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The ideal of nothing

How minimal brands will save the world from itself Roger Horberry roger.horberry@elmwood.co.uk Minimal brands reject much of today’s brand paraphernalia in favour of confident, highly focused identities based on the barest of essentials. For brand owners this means finding the courage to embrace a ‘less is more’ approach, for brand agencies this means learning a new set of rules and for consumers this means a bit of well deserved peace and quiet.

Brands saturate the world. More and m ore people, not all of them WTO protesters, despair of the visual pollution that blights every line of sight, particularly in urban environments. It’s not that branding per se is to blame; instead it’s the sheer quantity of me-too brands clamouring for our attention using the same narrow range of techniques. Walk through any city and the problem is obvious - it’s as if the volume of everyday life has been turned up to 11. The story is repeated across every media channel - a crude, mud -against-the-wall approach to branding that doesn’t work and costs a fortune. It’s my hunch that in the near future organisations will look for imaginative ways to avoid contributing to this cacophony as they chase ever more sophisticated consumers fed up with the noise.

How w ill branding professionals respond? To help answer that I’d like to propose something new: the minimal brand. By this I mean a brand that is sufficiently confident about itself to stand naked before the public. It’s a brand striped bare, a brand that works precisely because it doesn’t shout its case from the rooftops, a brand that doesn’t have to try too hard.

Simplicity is the key to success for a minimal brand. Real simplicity is extraordinarily hard to achieve and so the business of branding will become even more relevant. Far from doing ourselves out of a job, the minimal brand will in fact demand every trick in the branding agency’s book – it takes serious skill to be simple . The minimal brand will require design professionals to strike an exquisite balance between just enough and not too much. It’s a question of building brands that are as simple as possible, but no simpler. The point is not to obliterate brands, but rather to tone down their expression to the point where they only speak when they’re spoken to.

What would a minimal brand look like? Or to put it another way, how small, obscure or oblique can a logo go? Will minimal brands even stoop to the use of such a clumsy device? I’ve no idea but here’s something to think about: most people are comfortable with what’s going on (or indeed not going on) in minimal art. The idea of nothing as a uniquely identifiable something is one we can all get our heads around. So the principle works, even if the context differs.

The work of Canadian artist Robin Collyer provides a clue to what a world of minimal brands could look like. Collyer takes large-format photographs of everyday American street scenes and then removes all brand-related elements, leaving empty billboards, signage and vehicle liveries. The effect is strangely calm. It’s a quieter world than we’re used to, less claustrophobic and less intense - that’s its attraction.

If Collyer’s pictures show what a world of minimal brands could look like, then Muji are the closest any current brand comes to the ideal of nothing described above. Muji’s minimal brand contributes to an identity as instantly recognisable as any. Its very lack of obvious brand paraphernalia makes Muji a profoundly differentiated organisation. Other minimal brands will have to find alternative ways to stake a claim on nothing.

So my point is this: in the future the ubiquity that today’s marketeers work so hard to achieve will seem brash beyond belief. The idea of brand exploitation, as currently practiced, will be relegated to th e most basic utility products and services, as anonymity, mystery, obscurity and secrecy will become the most desirable brands characteristics. There has always been an element of this for non-mass market items; in the future we’ll see an acceleration of this trend. Not the unintended quietness of the failed promotion, but rather the confident silences that were previously the preserve of upmarket brands. That’s where minimal brands come in. Their simplicity will enable organisations to reach consumer bored to death by brand overload. It’s something to look forward to.

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