Brandless — are critical brands an emerging trend?

Brandless is a start-up offering a range of organic, natural, and gmo-free products for $3.00. From food and drink to beauty and toiletries, they promise to offer better stuff for fewer dollars. Photo: brandless.com

In 1986, the French hypermarket Mammouth commissioned the semiotician Jean Marie-Floch a work of research, with the view of contributing to the design of their new store in Dardilly. Starting with a classic qualitative approach of collecting testimonials about what the customer’s dream supermarket should be or which features it should have, Floch was able to classify different forms of consuming in a typology of four positions, in the best semiotical square fashion [1]. The four terms in the typology were: Practical, Utopian, Critic, and Ludic. [2]

This typology is still my first choice when I provide Semiotics consultancy to brands. Before you discredit me as a consultant for using branding from the 80s with my 21st-century clients, it is important to understand that not only those types are still pertinent to branding today, but also, the methodology used by Floch to extract those “types” from his research exposes something brands today are still reluctant to understand: that “consuming” is not just “consuming”. There are different forms of consumption, of consumers, which means there should also be different strategies to understand those motivations (or aspirations) behind the act of buying a product and being able to cater for them accordingly. This text will go briefly through Floch’s typology, to then analyse a contemporary example — the new brand called Brandless — and see how Floch’s category applies to branding today.

Getting back to the supermarket (which is a great metaphor to understand any brand), the four types had different motivations and aspirations, and their expectations of what a store should be related to the way in which they wished to consume the supermarket — no, this was not phrased wrong: we do consume spaces, as well as the things we buy in it! The practical consumer, for example, expected to “find the products quickly, in sufficient quantity, always in the same corridor”; the utopian, in opposition, expected to find “human proportions [rather than] something immense”, and expected the place to inspire “a will to go there” rather than going there merely by need. In the bottom quadrants, the critical didn’t find “exoticism” to be desirable: they were more worried about the wallets, the relation between the quality and the price of the products; and finally the ludic (or playful), one of the most difficult types to explain, wanted to feel “at home” in the supermarket, to have somewhere to wander around the place after filling their shopping list (or after “finishing the utilitarian part”)[3].

A representation of what I described so far: the horizontal relations represent “oppositions”, the diagonal relations “contradictions”, and the vertical relations “implications”. Image: “Sémiotique, Marketing et Communication”.

After this brief exposition, I’m sure some of you are wondering if I never heard about the Branding categories use nowadays, inspired by Jung archetypes [4]. However, although similarities may occur — we could say, for example, the “sage” is commanded by Critical values, while the “outlaw” could occupy the Utopian quadrant — semantically, those typologies differ in which they do not address the same level of discourse. While the Branding typology tries to add “a face” to the brand— such as the one of a jester (Ludic), or a “regular guy” (Practical) — Floch’s typology deals with abstract values that could, afterwards, acquire any “face”, according to what the brand wishes, that don’t have to be one of those archetypes.

That said, it’s probably clear by now that the right side of the diagram has been abused, especially by brands targeting the so-called “millennials”, even (and especially when) when the product didn’t correspond to it. Everybody wanted to be “friendly”, to interact with the consumer beyond the purchase act — the so-called “engagement”, preferably online — but also wanted to offer the utopia of freedom, of a desirable lifestyle, normally relating to travel, to not working 9 to 5… the cliche list can go on. Because it’s so saturated, and everywhere you look you see that, it is easy to be caught in the trap of believing this is the way to be: every brand today wants to be an “influencer”, to have “aspirational content”, to “create a connection”, to “make an impact”. In this amazing article about a consultancy to a client selling diapers, Laura R Oswald explains why it is a bad idea to try to do what everyone else is doing — when everyone is competing for the same space, it is very difficult to “win”; a much better idea would be to find another empty space, where only you will be able to reign for a while. This is not even semiotics: it’s physics!

So in a sea of brands fighting the utopian and ludic spaces, the start-up Brandless goes against the grain by selling all their product range for $3.00 (£2.28 approx), under the argument of dodging the “brand tax”. Getting back to Floch’s work, this is the purest critical brand ever to exist: no exoticism, no ruffles, no icing on the cake; just fair, straight forward product — all organic, with no artificial stuff added, with ingredients clearly listed on the tag. The packages are simple, displaying the colour of what’s inside (or so we imagine); a clear, direct name of the product, such as “tomato sauce”, “dish soap”, or “crunchy peanut butter”; and finally the quantity and organic certificates.

