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In recent years, a new ethos has pervaded branding circles, namely, ‘less branding is more.’ Where once there might have been a logo splashed across specific shade of colour trademarked by the company in question, or perhaps an A-list celebrity endorsement right there on the packaging, in certain lifestyle segments, companies are now taking a significantly pared-back approach where the very absence of its branding is the brand itself.
The origin of modern minimalist branding can be traced back to Japan during the economic boom era of the 1980s.
In a society that was in the throes of an infatuation with Western luxury brands, a retail company offshoot then known as Mujirushi Ryohin took a quietly contrarian approach that stripped its initial 40-product offering of any branding, instead preferring to build its identity through minimalist product design and quaint, similarly stripped-back poster ads designed by renowned art director Ikko Tanaka.
That company would later grow into home goods behemoth MUJI, which today exports its subtle brand of no-frills, craft-driven design to its 1,000 stores worldwide.
“We believe we can liberate consumers by eliminating all unnecessary aspects of the products we make,’’ said Satoru Matsuzaki, president of the company behind MUJI, Ryohin Keikaku, in 2019. “All our products address the basics, the essence of life. It is the consumer that adds value to them.”
In the intervening years, that philosophy has found a home in global brands such as COS, Aesop and Le Labo, becoming synonymous with a globalist lifestyle and an appreciation for artisanship that, on the surface, seems to transcend the machinations of corporate brand-building.
Their success is the result of the convergence of several powerful trends driven by the rise of the internet age. Firstly, a weariness of in-your-face branding born from the glut of advertising that pervades our digital landscape in all its forms; secondly, the ability of any individual, during the process of shopping, to instantaneously access a wealth of information through their device – from user reviews to comparisons with competitors – thus reducing their reliance on the selling power of the brand itself; and lastly, the alienation from one’s physical surroundings caused by digital addiction, and therefore the urge to seek out retail experiences that engage the senses in new and creative ways.
Indeed, the physical experience is key to the likes of Aesop and Le Labo. While both are known for their distinctive packaging that only disclose the main ingredients of the product in a clinical, utilitarian manner, it is their brick-and-mortar presence which creates the sense of intrigue and mystique that draws in new customers from off the street.
Aesop, which has over 240 standalone stores around the world accounting for 65 percent of total sales, partners each time with a local design firm that melds both the brand’s penchant for earthy tones and textures with the design sensibilities and distinct culture and history of the locale.
Le Labo has a more uniform brick-and-mortar presence, but is best known for its made-to-order fragrance service where the store staff, or “souls” as they are known within the company, formulate a personal scent for customers on the spot. In these ways, so-called ‘minimalist brands still manage to craft a distinct and immersive identity through in-person experiences that contribute more to their brand than any flashy logo ever could.
Today, younger brands that are flying the minimalist flag include the likes of cult beauty brand Glossier, Stockholm-based fragrance brand Byredo, Australian clean beauty label Grown Alchemist, Austrian men’s skincare company SA.AL&CO and Copenhagen distillery Empirical Spirits. That the large majority of them are involved with the beauty industry is no coincidence, given the inherently scientific nature of makeup and skincare formulations.
In the case of Grown Alchemist, their austere yet elegant packaging draws easy comparisons to the labels that one might find on lab chemicals, and are designed to convey a straightforward, efficiency-driven mentality that forgoes glamour and instead opts for honesty.
Empirical Spirits draws upon the same logic, with a disproportionately small label describing characteristics – botanicals, grains, yeast and maturation style – of the bottle in question without even the slightest hint of ornamentation.
By stripping themselves of all extraneous elements, ‘minimalist brands achieve a certain degree of timelessness by sidestepping design trends that change by the year. This allows them to focus on branding elements that leave lasting impressions – from the design of a physical store, to bespoke services that have been personalized just so, and, most importantly, a product that speaks for itself.
As the French novelist George Sand once remarked: “Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.”
Next, read about lessons in brand longevity from one of Hong Kong’s sunset industries, the Shanghainese barbershop.