Attack of the anti-brands

It’s a weird byproduct of this job to end up in a funny old heap of people who are genuinely interested in brands. They come with the professional territory; I have to consider their anatomy, behaviours and expression every day in my working life.

I also think they’re intriguing cultural phenomena. Their story so far has been pretty fascinating, and their ultimate historical impact? Anyone’s guess. So when I see one doing something different or interesting, it gives me pause.

That’s what happened when I chanced upon a brand called Brandless.

They’re setting out a stall, I thought.

And, if we’re being picky, they’re kicking off with a contradiction. A quick glance through the website is enough to confirm for me that there is definitely a brand at work. A coherent, well-thought-out one at that.

What’s going on here?

The Brandless story describes food shopping in terms of all the costs we don’t see or think about (distribution, settlement, retail shelving) and contrasts it with a simpler relationship, where they are the only middle step between the supplier and the stuff that appears in a box on your doorstep.

They charge $3 for everything (which is a strategy I could devote a whole other blog post to) because:

“We cut out the middleman and ship direct, so you don’t pay extra for the countless unnecessary steps between the supplier and a traditional retailer’s shelf.”

They have dubbed the cost of those unnecessary steps (distribution costs, wholesale to retail markups, shelf-stocking, breakage fees, settlement costs, in-store marketing etc) collectively as the BrandTax™.

Brandless have laid the complex processes that get a product onto a supermarket shelf squarely at the door of the brands themselves:

I find this fascinating because there were clearly other choices available when the team behind this online supermarket decided how to spin their yarn. The direct supplier relationships are great in their own right. The single price point is big news all by itself. But they chose to position themselves squarely in opposition to household brands.

If you follow the Brandless logic, the brands are the main obstacle in the way of all groceries being high quality and $3 a pop. I think it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I can’t deny the approach is interesting.

It got me thinking about other businesses that eschew traditional markers of branding, and wondering about why they do it.

One thing that struck me was the phenomenon of supermarket own-brands. Surely these are candidates? Well, I think they used to be bastions of practicality and no-nonsense grocery shopping. But as Nic wrote back in the summer, the supermarkets are seeing the opportunity to do something Extra Special (#sorrynotsorry). And hats off to them, it’s worked, but it capitalises on brand completely – nothing like the radical anti-brand narrative of Brandless.

When I asked around the studio for brands that don’t do brand, MUJI came up immediately. I think it’s best to let them tell it in their own words:

“MUJI was founded in Japan in 1980 as an antithesis to the habits of consumer society at that time. On one hand, foreign-made luxury brands were gaining popularity within an economic environment of ever-rising prosperity. On the other, poor-quality, low-priced goods were appearing on the market, and had a polarizing effect on consumption patterns. MUJI was conceived as a critique of this prevailing condition, with the purpose of restoring a vision of products that are actually useful for the customer and maintain an ideal of the proper balance between living and the objects that make it possible. The concept was born of the intersection of two distinct stances: no brand (Mujirushi) and the value of good items (ryohin).”

About MUJI

So Brandless aren’t alone in using a name that explicitly rejects the notion of brand. But what’s interesting here is that MUJI followed a completely different path – it started out as a product brand of The Seiyu, a supermarket chain (acquired by Walmart(!) in 2002), and in three years had its own dedicated retail stores. For MUJI, the simplified shopping experience is core to its anti-brand effort.

Who knows, perhaps MUJI would have gone straight online, and online only if it had been launched in the internet age? (Full disclosure, I think probably not, because the calm, ordered atmosphere of the stores is one of the big differentiators today.)

Both MUJI and Brandless both take sourcing, production, pricing and environmental impact seriously, which sets a great example for less scrupulous brands.

Both have really strong, recognisable visual branding and aesthetics – MUJI’s is hands-off and customisable, but unmistakably so. The word “Brandless” appears on every single product label (from what we can see online), in a list of need-to-knows called “Just What Matters™”. So it’s not the headline, but it’s in the top five takeaways on every single product. It’s also worth noting that Brandless follow every linguistic element of any ownable significance at all with that classic hallmark of low-key brand presence, the ™.

Both, in their respective times, catered and continue to cater to a consumer appetite created by a certain social climate. For people who want to buy consciously, to use the places they shop in to send a message about, dare I say it, their personal brand. They’re both also operating brilliant brand best practice by rallying customers around a central purpose that speaks to personal values, and substantiating it in the way the business is run.

So what’s this about, the anti-brand? Clearly, brands for some have become synonymous with overheads, middlemen and thoughtless consumption.

But it’s possible to carve out a space for a business that’s about the opposite of those things… if it’s got a great brand?!

I think it’s about transparency. And perhaps the growing movement of packaging-free supermarkets are a good way to examine this. Exhibit A: The Clean Kilo, Birmingham.

They too set out a stall. Their about pages tell the story of how they came to be, how they’re trying to help people who want to use less plastic. And my favourite bit for the purposes of this article is the last point on the ‘Our solution’ page, where they say that by shopping at the Clean Kilo, you will be, amongst other things:

reinventing your kitchen storage space without being relentlessly targeted with marketing every time we enter our kitchen.

(emphasis mine)

So while railing against marketing to you in your own kitchen, The Clean Kilo itself has a very clear brand! A very deliberate, rustic and charming aesthetic. A logo. Printed on a tote bag if you fancy it. But because of the way it’s executed, the story The Clean Kilo tells, and what they’re trying to achieve, the brand comes across as an ally, a helping hand.

Becoming aware of packaging-free supermarkets has caused me to start reevaluating the brands in my life. And I think that’s a good thing for the brands doing good work. We talk about cleansing email data and how it leaves you with your core, loyal, genuinely interested audience. I think something similar might be at play with brands at the moment, except the cleansing is happening outside the brands’ own territory – the loyal customer base is self-selecting.

Many brands are reinventing themselves to keep pace with changing values. Some are more successful than others, but all are clearly conscious that, unless you’re careful, a brand can be a potential liability as well as an asset.

So watch this space. Values-driven shopping is just hitting its stride, and the anti-brands are just getting started. It’s pretty ironic, and for now, it’s working.

Only time will tell whether they can keep it up in the face of heightened accountability for the difficult decisions businesses have to make every day.

Written by Chloe Marshall

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