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Dissolving when in use

MUJI, brand and nothingness

author: Haydn Sweterlitsch VP, Creative Director RTCRM, a Wunderman Network Agency Washington, DC July 2009 contact: hsweterlitsch@gmail.com Twitter: Haydn_S 202.299.7496

Dissolving when in use
MUJI, brand and nothingness
by Haydn Sweterlitsch OK. Begin with the kind of vague, academic and non-threatening proclamation about branding that won’t alienate anyone or force them to choose sides too early on. Something like: The development and deployment of a brand can take many forms. Sweet. Now follow up with some “brands need depth” and “dimensionalizing a brand” stuff. How about: Creating an identity system and characteristics for brand management means defining the persona a brand embodies and portrays. And furthermore, to make good on the promise of the brand requires it to have a certain amount of vitality, because healthy brands exist as entities with the ability to transcend the functional features/benefits of a product. And the more relevant and uniquely defined the characteristics and persona of a brand, the more effective, valued, preferred and sought after it will be. Nice. That ought to be enough to keep the corpse of David Ogilvy from reanimating, chasing me down and eating my brain. And thus, we may continue to our point of departure. MUJI: A brand that is not a brand. What defines a brand that refuses to have characteristics? A brand that embraces a state of aesthetic nonpermanence and pure functionality with all identity stripped away? What if a brand not only existed—but thrived—without even so much as a logo? And what if this brand expanded to offer over 7,500 distinct products that embodied its brand characteristics—when the lack of discernable characteristics was its only identifying mark? What if this brand (without branding) became so enmeshed in the daily lives of its most loyal customers that it was wholly indicative of their lifestyle and a symbol of their ethical stance? To define without definition. To have character without unique characteristics. To play a role without having a name. To reverse all popular wisdom, instinct, strategy and practice to attain a goal others have successfully reached before you. To reach your destination by directing yourself in the polar opposite direction of that destination. This is the story of MUJI. The anti-brand that has achieved a level of branding unachievable by established branding methods and systems. A brand that has successfully collapsed the very idea of branding and left nothing in its place. Nothing. MUJI is the brand that has made nothing into something by embracing nothingness— and making that nothingness its unique identifier/characteristic.
next>a brief history of nothing Dissolving when in use ©2009, Haydn Sweterlitsch 2

A brief history of nothing
Before diving into this exegesis of MUJI and what we as branding agents can learn from its successes (and shortfalls), a primer is in order for those not familiar with MUJI. Long story short, here are the two basic insights from which the concept of MUJI springs: • MUJI is shorthand for Mujirushi Ryohin, which translates to “no brand, good product” • MUJI began in the early 1980s as a private/generic brand of the Seiyu discount department store To further sketch out and color in the idea of MUJI, here’s how the brand describes itself at MUJI.us: • MUJI is not a brand whose value rests in the frills and “extras” it adds to its products. • MUJI is simplicity—but a simplicity achieved through a complexity of thought and design. • MUJI’s streamlining is the result of the careful elimination and subtraction of gratuitous features and design unrelated to function. • MUJI, the brand, is rational, and free of agenda, doctrine, and “isms.” The MUJI concept derives from us continuously asking, “What is best from an individual’s point of view?” • MUJI aspires to modesty and plainness, the better to adapt and shape itself to the styles, preferences, and practices of as wide a group of people as possible. This is the single most important reason people embrace MUJI. • MUJI—in its deliberate pursuit of the pure and the ordinary—achieves the extraordinary.
next>what nothing is now

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What nothing is now
Fast forward from the genesis of MUJI in the 1980s to 2009. MUJI flagship stores are now peppered around the globe and MUJI products are featured in no less distinctive a retail environment than the MOMA design store. To describe the aesthetic of MUJI as minimalist is to sell it short. It is, more perfectly stated, an aesthetic where function does not only inform form, but actually defines it. Where the end-design approaches a style and substance that is almost a physical manifestation of platonic essence. A MUJI clock can be seen as a tangible example of the essence of “clock,” and embodying “clockness.” This same achievement of what we can term “essentialness design” is found in all MUJI products. One customer-facing result of this aesthetic, according to the design-watchers at usefulandagreeable.com, is: “The retail equivalent of a nightclub with no sign on the door, MUJI’s anti-profile has resulted in a kind of secret society of shoppers. In the absence of any stylistic clues or logos, those in the know ask, ‘is that MUJI?’” And yet, the MUJI concept of essentialness reaches beyond design. According to MUJI Managing Director Masaaki Kanai, “Processes that have no bearing on a product’s quality such as sorting, sizing, polishing and dyeing are eliminated, leaving only those processes that are truly necessary.” Usefulandagreeable.com quotes product designer Jasper Morrison (jaspermorrison.com) on MUJI: “They offer products to people who are fed up with being targeted by marketing strategies. MUJI makes honest products and sells them at very reasonable prices. This is a business model which is so old-fashioned that it’s been forgotten.” Further evidence in the court of design comes (via usefulandagreeable.com) from Mark Dytham, of Klein Dytham Architecture (klein-dytham.com), “I am not too bothered [by] who designed my soap bar or my cup [of] 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.” As far as this essentialness imperative devolving into a stagnation of design, usefulandagreeable.com quotes graphic designer Kenya Hara, who joined the MUJI board of directors in 2001: “I found that the company was at a standstill with the original idea, ‘No design’, which was advocated at its inception. They also had more than 250 outlets and sold more than 5,000 items, including products that deviated from the initial MUJI concept or were low cost, but of substandard quality.” Since then, usefulandagreeable.com states that Hara has helped MUJI strive to “strike the tricky balance between MUJI’s ‘no brand’ policy and high quality design, striving to attract consumers with innovative new products—not merely style or trend purchases— which elicit the response ‘this will do’ rather than ‘this

