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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

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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 Usefulandagreeable.com quotes product designer
to 2009. MUJI flagship stores are now peppered Jasper Morrison (jaspermorrison.com) on MUJI: “They
around the globe and MUJI products are featured offer products to people who are fed up with being
in no less distinctive a retail environment than the targeted by marketing strategies. MUJI makes honest
MOMA design store. To describe the aesthetic of products and sells them at very reasonable prices.
MUJI as minimalist is to sell it short. It is, more This is a business model which is so old-fashioned
perfectly stated, an aesthetic where function does not that it’s been forgotten.”
only inform form, but actually defines it. Where the
Further evidence in the court of design comes (via
end-design approaches a style and substance that is
usefulandagreeable.com) from Mark Dytham, of
almost a physical manifestation of platonic essence.
Klein Dytham Architecture (klein-dytham.com), “I
A MUJI clock can be seen as a tangible example of
am not too bothered [by] who designed my soap
the essence of “clock,” and embodying “clockness.”
bar or my cup [of] noodles. MUJI is selective on
This same achievement of what we can term
good and appropriate design. Who designed it is not
“essentialness design” is found in all MUJI products.
important—what it does and how well it does it is.
One customer-facing result of this aesthetic, MUJI products—like the tissues that sit on my desk,
according to the design-watchers at my spiral notebook, my cardholder, all ‘dissolve’ when
usefulandagreeable.com, is: “The retail equivalent in use.”
of a nightclub with no sign on the door, MUJI’s
As far as this essentialness imperative devolving
anti-profile has resulted in a kind of secret society
into a stagnation of design, usefulandagreeable.com
of shoppers. In the absence of any stylistic clues or
quotes graphic designer Kenya Hara, who joined
logos, those in the know ask, ‘is that MUJI?’”
the MUJI board of directors in 2001: “I found that the
And yet, the MUJI concept of essentialness reaches company was at a standstill with the original idea,
beyond design. According to MUJI Managing Director ‘No design’, which was advocated at its inception.
Masaaki Kanai, “Processes that have no bearing on a They also had more than 250 outlets and sold more
product’s quality such as sorting, sizing, polishing and than 5,000 items, including products that deviated
dyeing are eliminated, leaving only those processes from the initial MUJI concept or were low cost, but of
that are truly necessary.” 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 Today’s clash of civilizations demonstrates that
products of individuality or fashion, nor does MUJI we are approaching a limit to the pursuit of profit
reflect the popularity of its name in its prices. guaranteed by free economies, and that we have
MUJI creates products with a view toward global reached the point at which cultures cannot exist in
consumption of the future. This means that we harmony with one another by solely emphasizing
do not create products that lure customers into their own distinctiveness. The world of the future
believing that “this is best” or “I must have this.” requires that we reason and restrain our self-interest
We would like our customers to feel the rational rather than prioritize exclusive profit and individual
sense of satisfaction that comes not with “this is cultural values.
best,” but with “this is enough.” “Best” becomes
“enough.” ...

There are degrees of “enough,” however. MUJI The products that surround us in our daily lives
aims to raise the standard of “enough” to the today seem to have polarized. On the one side are
greatest extent possible. “Best” contains a products that strive to be unique through the use
faint amount of egoism and disharmony, but in of novel materials or attractive forms. They give
“enough” we sense restraint and compromise. On the impression of scarcity and brand name value,
the other hand, “enough” might contain a sense of creating groups of followers who welcome pricey
resignation and a slight amount of dissatisfaction. objects. On the other side are products whose prices
So by raising the bar of what denotes “enough,” are lowered to the limit. These products are made
we cast away that resignation and slight utilizing cheap materials and production processes
dissatisfaction; we create a new dimension of simplified to the bare bones in countries where labor
“enough” to attain a clear and heart-felt “This is comes cheap.
enough.” That is MUJI’s vision. To that end, MUJI MUJI is neither of these. From the very beginning,
continually revamps as many as 7,500 items as MUJI eschewed design, but we learned early on
we deliver new MUJI quality. that crimping creativity does not lead to superior
MUJI’s characteristic trait is economy. Products products. In its search for the best materials,
born of efficient production processes are simple, manufacturing methods and forms, MUJI strives to
yet they do not represent minimalism as a style. base its design on the true nature of the material
That would be empty posturing. In fact, our making up a product.
products are so universal and accommodating On the one hand, MUJI does not just aspire to lower
precisely because they are plain and unadorned. prices. We simplify our processes to eliminate waste
MUJI is known for conservation of natural entirely, but we carefully select and incorporate
resources, low prices, simplicity, anonymity and quality materials and processing technologies.
an orientation toward nature. We embrace all of Put simply, we create quality at low cost for smart
these attributes without placing disproportionate purchases.
emphasis on any of them.
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 What can we learn from nothing?
(cont’d)
In short, nearly everything. MUJI has placed the onus of
There is an identity to MUJI, to be sure. MUJI brand management on its process, materials, manu-facturing
plays a role. It has distinction. Likewise, there and design departments. MUJI manages the brand by
are intentions, ethics, a POV, platform and managing the design of a product, its performance, what
approach—there is a MUJI way. And given it is made of and how it is made—not in how that product
this, the proper question may be: How is is advertised or communicated to the world. What more
having no brand any different from having needs to be said about a hanging wall clock other than that
a brand, especially when the lack is so it is, in fact, a hanging wall clock? All that is left to deliver
conspicuous, calculated and ingrained in all is a functioning hanging wall clock without any pretense,
products produced under the moniker MUJI? additional flourishes or unique style. And this is not to say that
designing a clock free of design embellishment is an easy
The lack of a distinct graphic identity or code task. Bringing forth what is only essential—the “essentialness
is as blatant and identifying as any mark could design” mentioned earlier—is certainly a delicate, skilled
be. Or, as brandchannel.com states: “Since exercise involving precision, focus and restraint.
nothing comes without a label these days, not
having one is an effective way to distinguish a It is not enough to peel away the artifice of messaging and
product in a crowded landscape of labels.” An brand persona, and that’s the interesting truth at the core of
oversimplification on their part, yes, but the MUJI. It is not just that the product line, design and overall
point is valid. However, there is more to MUJI aesthetic embody this spirit of essentialness—it is not just
than just the lack of a label. There is an extra the redefinition of “enough” detailed in the MUJI message.
something to the “nothing” of MUJI. 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 self-
referential 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-of-
mind 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 8

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