The unbrandening

 

Do you remember as a kid going to the grocery store with your parents and being just totally overwhelmed by the bright, loud packaging of products on shelf after shelf, aisle after aisle?

I certainly do. Each product had a brand — you’d recognize the Kix by its bright red box and Tide by its loud orange bottle. Every package screamed its brand name at you.

Branded packaging as we know it hasn’t been around that long. While people have been packaging goods for millennia, trademarked printed boxes, tins and shrink-wrapped containers were only invented in the late 1800s — less than 150 years ago, beginning with Uneeda Biscuits around 1896.

When branded packaging was invented, and up until very recently, its purpose and value to nearly every industry made a ton of good sense. The average consumer would shop in a catalog, browsing ads and offerings, or in a store, perusing shelves of products. The more a product stood out and set itself apart, the more memorable it would be and the more likely it would be purchased. Good packaging made products easy to recommend and spread by sharing visually.

And then, the internet came along.

Our team recently launched our new studio product, Regular, a service directed at small businesses hitting their growth inflection point. As we began to design our own website and work on branding, we did a lot of research into branding trends for consumer packaged goods, and what we uncovered was surprising.

We found was that there is a surprising movement towards “unbranding” — specifically choosing not to create a strong association between a product and its maker. Instead of bright packaging, large logos and stamped products, many companies are now going the other direction by operating without logos and offering minimal (or no) packaging.

 

MUJI pens

Pens from MUJI (Photo: Michael/Flickr)

One of the earliest companies to adopt this mindset was Japanese home goods store MUJI, whose name literally means “No Brand” (it doesn’t get more literal than that). Most of its products come unpackaged with just a small price tag, or in minimal packaging with a single informational label (e.g., “lotion,” “body soap”) to identify its contents.

But MUJI has been since the 1980s, so why are we talking about this now?

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