The No-Brand Brand

Recently a number of companies have successfully pursued “no-brand” strategies by creating packaging that imitates generic brand simplicity. Examples include the Japanese company Muji, which means “No label” in English (from 無印良品 – “Mujirushi Ryohin” – literally, “No brand quality goods”), and the Florida company No-Ad Sunscreen. Although there is a distinct Muji brand, Muji products are not branded. This no-brand strategy means that little is spent on advertisement or classical marketing and Muji’s success is attributed to the word-of-mouth, a simple shopping experience and the anti-brand movement. “No brand” branding may be construed as a type of branding as the product is made conspicuous through the absence of a brand name. “Tapa Amarilla” or “Yellow Cap” in Venezuela during the 1980s is another good example of no-brand strategy. It was simply recognized by the color of the cap of this cleaning products company.

-Wikipedia

The sentence in bold above is an astute observation from the author of the article and reflects my sentiments exactly when it comes to “anti-branding” brands.

When you’re your own company, with your own services, your own products; you become a brand, whether you go to all the effort to promote it or not. Consumers will have an image in their mind of you, whether you give them one or not.

I can agree with these brands with regard to their “no-fluff” attitude where they attempt to distance themselves from both excesses of design and advertising, relying rather on customer loyalty and word-of-mouth. I’ve written in the past about the superfluous when it comes to design, and why only precisely what is needed for effective communication should be kept and the rest discarded.

I also appreciate the stance of NO-AD sunscreen in that it took the investment most brands put toward advertising, and allocated it to doubling the size of its products at no extra cost (compared to other brands).

The only problem is in having an issue with “branding” in general, if such companies claim to. Yes, redefine advertising and marketing; save money on packaging and put it into better products, etc. But don’t pretend that you’re not part of the branding world. As I said above, when you’re your own company, you become branded as a distinct commercial entity regardless of the effort or lack thereof that you put into doing so. In fact, “no-brand” branding can attract more attention than “conventional” branding, just because it’s unique.

Although aspirations of the companies herein discussed may be noble to some degree, we know that businesses exist to make money; and those on the no-brand bandwagon definitely saw an opportunity to make more money through the differentiation their brand strategies afforded. In addition, people like to purchase from companies who claim to be fighting for some cause; in this case it’s the fight against the conventional brand, and it definitely sells.

The point is, brand is inescapable; promoting ethics, quality of product and even “anti-branding” bolsters a brand in the minds of consumers.

And not only is brand inescapable, good branding is also a proven way to increase profits—as long as the message you’re sending resonates with the people you’re sending it to.

There are many tactics that can be used to leverage a company image; companies like Muji have simply chosen to capitalize on ways that differ from the norm.

It’s because of these things that I would be hesitant to state (although I wouldn’t rule out the possibility) that a brand which employed no-brand tactics is more ethical than any other. But I have to give them some credit for a smart strategy, because:

Amidst the crowd of those saying, “Look at me”, it’s often those who seem to be saying nothing at all who capture the most attention.

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Foundation of a Feeling

As the differences get smaller, the purely functional reasons for premium goods fade away, and instead they are purchased for the reason we’ve always purchased luxury goods: because of how they make us feel, not because of what they actually do. The fur coat is not warmer than the down jacket, it’s merely harder to acquire.

That’s a snippet from a recent post by Seth Godin.

There’s a lot of truth to this. And it’s for this reason—people purchasing based on feelings rather than for function alone—that brand identity and marketing are such important factors in business. How a brand resonates with its would-be customers is just as important as the goods and services it offers.

Recollecting my two most recent posts about SAAB automobiles, I stated that despite its failures, I still have a great appreciation for SAAB cars. That’s because to me SAAB successfully created a positive impression. In its early years, SAAB also maintained an air of intrigue; a feeling of, “Yeah, other car manufacturers do it this way; we’re going to do it differently.” A lot of head-scratching mechanics can attest to that. Better or not, it was different; and that brings a lot of appeal.

Feelings have to have a foundation. Some foundations are built on how things look; some on how things work; some on how you’re able to live now that you have the item—or a combination of all of these things. People have different criteria that they use to sift through what they buy and don’t buy. You can accomplish about the same with a Windows OS as you can with an Apple OS. You just go about it in a different way. But the difference in experience creates a feeling that customers swear by.