next>what’s next for nothing

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What’s next for nothing
Our final note in attempting to define (for lack of a better term) MUJI is the following text, taken from its definitive statement on the past, present and future of MUJI (viewable in its entirety at MUJI.com/message):

MUJI is not a brand. MUJI does not make products of individuality or fashion, nor does MUJI reflect the popularity of its name in its prices. MUJI creates products with a view toward global consumption of the future. This means that we do not create products that lure customers into believing that “this is best” or “I must have this.” We would like our customers to feel the rational sense of satisfaction that comes not with “this is best,” but with “this is enough.” “Best” becomes “enough.” There are degrees of “enough,” however. MUJI aims to raise the standard of “enough” to the greatest extent possible. “Best” contains a faint amount of egoism and disharmony, but in “enough” we sense restraint and compromise. On the other hand, “enough” might contain a sense of resignation and a slight amount of dissatisfaction. So by raising the bar of what denotes “enough,” we cast away that resignation and slight dissatisfaction; we create a new dimension of “enough” to attain a clear and heart-felt “This is enough.” That is MUJI’s vision. To that end, MUJI continually revamps as many as 7,500 items as we deliver new MUJI quality. MUJI’s characteristic trait is economy. Products born of efficient production processes are simple, yet they do not represent minimalism as a style. That would be empty posturing. In fact, our products are so universal and accommodating precisely because they are plain and unadorned. MUJI is known for conservation of natural resources, low prices, simplicity, anonymity and an orientation toward nature. We embrace all of these attributes without placing disproportionate emphasis on any of them. ...

Today’s clash of civilizations demonstrates that we are approaching a limit to the pursuit of profit guaranteed by free economies, and that we have reached the point at which cultures cannot exist in harmony with one another by solely emphasizing their own distinctiveness. The world of the future requires that we reason and restrain our self-interest rather than prioritize exclusive profit and individual cultural values. ... The products that surround us in our daily lives today seem to have polarized. On the one side are products that strive to be unique through the use of novel materials or attractive forms. They give the impression of scarcity and brand name value, creating groups of followers who welcome pricey objects. On the other side are products whose prices are lowered to the limit. These products are made utilizing cheap materials and production processes simplified to the bare bones in countries where labor comes cheap. MUJI is neither of these. From the very beginning, MUJI eschewed design, but we learned early on that crimping creativity does not lead to superior products. In its search for the best materials, manufacturing methods and forms, MUJI strives to base its design on the true nature of the material making up a product. On the one hand, MUJI does not just aspire to lower prices. We simplify our processes to eliminate waste entirely, but we carefully select and incorporate quality materials and processing technologies. Put simply, we create quality at low cost for smart purchases. Like a compass that points north, MUJI continues to point the way to the basics and constants of our daily lives.
next>what’s next (cont’d)

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What’s next for nothing
(cont’d)
There is an identity to MUJI, to be sure. MUJI plays a role. It has distinction. Likewise, there are intentions, ethics, a POV, platform and approach—there is a MUJI way. And given this, the proper question may be: How is having no brand any different from having a brand, especially when the lack is so conspicuous, calculated and ingrained in all products produced under the moniker MUJI? The lack of a distinct graphic identity or code is as blatant and identifying as any mark could be. Or, as brandchannel.com states: “Since nothing comes without a label these days, not having one is an effective way to distinguish a product in a crowded landscape of labels.” An oversimplification on their part, yes, but the point is valid. However, there is more to MUJI than just the lack of a label. There is an extra something to the “nothing” of MUJI.

