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18 Feb

No-label quality goods

Every third post on an Instagram feed, every second story, between every few reels, and when visiting a person’s profile, a brand ad is following you. It is the annoying digital manifestation of a salesperson who keeps stalking you in a physical store, wondering if you need help with something. The only exception is the salesperson stops pursuing you if you ask them not to, but online ads don’t.

And the speed with which I scroll away from brand ads makes me existential. I start questioning my job of building Stoa’s brand because it feels like creating another collateral the consumer is simply not moved by.

In a bid to stand out, I doubt if any brand truly is standing out. But on such days, I spend more time looking for better inspiration. And today, this inspiration is in the form of an eclectic brand from Japan.

The brand goes back to the 1980s: a time in Japan’s economic history termed the ‘Economic Miracle.’ Japan, after the end of World War 2, had become the second-largest economy in the world by the 1980s. And consequently, there was a boom in all types of Japanese innovation — from Manga to Miyazaki movies to becoming the exporters of world-class consumer goods — with businesses such as Sony, Toyota, and Nintendo leading the way.

Around this time, consumers in Japan had taken fancy to new brands, and in response, brands were outdoing each other with their promotions, ads, and marketing to stand out.

This frenzy for branded products vying for attention and limelight was ripe for disruption, and MUJI is the brand that led the way.

Here’s how —

MUJI, Mujirushi (no-brand) Ryōhin (quality goods), a retail business in operation since December 1980, sold a wide variety of household and consumer goods.

The MUJI product range was developed to offer affordable quality products, initially marketed using the slogan “Lower priced for a reason” and without any effort spent on branding.

MUJI achieved low prices via highly optimized production and eliminating excessive packaging. And this initially helped it stand out among other brands.

Kenya Hara, MUJI’s art director, in Designing Design, explained —

"The thorough effort of simplifying the production process has led to the emergence of a whole list of products with unparalleled aesthetics. The clear-cut contrast of these products with the conventional, excessively produced merchandise of the era affected not only Japan but the rest of the world. MUJI products earned the support of consumers, who are highly conscious of their living environment, and of opinion leaders, with their sophisticated perception."

But Hara knew standing out as a brand only because of lower costs was a race to the bottom and was unsustainable in the long run. They were already facing competition from businesses that set up production bases in countries with low labour costs.

This meant that MUJI increasingly faced difficulty sustaining the initial brand promise of lower-priced, no-brand products. Hara knew that MUJI could compete on product cost by following the same methods, but the MUJI concept wasn't based on being "cheap."

And the one thing he was certain of was not losing the precious brand spirit in a frantic effort to lower costs.

So, when Hara took over as the art director for MUJI in 2001, he started the journey by reimagining the brand’s ideals.

He had to figure out how the no-brand brand ideal could be communicated to their fast-growing local and global audience without making lower costs the brand’s focus. And to that end, he arrived at the "Acceptance, not Appetite" ideal, which he explains as —

"As a brand, MUJI has neither striking idiosyncrasies nor specific aesthetics. We don't want to be the thing that kindles or incites intense appetite, causing outbursts like, "This is what I really want," or "I simply must have this." If most brands are after that, MUJI should be after its opposite. We want to give customers the kind of satisfaction that comes out as "this will do," not "this is what I want." It's not appetite, but acceptance."

Even within acceptance, however, there is an appropriate level. Our goal is to elevate it as high as is possible.

The remark "I must have this" is characterized by a candid attitude that makes clear one's will. When you are asked what you would like for lunch, it feels better to reply, "Spaghetti is what I really want," not, "Spaghetti will do." Besides feeling better, the latter extends a certain courtesy to the dish. The same applies to tastes in fashion or music, lifestyle, and so on. Like the value of individuality, the attitude of clearly expressing likes and dislikes has been unnecessarily esteemed."

The idea of MUJI’s brand and products as being "just right" or "just enough" became the cornerstone of all of MUJI’s brand communication.

From a technical perspective, MUJI’s brand communicated the idea of Acceptance, not Appetite or evoking the feeling of “this will do” by doing a few things consistently.

