Why Muji – the anti-brand – can endure in a world of brands

In an era when branding has never seemed so important, the enduring success of Japan’s Muji might seem perplexing to many retailers.

Almost every day fashion houses reveal new collaborations – often with unlikely bedfellows, like Louis Vuitton and Supreme or Gucci and a hitherto little-known cassette-tape retailer Waltz in Tokyo.

But Kei Suzuki, director and executive officer of Muji parent Ryohin Keikaku, has no fears that Muji’s anti-brand format is under threat. He told Inside Retail Asia in an exclusive interview on the sides of the MarketingPulse conference in Hong Kong that Muji’s approach will survive the current brand era.

Kei Suzuki

“I think we can continue what we are doing because the reason why other people enter into brand collaborations is because they want exposure to the customer by helping each other – because maybe they can broaden their customer range.”

Muji, he says, was born from a concept: producing simple, stylish products that make their customers’ lives easier and are not expensive. “So what we want to do is realise the concept and make our customers more happy.”

So while other retail brands and fashion labels are pursuing partnerships, Muji would rather work on expanding its categories. That is why it designed a minimalist house in 2015, a Muji campsite and, this year, its first truly fresh grocery concept store.

“Always we think: what can we do for the people, and how can we make their lives easier?” This is instead, he explains, of focusing purely on the business side.

“By applying this concept to many different categories, we believe we can broaden our exposure to our customer or potential customer. Eventually, that will help us increase the size of the business, or sales. We will not collaborate with brands, but we believe in collaborating with somebody else with the expertise who shares the Muji concept. An example of that is the new Muji Hotel in Shenzhen.

Suzuki says investing in and running hotels is not Muji’s speciality, but if it could find a partner to run a hotel it would want to implement its design and functionality skills into the project. “We provide the concept, they provide the hotel.”

Despite its anti-brand position, it is no urban myth that Muji engages some of the world’s best-known designers to help develop products – it just never tells anyone about them.

“We collaborate with designers who have sympathy with the Muji concept so they are happy to be involved, but their names are never to be disclosed.”

Muji’s rationale is that if customers do not know a product is designed by someone they know by name, they will focus on the product.

“Some designers are already too famous, so if we sold a product with their name, everybody would buy it. But at Muji, there are no names… They can get very nervous, because people judge only from the product.

“We do not want the consumer to be misled just for the sake of a name.”

He says some of the designer products have become best-sellers for Muji, while others have been less successful. This, he concedes, can make the exercise more than a little nerve-wracking for the invisible partners.

Suzuki is in charge of Muji in China, Hong Kong and Korea, the fastest-growing of the company’s markets internationally. In the mainland, Muji now has more than 230 stores, and is opening new ones at the rate of about 40 a year.  

Hong Kong was one of the first markets outside Japan, along with the UK, where Muji ventured.

“Opening stores in Hong Kong and the UK helped the company, because both cities are very cosmopolitan and many people visit. So they see Muji and some of them understand the concept. Then awareness increases. That helped us when we started opening stores in France and other new markets.”

Hong Kong is also proving a great testbed for new concepts, like the Muji Travel store, of which there are two in the territory – one at Hong Kong Station, the other at the airport. Both are trading “very well”, selling travel essentials and convenience products. “I think they provide very good solutions for travellers.”

Online is another area where Muji is treading positively but cautiously.

“E-commerce is very important because if somebody wants to buy something from Muji we want to make it easy. But at the same time, we think it is important from the customer’s standpoint to have an actual connection or experience. So our stores are not just for retail, but also for the experience, and for engagement with the customers.”

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