Muji was founded in 1980 as a private brand under Japanese supermarket The Seiyu. At the time, Japan was very brand-conscious — foreign luxury brands were becoming more and more popular due to the growing economy. On the other end of the spectrum, cheap, poor quality goods were also big. Muji was born as an antithesis to the consumer habits of the time, seeing a gap in the market for affordable, quality goods with no frills. They began with just 9 household items and 31 food products. Today, they’re a fully blown home and lifestyle brand with over 7000 items ranging from from clothing to furniture and 700 stores worldwide.
Their full name Mujirushi Ryohin stands for ‘no brand quality goods’, a philosophy they’ve kept to this day. Their philosophy ‘no brand quality goods’ is seen in the simplicity and functionality of their products. Their items aren’t made to stand out; they’re very plain and they can be described as minimalistic but this isn’t for the purpose of making a style statement. Their products may be found in art museum gift shops but they’re also sold in convenience stores in Japan. Rather than being on trend, they want their products to stand the test of time. The president of Muji USA Asako Shimazaki said they want to “fix problems that arise on a daily basis” whether its through bringing order to messy homes with storage equipment or by making socks knit at a 90 degree angle so they don’t slip off people’s feet.
Part of their philosophy is also the idea that ‘Muji is enough’. To celebrate the opening of their New York Fifth Avenue store, they held a talk with the same name where advisory board member Naoto Fukasawa spoke about how Muji products are designed to be just ‘enough’ in that they deliver the one function they were made for. On Muji’s website, they say they want to ‘give customers a rational satisfaction, expressed not with, “this is what I really want” but with “this will do” — not out of resignation but out of confidence that their products are enough to fit the user’s needs.
‘Emptiness’ is part of Muji’s ideology. Muji’s art director, Kenya Hara, has spoken about visualising Muji’s philosophy and talked about this emptiness. He said traditional Japanese design has a simplicity to it which allows users to use objects however they wish. This is reflected in Muji’s products — some of the items are literally empty vessels like draws or containers but objects can be combined or used however the user wants to suit the user and their lifestyle.
Muji also have a set of core principles which help them deliver their quality, unbranded products:
1. Selection of materials
2. Streamlining of processes
3. Simplification of packaging
1. Selection of materials
Muji’s most important criteria in their material selection is quality. The company is also known to use industrial materials that have been discarded due to their appearance which they can buy in bulk at a low cost; Muji once sold U-shaped pasta after buying the ends of spaghetti that is cut off when it’s manufactured. They also opt for unfinished or natural materials which ties into their next principle.
2. Streamlining processes
Unnecessary processes aren’t included in the manufacturing process — Muji just tries to do what’s enough. Through using natural or unfinished materials, they don’t have to worry about painting or dyeing. Streamlining also means they can eliminate waste and reduce costs during the manufacturing process.
3. Simplifying packaging
Muji uses bulk packaging and put their products in plain, uniform containers. There’s nothing flashy which is in-line with their ‘no brand’ branding and using minimal packaging helps to save resources.
Although Muji has competitors doing similar things like Uniqlo and IKEA, they’ve carved out a niche for themselves as the ‘no brand’ brand. At the same time, while Muji aims to make products that are indistinct and just enough for the consumer, their products are recognisable as Muji products which appeals to people who are fans of their aesthetic.
Muji’s distinctly indistinct objects fit in homes across the world. There’s also consumers globally who understand the appeal of having unbranded items. As Muji’s products are just built for a specific purpose, their products are easy to figure out and use. For example, on their scent diffusers or USB fans there are no fussy controls or settings, you simply plug them in and get started.
Even though Muji is international and Kenya Hara has said Muji aren’t bound by Japan’s special traditions or styles, Muji makes it known they’re a Japanese brand by using Japanese on their labels and in stores. As Japanese brands are associated with quality, making their origins explicit has its advantages.
Being able to reflect their brand values throughout the company gives them a strong, consistent brand as well as a good business model. Their dedication to making ‘no brand quality goods’ is seen in their core principles. They focus on quality when they select materials, streamline processes to include just what’s necessary to make products function how they should, and keep packaging simple. Sticking to these principles also allows them to keep costs low and prices affordable. It also gives the company a more environmentally friendly image as they use natural materials, less processes, and less resources.
Muji is a brand that has managed to grow immensely yet also quietly. The ‘no brand’ brand doesn’t have huge advertising budgets, instead they mainly rely on word of mouth to spread awareness and put their resources into making sure they deliver a good in-store experience. They also prefer to reach people through press, in-store events and talks rather than running big campaigns, and keeping their marketing costs low also helps to keep their product prices low. However, they do make adverts from time to time, and when they do they make sure to reflect the brand. A good example of this is their 2003 campaign created to convey Muji’s idea of ‘Emptiness’.
Muji was founded at a time when brand names were big and cheap, low quality goods were popular. They spotted a gap in the market and in doing so they carved out a niche for themselves as a brandless brand
Muji owns their non-brand and sticks to their purpose of making no-brand, quality goods. The simplicity and functionality is seen in all of their products and they keep to their philosophy in their manufacturing and marketing in how they ensure quality goods and in how they’ve grown without shouting about their brand and products.
While Muji is consistent and stays in line with its philosophy they’ve also evolved as a business. Their product range has continuously grown throughout the years and they’ve expanded their business to include cafes in stores in Asia, a prefab housing line, and hotels outfitted with Muji furniture and products.
In spotting new opportunities and finding ways to grow while keeping to its brand values, Muji has shown that for a brand with ‘no-brand’, they have a pretty strong one indeed.
Check out my related post: Have you tried Uniqlo?