Brandless brands. Is that even possible?

Imagine this, if you will. The year is 470 BC, and you’ve just got back from the agora with a nice looking fish to cook for dinner. “Where’d you get that from?” asks your partner. “From that curly-haired vendor at the agora,” you reply. “He always has good fish”.

Your choice to buy from the curly-haired vendor over another vendor was based on your previous experience with their product. Always having good fish was their brand, you could say. 

Fast forward to today, and we’re exposed to over 5,000 branded ads a day – the obvious kind, with brand logos, brand colours, brand typefaces and other brand assets – all vying for our attention. So what can a brand do to stand out? (Talk about a big question). How about remove all branding entirely, would that work? Or, since we’re so used to overt branding, would customers perceive the lack of branding as a lack of quality, and be turned off?

We thought we’d take a look at a few ‘non-brands’ and see how they’ve performed, and also whether they really are brands after all, despite their less-obvious branding.

Brandless

Launched in July 2017, Brandless caught the attention of marketers worldwide by promising ‘unbranded’ household goods at only US$3 each. Less than two years later, in March 2019, Tina Sharkey, the company’s co-founder and CEO, resigned.

She was replaced by John Rittenhouse, the former COO of Walmart, who dumped the $3 across-the-board price point, extended categories and introduced a huge slew of products in an attempt to grow average basket size…and then left in December of the same year. Did his sweeping changes save the company? Sadly not. Brandless folded in February 2020, although it’s now back with new owners since June.

So it’s been a bumpy ride thus far, and who’s to say it won’t go on to be wildly successful, but one thing’s for sure – there’s nothing ‘brandless’ about Brandless. They have a clear mission, a strong visual identity, a compelling tagline, a consistent tone of voice, and a wide range of products all at a similar quality level. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a brand.

MUJI

Founded in Japan in 1980, MUJI has over 833 stores all around the world carrying over 7000 items. MUJI’s full name is Mujirushi Ryohin, which translates to ‘no-brand quality goods’, and the company’s ethos is built around the idea of its products being ‘enough’, rather than inspiring an ‘I have to have it’ feeling.

Over the years, MUJI has released a no-frills, unbranded version of pretty much every daily item you can imagine. From clothing to skincare to home goods, and, in a crazy collaboration with Nissan in 2001, an exceptionally boring car – the Muji Car 1000.

Designed as a direct rejection of the consumerism that goes hand in hand with luxury brands, MUJI has, ironically, become somewhat of a status symbol for minimalists and the environmentally conscious. And it’s paid off – the company has been highly successful, with a global footprint and a listing on the Tokyo Stock Exchange since 1998, although it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

While MUJI has been hit hard by COVID-19, filing bankruptcy in the US and shutting down ‘a small number’ of stores, its stock seems to be bouncing back in a big way, so it will be interesting to see what the future holds. 

Put simply, their goods are bland, and MUJI is their brand.

The Unbranded Brand

Also founded in Japan, The Unbranded Brand makes denim jeans and jackets using a special dyeing process called ‘rope dyeing’, where each yarn is dipped into an indigo bath 30 times. This process is more time consuming and more expensive than other methods, but The Unbranded Brand believes the colour and texture it achieves are worth it.

When you hit their website, one of the first messages you’re greeted with is “All You Pay For Are The Jeans. What A Simple Concept.” Unlike MUJI, The Unbranded Brand’s products aren’t meant to just be ‘enough’, they’re meant to be every bit as good (if not better) than their luxury-label competitors’. By eschewing expensive celebrity endorsements and media placements and just focusing on their product, The Unbranded Brand has enjoyed the kind of success that’s seen it stocked all around the world.

With plenty of care taken to ensure consistency across products, pricing and customer-facing communications, The Unbranded Brand is definitely a brand, and quite a good one at that. But unlike Brandless or Muji, whose very names claim they’re not brands, The Unbranded Brand isn’t really trying to fool anyone. They’re clearly proud of their jeans, and we’d bet they’re pretty proud of the brand they’ve built too. 

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