a new conscious consumer, who know what they want, and know where to go to get it.
One morning I was standing in a Muji shop on Carnaby Street in London’s Soho District, inspecting the huge variety in stationary on offer. I picked up every single tool and was in awe at how simple, yet beautiful they were, when from behind me in stormed a young Japanese girl, in her mid 20’s, grabbing a big handful of a very specific ball point pens as she moved past me, walked straight to the counter, paid and walked straight out. It was at that point I realized the success of Muji in providing people what they need, rather than what they think they need.
Needless to say I bought at least 3 of those pens.