If you follow the rule book of building a brand or a business, having a clear vision about what you’re selling is essential. Not so for Kenya Hara, the longtime art director for the Japanese lifestyle company Muji, which is design-world famous for its “no brand” aesthetic. He’s tasked with communicating what the 37-year-old brand is about to people all around the world, and has found fertile creative ground in ambiguity.
“I don’t know what Muji is,” he tells Co.Design hours before he delivers a talk in New York City about his philosophy of “ex-formation,” an esoteric communication concept rooted in making things unknown. The opposite of information, ex-formation makes people aware of how little they know. An ex-formation-themed poster, for example, shows a tiny human in an expansive, sublime landscape. Is she (or he, you can’t really tell by the silhouette) standing on a snowy plain? Is she surveying an expansive salt bed? Is this even a real place? “Ex-formation is making things unknown so we can make the world more fresh, as if we’re seeing things so they’re all fantastic,” Hara continues. “To make things unknown is to make everything fresh.”
In the context of its rarified approach to marketing, Muji seems like an unlikely competitor to big-box brands, yet it currently has 15 stores in the United States (mostly in New York and California) and is embarking on expansion plans with the goal of opening several stores in more states. At the same time, Amazon is nipping at the heels of retailers everywhere. Does Muij’s philosophical ambiguity stand a chance against Bezos’s rabid appetite to control consumption?
Speaking to Hara is an exercise in mind-bending. I ask him if any of America’s current cultural trends could give Muji a foot in the door, from ethical consumption to rejecting the culture of disposable products or the wellness movement. Muji rejects trends, tries to leave as small a footprint as possible through manufacturing, and considers how its products will age over time; its most successful product is a soothing aromatherapy mister. Could Muji be the answer to a new way of buying in the United States?
“Muji isn’t an answer,” Hara says. “It is a symbol of questioning something. For me, Muji is a fantastic resource to think about something. Questioning is a very important aspect of the brand. Every [other] brand is making images and passing their brand images to the customer. But Muji has nothing. The only things Muji has is questioning . . . Muji is always questioning. Muji has nothing.”
Muji’s concept of “nothingness” is part of its origin story. Founded in Japan in the 1980s, it rejected the hyper-consumerist culture of brand obsession and the endless cycle of disposable newness. Muji’s generic products offered an alternative. But while consumers who aren’t as steeped in design philosophy as Hara might read Muji’s minimalism as simplistic (as in unsophisticated and basic), he sees things differently. Hara believes that the Japanese aesthetic sensibility of emptiness is so strong that once consumers understand it, they’ll buy into it.
“If we can explain the existence of the special aspect of Japanese culture to American people, they will become interested in that kind of culture,” Hara tells me. “Emptiness is not only nothing; it’s a creative receptacle for many images. An empty vessel [represents] the eternal possibility to be filled, which becomes very rich, I think. Its great capacity of getting everything is richness.”
This all sounds very cryptic, and takes effort to unpack. But it somehow makes sense when you walk into a store. Muji currently makes over 7,500 products–everything from socks to soap dispensers and beds–and it aims to be the default brand for all your purchasing needs. The almost branding-free products, all together, speak to a specific lifestyle but can also fit into any other lifestyle. They’re intended to be nearly invisible, and work alongside whatever else you buy.
“There are brands all over the world that say, ‘Look at me, look at my brand, look at how beautiful it is,'” Hara says. “People may buy a really beautifully crafted bookshelf or cabinet, but what’s inside the cabinet can be Muji, like a Muji storage bin. In that sense it’s not like it has to be Muji, it can be Muji. That’s big point of our brand . . . [that] ‘this will do.'”
While physical retail is certainly changing due to Amazon and other forces, it’s not dead yet, according to my colleague Austin Carr’s recent story in Fast Company’s December/January 2018 issue. He visited a number of retailers that are flourishing in the “retail apocalypse” era and found that successful businesses today feature products that customers can’t get elsewhere–stores that offer satisfying experiences, challenge the fundamental assumptions of commerce, and resurrect the art of selling.
Muji–which is physical retail-centric–ticks all those boxes. However, it is aware that shopping trends are changing. The company is also growing its online store to better serve shoppers who aren’t near a physical location. Hara believes that the company’s emphasis on a standard level of quality make it naturally suited to thrive in that space, since customers can be confident buying products without physically seeing them.
Amazon has nearly 400 million products on its site, which presents its own kind of challenge when it comes to decision fatigue and connecting shoppers with the right product. Perhaps Muji’s success will be in giving customers the easy choice–in knowing that they can find something that “will do” just fine, whether they get it online or in a store.