What can we learn from nothing?
In short, nearly everything. MUJI has placed the onus of brand management on its process, materials, manu-facturing and design departments. MUJI manages the brand by managing the design of a product, its performance, what it is made of and how it is made—not in how that product is advertised or communicated to the world. What more needs to be said about a hanging wall clock other than that it is, in fact, a hanging wall clock? All that is left to deliver is a functioning hanging wall clock without any pretense, additional flourishes or unique style. And this is not to say that designing a clock free of design embellishment is an easy task. Bringing forth what is only essential—the “essentialness design” mentioned earlier—is certainly a delicate, skilled exercise involving precision, focus and restraint. It is not enough to peel away the artifice of messaging and brand persona, and that’s the interesting truth at the core of MUJI. It is not just that the product line, design and overall aesthetic embody this spirit of essentialness—it is not just the redefinition of “enough” detailed in the MUJI message. It is the inversion of all elements of branding that allows the brand to exist with such distinction as to create a kind of secret handshake. And yet this secret handshake—this uniqueness—comes from and lives within objects of absolute normalcy. It is the “essentialness design” of MUJI that— instead of attempting to elevate/distinguish everyday objects beyond what they are via design innovation or alteration— allows and encourages them to simply be what they are. A MUJI fork is nothing but a fork. A MUJI shirt, simply a shirt. A MUJI pencil, a pencil. By striving to keep the product from being remarkable in any way, MUJI achieves a remarkable consistency of offering. One that any brand can envy. There is a courage and boldness to MUJI. A monolithic, generic line of products standing against all others attempting to stand out. MUJI is unapologetic in its simplicity. It has the confidence and will to stand apart by virtue of always attempting to not stand out. Detractors may argue that in its never-ending quest for essentialness, MUJI has become selfreferential and synonymous with an aesthetic comparable to off-the-rack euro-minimalism. But what this argument forgets is the gravitational pull of pure functionality beating at the heart of every MUJI product. MUJI design is not simply tethered to placing function above form. It is focused on developing products that are transcultural in their attempt to attain a zero-point of functionality.
next>nothing vs. the interactionists

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Nothing vs. the Interactionists
The central tenets of Interactionist Branding include the primacy of agile “Role” over static “Identity.” Customers act toward a brand based on the meaning that brand has for them, which in turn comes from the interactions they have with that brand. Interactionist Branding operates from the idea that whatever is exchanged between brand and customer when they interact defines their relationship. As this relationship occurs, the roles that brand and customer fulfill for each other are defined. Many things are inherent in those defined relationship roles: how they treat one another; the proper tone, style and content of their interactions; how they present themselves to each other, etc. In short, meaning is defined by the relationship (and not the other way around). So by successfully managing the relationship between brand and customer, one successfully manages the meaning of that brand. With this in mind, consider the MUJI brand—where function is the brand essence. The role MUJI plays for the customer is fused to the MUJI product in use at any given time. And in their strict adherence to the ethics and mission of eliminating waste, refusing design flourishes in favor of essentialness, etc., MUJI (in its own words) “continues to point the way to the basics and constants of our daily lives.” Transparency is central to the Brand Role of MUJI. Essentialness. Function. Purity. Again, MUJI’s brand management lies not in the signaling of “what MUJI means.” Instead, it resides in aligning process, material, manufacturing, design and distribution to its mission of delivering products where “best” is replaced with MUJI’s “new dimension” of “what denotes enough.” And while branding agents must manage the relationships between brand and customer to truly manage brand meaning, MUJI’s brand management is such that the functionality/essentialness of its products is the sole representation of the role performed by MUJI brand in relation to customers. As MUJI products go, so goes the MUJI brand.
next>what we can take away from nothing

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What we can take away from nothing
Let’s be clear: MUJI is an anomaly. Trend, fashion, technology, culture and social norms are not inert. They evolve at different paces, resulting in ever-changing value systems and pressure points for constantly shifting consumer segments. So the form and style of products fighting for share-ofmind and customer preference must shift, evolve and change as well. A healthy, well-managed brand rolls with things to remain on the leading edge of whatever the next shift to affect it will be. That is why brands arc and evolve. Why some gain strength and others lose momentum. Why they succeed or fail (in both the short and long term). In practice, a sneaker cannot simply be a sneaker and succeed. Or can it? The brands we work on—that we manage, position, signal and give life to—rarely if ever embody their brand essence at every stage of conception, design, production, communication and distribution. Certainly not to the extent that MUJI does. And the sustainability of MUJI’s mission— this approach toward essentialness—is one that enables MUJI to continue its trajectory without redirection or reinvention, ad infinitum. Perhaps it is the simplicity of transcultural function streamlined to the point of essentialness that allows for this. While in theory the conception, development and deployment of a brand on top of a product may be unessential, the reality of practice we are faced with is vastly different. In the end, brands may successfully grant vitality, personality and character to a product in an effort to differentiate that product from those similar or parallel to it and drive customer preference. But the product developed, designed, manufactured and distributed to be the purest, most essential version of that product possible—sans branding—allows the product to exist as function. Function becomes essence. And in the case of MUJI, that is enough.

Dissolving when in use

©2009, Haydn Sweterlitsch

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