Rise of the ‘brandless’ brand

The world’s first national brand was Sunlight soap, launched in 1885 by Lever Brothers on Merseyside. Today it’s still going strong, albeit in Sri Lanka, Turkey and South Africa. Unilever will happily tell you that it’s worth getting in a lather about brands 135 years down the line; the power of brands is ageless and unequivocal.

That’s because brands serve as shortcuts for the brain, helping us make decisions. Yet in the process we all pay a tax, a mark-up spent on advertising, snazzy packaging, design and marketing. This brand tax enables consumers to make choices about quality, trust and meaning. In the past, retailers insisted companies invest heavily in branding with TV ads and shiny wrapping, in return for shelf space.

“Having no brand meant you had no shelf presence. Having no shelf presence meant no one would buy your product, so firms coughed up. That was just how things were done. What differs today is the rise of social media and an explosion of direct-to-consumer brands,” says Dave Lawrence, planning partner at Brave.

Unbox any number of products delivered to your doorstep via the web and you’d think branding is dead. Brown cartons and unmarked packaging prevail. Your kitchen table can look like the shop floor of Muji, full of unbranded goods. In fact, one US company, Brandless, which sells unmarked consumer goods direct is now valued at $500 million. Is the bonfire of the brands upon us?

Perhaps not. “Yet, there’s no doubt we’re at a fascinating, pivotal moment in branding. The tenets of consumerism are shifting,” explains Joe Stubbs, vice president of global brand at Interbrand Group.

Digitally liberated companies now bypass bricks-and-mortar stores to have conversations with customers directly. Swapping bright, shop-friendly, buy-me boxes and pricey, celebrity television ads for social media campaigns and influencer-driven experiences. Purchasing decisions and branding has shifted webside, hence the brown box or paired-down packaging on arrival.

“Fundamentally, it’s the latest evolution in matching brand propositions and consumer needs. This is creating a new set of rules that are driving success. And it will create more brand casualties as it continues to impact the market,” explains Nick Cooper, executive director at Landor Associates. “Ultimately, this movement is important; it’s real and it’s most likely here to stay.”

Branding is increasingly becoming intangible. The assets are the social media feeds, the online conversations and Instagrammable moments. It’s not that brands are brandless, it’s where the brand decisions are taking place and where the assets are sitting that’s evolving rapidly. Companies are now crafting brands based on a direct dialogue with consumers in the electronic ether.

“Maintaining online conversations with consumers as the ‘voice of a brand’ is now crucial. Clever brands take advantage of this by leaning in and become part of the conversation,” says Fergus Hay, chief executive at Leagas Delaney.

The original anti-brand brand was Muji, founded in Japan back in 1979. It translates as “No brand, quality goods”. The current brandless revolution is more of a renaissance in the digital era than something new. It’s happening in food retail too as own-label products are on the rise again, gaining share in all major geographies, according to research across 60 countries by Nielsen. The big issue is who consumers now trust. It can increasingly be Aldi and their own brands, Amazon, Alibaba or a digital native.

“Today, having a trusted voice is a brand’s most valuable asset. Trust is synonymous with transparency. Yet in an age when design is becoming homogenised and social media-based brands are crowding the market, the main challenge is standing out; brand experience is key to differentiation,” notes Siân Novaković, experience strategy director at Household.

It doesn’t help that the tools for creating a brand have been democratised. Historically, brand building and scaling were limited to a chosen few with deep pockets and good distribution; not anymore, barriers to entry are extremely low.

“These days, the tools you need to build a successful brand are readily available, super intuitive and equally affordable. In theory, anyone can build a professional looking brand identity with an Adobe subscription, build a store using Squarespace, and manage orders and inventory through Shopify,” says Interbrand’s Mr Stubbs.

Let’s not forget products still build brands; brands don’t build products. Brand equity and trust are only built over time. It also takes investment into brand experiences. Consumers are now more cynical and sceptical; ask digitally native brands whether it’s Boundless, Graze, Splosh, Brushbox, Harry’s, Dollar Shave Club or Warby Parker.

Maintaining a brand is also tougher than in the past. You have to be on top of more channels with greater consistency. Every single touchpoint has the potential to build or cripple a brand, fuelled by instant customer feedback. Thus the process of brand building is now exponentially more complicated.

“Branding today is simply different. A modern customer expects a lot from a purchase, including high quality, great values, cost effectiveness, but also things like sustainability and transparency,” says Kajetan Wyrzykowski, head of content at Packhelp.

Brands aren’t smouldering in a bonfire; they’re just reinventing themselves. New brandless brands, post-Muji, such as Brandless and the legion of brown boxes received every day are testament to this.

“Rather than the debate being about whether brands are still important, the actual question at hand should be how we build brands nowadays, not if,” explains Matt Holt, chief strategy officer at Digitas. “And that’s the exciting question.”