Like Seth said; sure the down parka and the fur coat both keep the wearer warm just the same. But the fur coat offers a solution that the down parka can’t: the richer image associated with scarcity. To some this is unimportant; but to the one wearing the fur coat, it solved a particular problem.

So ultimately it’s the perceived worth of a thing—what it offers in addition to itself—that forms that feeling, bolsters it and drives purchasing decisions. That’s why brands aren’t just selling a product. As Seth accurately states, it’s not just what the thing does. Coffee to some is just burnt water with an energy boost. But take that black liquid and put it in a white mug on a table surrounded by friends and family with a crackling fire in the background—now you’ve got a feeling that connects people to the coffee more than the coffee could ever draw buyers to itself. While a company sells a product or a service, a brand is in the business of selling a feeling, an experience and a lifestyle.

Meaningful Connection: A Brand’s Greatest Strength

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A brand consists of products and services, but it’s also much more.

Brands (the smart ones) thrive because of the meaningful connection they offer their customers. A smart outdoor gear company doesn’t primarily promote the material behind its latest tent technology. To mention things like carbon fiber and nylon appeals to the technically minded—a segment of the company’s target market—but not all. It’s certainly worth it to mention such details, but the real connection lies in the experiences one can have with the product in consideration. If said company were to produce a Super Bowl commercial, likely its best shot at make meaningful connections would be in showing a family sitting around a campfire—smiling, laughing, and roasting marshmallows—with the fire light glinting gently on the surface of the tent in the background. Let me say that again: in the background. A failure on the part of said company would be to employ Guy Ritchie-style camera shots of the tent in front of a white studio backdrop, spending each of the thirty seconds explaining why this is the best tent in the world.

This is because smart brands know the greater selling point lies not in the product or service itself, but in the lifestyles of those who purchase it. It’s not about the tent; it’s about the experiences you can have with the tent.

This methodology in turn amplifies the efficacy of the brand’s visual identity. Although it’s possible to have a mood-inducing logo (and logos should have some effect in this area), as I’ve said before: the logo isn’t the man carrying the backpack—it isn’t meant to do all the work. The emotional connection brought about by the marketing methods of the brand inspires potential customers to search for a visual element they can put on display as a show of support. This is when companies can really take off. People inherently want to put a face to whatever it is that means something to them. If a brand has this connective value, the customer will gladly display that face in whatever medium it’s available for display.

The goal is a synergetic relationship: the brand bolsters the logo, the logo bolsters the brand. That’s why it’s important for brands to have a solid presence in both areas. You can see this everywhere. Like when an emotive commercial comes on, narrated by Jeff Bridges, telling you about firefighters saving lives; and at the end, the Duracell logo fades in. The goal in that case is to quickly connect with a viewer in an impacting way (saving lives) and then declare that this is made possible in part by the brand, Duracell—giving the viewer a visual, the logo, to store in his or her memory bank.

So a brand should communicate in some way (via television commercial, print, etc.) its values and goals, and then follow up with the identity as a means of visual connection. Likewise, the logo should contain a clue of the brand’s values and goals, thus pointing to the core of the brand as exhibited in its marketing campaign.

Another consideration for brands is what mood should be conveyed when appealing to the masses? This is another topic for another day, but…

Here’s a hint.

CBS, America’s most-watched network, recently announced the renewal of eighteen television series for the new season: nine of the eighteen are dramas (five comedies, two reality and two news). Sounds like Duracell got the memo.

Thoughts on Marketing Strategy

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Marketing is all about identifying and engaging a demographic.  To whom does your business appeal the most?  As a designer, it’s essential to know this for your clients’ sakes so that your design for them is tailor-made for their customers.  But it’s also necessary for designers searching for prospective clients.  The question needs to be asked: “What am I going to do to attract clients that sets me apart from other designers?”

Whatever you do, do not follow a “standard” that everyone uses.  Be creative and think of something that no one has witnessed before.

Since this blog is all about identity design, let’s establish a profile for the kind of clients a logo designer would seek out.  You’re an independent logo designer: who is in the market for a logo/brand identity design?

Business start-ups.  (Already established businesses looking to rebrand would apply as well, but these are the minority.)

It’s commonly accepted that the logo is the first step a business takes (or should take) in establishing its brand’s presence.  Since society is so visual-centric, attaching a professional design to a business is the essential move to make early on.

