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Muji’s Anti-Branding Strategy, In 15 Images

“While brands around the world strive to create ads that make people want a certain product, Muji sends out a message of emptiness.”

At the height of 1980s consumerism in Japan, the first Muji store opened with a decidedly different approach. The products were sleek and clean–the antithesis of the excessively-branded wares crowding shelves across the country. Now, of course, with minimalism infecting every corner of the design world, Muji seems somewhat prophetic in its approach. But what sets the iconic “no-brand” brand apart from its competition is its legacy. In the nearly 40 years since its founding, Muji has remained true to its original values of simplicity and quality even as the retail landscape around it has shifted to catch up–and its advertising reflects that.

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“In a raging global recession, we communicated the heartbeat of a company that is working pragmatically in such an environment,” the company explains of this 2008 ad campaign, shot a 35mm compact camera. [Image: ©Ikko Tanaka/licensed by DNPartcom]
Speaking from the bottom floor of the Cooper Square Muji in New York during Fast Company’s Innovation Festival, Muji USA President Toru Tsonuda says that while Muji is preparing for a rapid U.S. expansion—”we want to shock everyone,” he says through a translator—it’s doing so while remaining true to the same values and design principles the company was founded with. Even as the company is gearing up to grow from 15 U.S. stores currently to 30 by 2020—and plans build those new stores even bigger than the ones currently in existence—they’ll still be stocked with the same signature Muji wares that make you exhale in a sort of relieved calm when you walk into a store. The color palettes will stay neutral; they will continue to create products with naturally derived materials like unbleached cotton, linen, and wood.

In a small exhibit opening in the Cooper Square Muji timed to the Innovation Festival and following a similar show in London and Milan, the company is giving visitors a glimpse into its legacy of continuity through a collection of its original posters, spanning the company’s early days in the 1980s through the present. The images are simple and design-focused, less advertisements than artistic statements on Muji’s ethos. They’re still highly relevant today, as the company continues to eschew straightforward advertising in favor of letting its products and values speak for themselves.

Alongside work from Muji art director Kenya Hara, the exhibit includes the work of Ikko Tanaka, one of Japan’s leading graphic artists of the 20th century who also co-founded Muji; he designed for the company until his passing until 2002. All of Tanaka’s designs drive home Muji’s core values of substance over show—and are beautiful works of art in and of themselves.

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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