For instance, look at the minimal emphasis placed on MUJI’s logo on their product packaging. None of that "Can you make the logo bigger?" BS.

The store signage and identity are subtle to the point of invisibility.

Even their physical storefronts are designed to reflect the brand ideal. One description of the design of their storefronts typically stood out. It read —

A common sense approach defines the store aesthetics and sets the stage for a lesson in pared-down retail design based on things like bulk packaging in plain, uniform containers. Under simple track lights, products are stored in unpainted wicker bins, on plain plywood shelving and on unvarnished wood tables. In a tsunami of beige, the MUJI message of unadorned simplicity makes itself explicit.

Devising ways to communicate something as philosophical as Acceptance, not appetite (even for store design) impressed me to no end.

I was looking for branding inspiration, and I couldn’t stop myself from marveling at the extent to which MUJI went (or didn’t).

In spite of being in the business of selling consumer goods, MUJI makes no effort to spend on marketing or promotional ads.

Instead, it releases an elegantly designed product catalogue. MUJI focuses on demonstrating the thought and philosophy behind its products to the masses. It does this through the press and through conducting in-store events and lectures.

Other than designing the storefronts in a simplistic style, it goes a step further to highlight its anti-brand image by releasing products that a customer can personally design.

It sells a T-shirt with an empty rubber square on the chest for customers to inscribe their logo or message. Even their paper or notebooks can be personalized using rubber stamps in-store at no charge. They also sell soft goods (such as T-shirts and hats), which can be computer embroidered and picked up a few hours or days later.

In fact, what I thought was crazier was that MUJI used brand collaboration to cement its brand identity. It is crazy because collaboration usually entails integrating and tastefully highlighting how two brands come together. Usually, if a celebrity designs a shoe in partnership with Nike or Reebok, it is marketed and upsold using the celebrity’s clout.

In 2001, MUJI teamed up with Nissan Motors to produce MUJI Car 1000 — a limited edition, fuel-efficient, low-emission, and low-cost vehicle that incorporated recycled materials wherever possible, had limited polish, and was devoid of any markings. In essence a total anomaly in the car world.

Additionally, in MUJI’s case, regardless of how famous a designer is, their name finds no mention on the product labels. It is a deliberate choice. Hara explains the logic for this choice as follows —

"Through MUJI, I want to consider life culture and economic culture on a global scale. And with a global perspective, I want to help create products that most people will accept, saying "this will do."

Fortunately, we have learned that there are many immensely talented individuals around the world who empathize with MUJI's way of thinking. For instance, most savvy designers with flexible sensibilities know MUJI. They appreciate MUJI and are happy to work with MUII. MUJI has always operated on the basis of anonymity but in order to personify the MUJI concept a little more intentionally, it may be necessary to have talent from around the world participate in product definition."

And surprisingly, it works even when the other brand or celebrated designer finds no mention. And this particular feedback validates how successfully the brand has communicated its philosophy to a designer they partnered with.

"I am not too bothered who designed my soap bar or my cup noodles. Muji is selective on good and appropriate design. Who designed it is not important — what it does and how well it does it, is. Muji products — like the tissues that sit on my desk, my spiral notebook, my cardholder all 'dissolve' when in use".

I know, I know. At this point, I just sound like a die-hard MUJI fan.

But to consistently achieve this kind of brand impact over 20+ years is certainly something I’d like to emulate.

On a bigger note, reading about MUJI’s branding reassured me in a way few things did in the past. I found myself challenging my thoughts on branding.

One thing became extremely clear: Excessive brand communication does not necessarily create stickiness. Even if it does, it isn't usually the right kind of stickiness that will actually make someone buy from you.

And communicating a brand requires solid reason and philosophical depth, not irrational and loud enthusiasm.

Sometimes, whispering your message is louder and clearer than shouting it out.

How do we arrive at our “this will do” moments?

I am not sure, but I do sense that as a brand having an opinion on how your brand reflects your product and what it stands for, matters: more than we think it does and more than what business revenue goals wish we did instead.

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