The importance of understanding your brand is undisputed, but maintaining growth with a single proposition is never easy. ConsumerCurrents finds out how Japanese group Muji continues to expand.
The reasoning behind the name of a store or brand isn’t always obvious, and often has little to do with the products sold within, or the ethos of the company. Think Tesco or Apple. But Mu, meaning “without”, and jirushi (shortened to ji), meaning “brand” lies at the heart of the Japanese retailer, Muji, or Mujirushi Ryohin. Enter any Muji store and the minimalism of the products is like a slap in the face with a Bauhaus stick, the emphasis on simple and, in some eyes, austere designs with functional, recycled packaging. The company’s Chairman, Masaaki Kanai, has said: “The idea was to create a product that is truly needed, in its needed form, within a reasonable price, and to balance quality and price.”
Muji’s “No Brand Quality Goods” is a philosophy the company has fostered since its beginnings in 1980 when, as an antithesis to the existing consumer society awash with foreign-made, luxury brands, Japanese supermarket chain Seiyu GK set out to produce 0 household items with the tagline “Lower priced for a reason.” Wrapped in clear cellophane with brown tags and simple red lettering – a stark contrast to the garish Hello Kitty and Pokemon logos Japan is synonymous with – the emphasis was placed on products that were useful to the end-user.
Seiji Tsutsumi of retail giant Saison and Ikko Tanaka, a graphic designer, created products with three simple principles: appropriate materials; reviewing the production process and simplifying packaging. According to Muji’s website: “Our clothes must feel good on, our stationery must be practical and our household goods must be easy to use. This may seem elementary, but it has always been a primary goal to ensure Muji customers should never pay for what they can’t use – added extras and fancy packaging.”
Some consider Muji products to be an extension of the Japanese Zen way of life. According to the New York Times, “Muji re-educated the Japanese on what it is like to live with Zen, exhorting harmony between stoicism, design and comfort.” Muji’s products do undoubtedly bring a sense of calm. Their color palette consists of dark blues, grays, whites and black, nothing loud or offensive, and the materials they choose are natural – cedar, natural cotton and unbleached paper. Even their advertising, via a booklet called The Why of Muji conveys a sense of peace. But whilst a feeling of Zen tranquility may be a by-product of living in a ‘Muji’d’ home, the company’s focus remains on affordable products offering solutions to everyday problems. Naoko Yano, General Manager of the Planning and Design office of Muji’s Household Division, says: “We have just continued to be simple. If the product is simple, customers gain more freedom and versatility when they use it. Simplicity is very important to us.”
Muji’s culture of products characterized by function and affordability has enjoyed a steady growth in the last 36 years. The company currently operates around 700 stores worldwide, with plans to reach 888 by 2017, the majority of the new ventures are planned overseas in countries such as China, India and the US, where the Muji philosophy has been wholeheartedly adopted. Their product range has developed from nine household products and 31 food items to encompass 6,500 pieces, over 4,000 of which are designed to make everyday life just that little bit easier, whether space-saving wall-hung CD players or acrylic storage solutions.
According to the company’s 2015 year-end report, Muji is currently in what it calls its ‘jump’ phase (preceded by ‘hop’ and ‘step’), defined by growth abroad and efficiency at home.
Key to Muji’s success, particularly abroad, seems to be their determination to stick to their original ethos. Kenya Hara took over as art director in 2001 from Ikko Tanaka (part of the original creative team behind the Muji concept) and is credited with revitalizing and refocusing the company. Soon after assuming his new duties, Hara noted: “I found the company was at a standstill with the original idea, ‘No design’, which was advocated at its inception. They also had more than 250 outlets and sold more than 5,000 items, including products that deviated from the initial Muji concept or were low cost, but of substandard quality.”
To the casual observer, Muji products could be described as basic, rudimentary, but that belies the foresight and planning which has one into every one. Once a month, Naoto Fukasawa (product design), Hara (advertising), Ichiko Koike (copywriting) and Takashi Sugimoto (store environment) meet to listen to staff about what is happening in-store, their observations fed directly into product creation. Via the company’s observations’ technique, Muji also harnesses its knowledge of the consumer, visiting both spacious and compact living quarters of young and senior individuals. Yano says: “We go to our customers’ and families’ houses and look at the problems they have cleaning their home spaces. People do things unconsciously that make their homes messy, so we come up with product ideas that will help.”
Muji have applied the same hands-on technique to their expansion overseas. In the US, a country synonymous with brands, Muji’s brandless brand philosophy has been embraced – Muji items at the MoMA retail for a 30-50 percent mark-up in dollars compared to the yen price. Conscious that American consumers may have reservations over the brand’s simplicity, US stores allow you to ‘Muji Yourself’, stations enabling consumers to put their own stamp on products such as notebooks and clothing. The group’s marketing strategy is slightly different in America: keen to give customers confidence in its brand by explaining how its products are developed, it has hired the revered Japanese industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa to design its small kitchen appliances.
The company’s East Asian operations, excluding Japan, increased profits last year, in no small part due to strong sales in China. Key to their success has been what the company’s President, Satoru Matsuzaki, calls ‘indigenization’, products tailored to specifically meet the needs of the Chinese market.
Matsuzaki uses the example of Muji’s household items: “The water bottles and rice cookers we currently have available are popular, but too small for Chinese consumers. They need to be altered to meet local demand.” In Hong Kong, middle class families of three adults living in a 40sq m space are regularly observed. Very much the norm in the city, as Yano observed, despite the small space, “the people of Hong Kong love to shop and do not like throwing things away. In that situation, we are thinking about how the spaces could be tidied up, Muji style.”
The same observations will take place in India, where Muji are taking advantage of new foreign trading laws. Matsuzaki says: “India is our next big Asian market with immense growth potential. India’s young, educated population gives Muji a ready cache of prospective customers.”
Little appears to be standing in the way of Muji’s growth. Profits are on the downturn in previously established European territories. But once more Muji’s reaction has been to examine what needs to be done at a local level. According to Matsuzaki, “European stores offer less product variety than our Japanese locations. We want to pursue large-scale renovations and expansions at stores in the UK, France, Italy and Germany while enhancing product variety.” By always keeping the customer at the heart of their business, constantly re-assessing consumer needs, and incorporating cost-cutting into its design philosophy, Muji boasts a business model worth following.
No-brand quality goods
Japanese supermarket chain Seiyu GK launched Muji rushi (no brand) Ryohin (quality goods) in December 1980, aiming to offer cheap yet good quality products for the home.
In a bid to cut prices, Muji cut waste, finding uses for elements ordinarily discarded, their U-shaped spaghetti the left-overs cut off to create straight spaghetti.
Muji “restricts the use of substances that may have a significant impact on people or the environment” and “reduces waste by standardizing modules, facilitating disassembly and by reducing packaging.”
Muji Car 1000
In 2001, Muji applied their no-brand, no-frills philosophy to the first Muji car. In collaboration with Nissan, the low-cost, low-emission, fuel-efficient car was a variation of the Nissan Micra incorporating recycled materials where possible. The 1,000-car run was only sold online.