So, business start-ups.  That proves to be quite the broad demographic.  What appeals to those starting a business?  On a social level, anything that appeals to an individual starting a business would likely appeal to anyone else.  But not everyone is minded to go into business for themselves.  So what is it that sets an entrepreneur apart?

Entrepreneurs are risk-takers: they like the prospect of being their own boss so much that they are willing to assume liability for any potential failures.  They know that every gain and every loss falls directly upon their doorstep.

On the flip-side, an employee has little worry beyond keeping his/her job.  He or she is not solely responsible for the failure or success of a business.

An entrepreneur knows and willfully accepts that the freedom to work when you want, how you want and with whom you want (within reason, of course) comes at the cost of security.  Sometimes business will be good, sometimes business will be bad—no guarantees; but to the entrepreneur, the benefits outweigh the risks.

Some key words that would describe an entrepreneur are:

  • free
  • bold
  • innovative
  • determined
  • frugal
  • trend-setting
  • educated
  • aware

An entrepreneur is constantly learning more about his or her trade and looking for new ways to start, promote and optimize business.  He or she never “punches out” and quits for the day.  Business is at very least thought of on evenings, weekends and yes, even holidays.

There we have a basic profile for an entrepreneur.

Now, consider this: there’s some common ground here for the logo designer and his business start-up clientele.

If you’re a self-employed brand identity designer, you already have much the same mentality as a self-employed roofer, or a self-employed tutor, or a self-employed mobile mechanic.  You’re your own boss.  So perhaps a better—and undoubtedly easier—question to ask is, “What appeals to you?”  What is it that you look for in a business?

First, let’s take a look at what isn’t appealing.  The following is a list of things I do not like in a business’ marketing campaign:

  • Yes, the first one is obvious: poor identity design.  In an earlier post I described some logo follies to avoid.
  • Bad announcer voice on television and radio.  If you can’t afford to hire a professional voice-over artist (and I mean professional: probably not the local DJ), don’t put your business on the air—trust me, they’ll just change the channel anyway.
  • Low-budget/-quality advertising.  If your yellow page ad, local television commercial, business card—you name it; anything that is intended to draw customers—is poorly designed or trashy, skip it and devote your marketing funds elsewhere.  Find something that looks rich, but costs little.
  • Tacky “It’s all about you” babble.  Cut the BS.  If you’re a business owner, it’s not all about your customers.  You’re in business to profit.  Since people know business is about profit, the “It’s all about you” campaign will actually backfire and breed mistrust in the minds of your customers.  Now let me clarify: when I say business’s goal is profit, I don’t mean at any cost.  Obviously, a business should have equal aspirations to be honest in doing so: and that means providing a good product or service that is worth the money.  We discussed this in a previous post.
  • Excessive-force advertising.  The kind where you can’t seem to pry that rented-mall-space-shoe-salesman off your back with a crow bar.  Employees should be there to help if you need them, and stand back if you don’t.  Pushing beyond, “Is there anything I can help you with?” if the customer says, “No thanks, I’m fine” is not a good idea.

Qualities I appreciate seeing represented in a brand’s marketing:

  • Humor.  I’m talking quality humor, like something Jerry Seinfeld would come up with.  Strange humor is memorable, but in most cases doesn’t elicit a good response.
  • Determination.  This is two-fold: 1) determination in getting one’s name out there in a creative way, and 2) a marketing campaign that portrays a genuine sense of positive determination related to its products or services.
  • Clever tactics on the cheap.  Often called “Guerrilla Marketing”, entrepreneurs can really appreciate this because chances are they started their business in a similarly modest way.  My father-in-law told me about a groundskeeper who found a way to shoot business fliers over the high walls of a gated community, right onto the lawns of his highest-paying clientele.  It worked wonderfully.
  • Helpfulness.  This is hard to market and really must be proven through experience.  But stating a commitment to help the customer in any way possible is an invitation for the customer to see if those words hold water.  I recently had a bad experience (too involved to discuss here) with a tankless water heater from Rheem that was rectified by a sales representative at CPO Rheem.  CPO is a dealer and the problem was with the manufacturer, but this sales rep took it upon himself to help me even though he had nothing to gain by it.

Those are broad principles, but they should hopefully generate some profitable thinking in the direction of creative marketing techniques.  The main thing is: make it fun and stand out in a way that gives your business exposure and leaves impressions on people that create lasting business connections.