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.

A Brief Tribute to Good Brand Naming

 

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I think I’ve mentioned before how choosing a good name for your brand is just as valuable as the logotype designed for it. An example of this is This Old House.

At first, one might think the use of the word “old” in the name would cause the brand to sound antiquated, which is usually negative in our progressive world. But then the word “house” drops in immediately afterward and puts the whole name into perspective.

If you’ve ever searched for housing, I’m sure words like “Victorian” have piqued your interest. For starters, it’s very surreal to envision yourself living in a house that has stood for close to two centuries. The craftsmanship was different then, the design style has been long-since buried; unless such a house has been renovated, living in it would be quite an interesting experience—like stepping back in time.

Needless to say, there’s definitely an attraction to these kinds of estates. Even if you can’t afford a Victorian-era home, a mid-20th century home falling into some disrepair can also be an alluring investment.

People love to fix up old homes while endeavoring to maintain whatever history it is that defines them. This Old House has aimed, through various forms of media, to provide a solid source of information on the subject of home improvement and remodeling. Theirs is a name that causes the hearer to reflect on what it might be like to purchase a classic fixer-upper and spend several years pleasurably bringing it back to its former splendor. Since the name caters to people’s desire to restore older homes, I’m confident many would be willing to see what This Old House can offer them on their journey.

Beside all this, the name sounds like the chorus of a folk song, or perhaps the title of a poem.

All these things work together to paint a picture that has great potential to connect with viewers and readers.

The logotype is very simple; but as is often the case, whenever the brand name has great intrinsic value, the best approach to the logo is that of simply letting the word, words or phrase be as they are—unique, memorable, thought-provoking—while keeping design elements to a minimum. Sometimes a brand name is strong enough to carry a lot of retaining value without the need for additional visual attraction. A good designer will recognize when this is the case and let the name speak for itself; generally not adding any symbols, providing only a strong wordmark.

I make it a point to analyze little details such as this because that’s what designers do. So it may seem as though I pulled a lot out of a little. But I think it’s important to recognize and appreciate when a name really says something, especially for those who want to come up with something long-lasting.

A brand name, like its logo, can really help the brand stay alive and, to me, This Old House is a prime example.

The Hourly Wage Doesn’t Fit the Creative Process

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Creativity involves pause: time to think, contemplate current ideas and be active with the aim of generating new ones.

If you were to give your client an itemized invoice that showed “12 hours of contemplative thought”, for which they are certainly paying you, most people tend to see that as not working.  (Certainly the brainstorming process is chargeable, since you wouldn’t be spending long hours thinking about a particular client’s project unless he or she hired you.)

Working at a job where most employees had an hourly wage, I knew there was no such thing as downtime unless you were off the clock.  An employee’s worst fear was being caught not doing something when you’re being paid by the hour to do something!  Thus, this is usually the mentality with wages, and therefore doesn’t transfer well into the creative realm where even if it looks like you’re not doing anything, you are.  Ideas are flowing while you’re taking a walk, looking at good photography, taking a drive in the car.  You’ve heard the saying that goes something like, “A lot of great ideas started on the toilet” (maybe it was in the shower, but it’s in the bathroom either way).

Ideas come when you least expect them, for sure.  So, just as it’s difficult for clients to swallow paying for what they might see as down time, it’s also tricky for designers to gauge hours of creative work when ideas come and go at irregular intervals.

It’s my conclusion, looking only at this aspect of creative work that it’s best to forgo charging an hourly rate, and instead estimate about how long a project will take and how much labor is required, deciding the figure that’s worth it to you as a designer.  This takes practice and a solid understanding of your workflow.  But provided the design brief is as thorough as it should be, pricing the work shouldn’t be an issue once the designer is aware of what’s involved.

Does time play a role in the price of an identity project?  Of course: a huge part.  But so does the number of items to be delivered, consultation throughout and following the project and quantity of alterations and revisions, among other things.

I suppose for some this could be boxed into a nice, neat hourly rate, but I just don’t see it personally.

Why Can’t All Products Be Like Barbasol?

Barbasol1My dad and I were having a conversation about business the other day.  We were discussing how companies of late are often putting more money into marketing sub-par products, than producing genuinely good ones.

I used to think the baby-boomer expression, “They don’t make things like they used to” was just a misguided product of good memories—after all, everything that comes out of your generation is the best, right?  But there is definitely something to be said for build quality in the manufacturing of yesteryear.

Even up until the mid 1990s, build quality in select vehicle manufacturers was at its absolute best—before stiff competition among other factors forced the majority of auto makers to cheapen vehicles in order to turn a profit.  One such example of a best-in-class vehicle was the Mercedes-Benz E-Class with the W124 chassis.  Rock-solid, safe and reliable; some automotive enthusiasts have dared to call it the “Best Mercedes-Benz Ever” and even, “The Best Car of the Past Thirty Years”.  I’m sure that’s a hotly debatable topic, but from the research I’ve done on the vehicle, and considering that ultimately what defines a good car is stellar performance in every testable category, I don’t think those claims are entirely misguided.

At one point in the conversation, my dad said, “I always say, ‘I wish they could make all products like Barbasol.’”  In case you’re unaware, Barbasol is a shaving cream that’s been around since the dinosaurs—well, almost: 1919.  Since then they’ve gained a reputation for having a quality product.  One thing my father noted about Barbasol is that it’s, in my words, the Maxwell House of the shaving world: good to the last drop.  The can doesn’t clog up and cheat you out of 25% of the remaining cream.  It goes until it just can’t go anymore.  An average-sized can lasts about four months when used every day, according to my dad.

Now, while I do use a Remington hair trimmer, I’m not the shaving type so I doubt I’ll be purchasing Barbasol anytime soon.  But the point is: Barbasol coasts on its quality, not its gargantuan marketing campaign.

Marketing works.  That’s why people do it.  The more people you can reach and the more corporate seeds you can plant in people’s minds in a short period of time, the more likely you are to make a sale.  The higher quality the marketing, the higher return on your investment—just like brand identity.  But marketing products that fail easily, or even are engineered to fail, is just bunk and purely disreputable.  Market your product: fine.  But don’t market a piece of junk that’s predestined for the garbage can.

This all leads me to something many brand identity designers may not consider.  With your designs that are intended to bring in profits to the company you’re designing for: have you considered whether you’re representing a reputable company?

I know it’s difficult to tell in many instances, and there are always mixed reviews on products.  (Just browse through Amazon’s user reviews of a Black and Decker toaster once and you’ll probably see everything from, “It burned my house to the ground” to, “I loved it so much I bought three as Christmas gifts for the grandkids!”)  And I’m not advocating buying the product you’re branding every time you start a project (although, that wouldn’t be a bad idea).  I’m merely pointing out that as designers, our goal is to represent these companies in a positive way, and point as many people as possible to them.  If we wouldn’t stand behind a bad product as consumers, it doesn’t make sense to painstakingly brand and inevitably promote a bad product!  A good graphic designer makes it clear to the company s/he is working with that s/he is there to help promote and bring recognition to the company.  But the good design becomes cheapened when it’s attached to a company that can’t match it in quality.

Let’s allow the bad products and services to fossilize and promote the truly good, useful ones.  Because let’s be honest: the products that are built to last, and the services that are genuinely helpful, are the ones that deserve to keep going.