Is then being “brandless” the way to be critical?, you ask me. I will ask you back: is Brandless really “brandless”? Or is it a very careful branding project and visual identity, designed in line with the critical strategy?

It’s funny how nowadays it’s very hard to find something completely “unbranded”. Even when you go to a street market, the vegetables will probably have some sort of sticker or stamp or, at least, the plastic/paper bags provided will be somehow identifiable, will have one or another type of identity. Misleadingly (but brilliantly!) named, thus, Brandless is not brandless.

We should not confuse simplicity with absence when it comes to branding. The visual identities and packaging provided by Brandless are simple, but they are still there. The choice of solid colours, the choice of typography, and especially the topology of the packages — the order and disposition of the visual elements in space — manifest careful choices, and they do communicate the values the brand aspires to sell very effectively.

“Here at Brandless, we put people first, which means value and values stick together. Better stuff, fewer dollars, no nonsense.” (from Brandless.com)

In our image in the beginning or this article: the Tomato Sauce. It’s a classic cylinder can, predominantly red — the tomato red colour — displaying, inside the white square with rounded edges: the name of what’s inside, in capitals sans serif and the same colour as the can, Tomato Sauce TM; a list of “features”: organic; no artificial colors; no artificial flavors; no artificial preservatives; BrandlessTM. In the bottom, the weight, and finally, the organic seal in black.

Now here it is important to remark the double presence of the “TM” — the symbol indicating the notice of legal claim on a trade mark — appearing at the top and bottom, flagging the presence of Brandless “from head to toe” in the can. Discreet, but affirmed repetitively, all the materials available on the website are carefully arranged in colour, typography, shapes and topology to communicate a core critical value, but more importantly, a brand promise: “better stuff for fewer dollars”.

There has been too much emphasis, in the 21st century, in brands wanting to be ludic or utopian, and those values had a role to play in the boom of consumerism in the post war when the advent of industrial economies needed mass consumption to rebuild the countries devastated by WWII. Half a century after, however, we are seeing the consequences of such model of consumption, especially in sectors such as textiles, food and electronics[5]. With the “influencers” of today gaining consciousness of environmental impacts, as well as with the financial crisis all over the globe forcing people to save money and being wiser about their pennies, we have a boom of anti-consumerism movements on the rise — such as the vegans and reducetarians, the trash-free movement, as well as a lot of emphasis in reuse, repurpose, second-hand shopping, and a true DIY revival. It is possible to see a shift being formed, with people abandoning the utopian way of consuming to adopt a critical role in the contract of purchase, and the appearance of a brand like Brandless now is definitely emblematic of this change.

Therefore, I’m sure we will see a boom of “brandless” brands, and this type of identity slowly becoming a trend. The fussy names will become simpler, the complicated logos may be simplified and even completely disappear, printed/texturised packages will become solid, and simplicity will reign. The question remaining is: are those brands going to deliver what a true critical consumer is looking for, better stuff for fewer dollars? Or will “critical” become the new chic, following the same fate of “sustainable”?

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Notes:

[1] The first definition of the Semiotical square appeared in Greima’s text “Les jeux des contraintes sémiotiques”, published in: Greimas, A.J. (1970). Du Sens I, essais sémiotiques. Paris: Seuil; also published in English in Yale French Studies, no. 41, with the title Game, Play, Literature, in 1968, with the title “The interaction of semiotic constraints”. In this text I’m referencing the French version. However, Jean-Marie Floch himself published a simpler and well-humoured explanation of the semiotical square in: Floch, J.M. (1990). Sémiotique, Marketing et Communication. Sous les signes, les stratégies. Paris: PUF; published in English with the title Semiotics, Marketing and Communication: Beneath the Signs, the Strategies.

[2] This study first appeared in: FLOCH, J.M. “La génération d’un espace commercial”, in: Actes Sémiotiques, IX, 87. 1987 Paris: EHESS-CNRS, a very rare document. Parts of the text were subsequently incorporated in the chapter “J’aime, j’aime, j’aime… publicité automobile et système des valeurs de consomation”, also in: FLOCH, J.M. (1990). Sémiotique, Marketing et Communication. Sous les signes, les stratégies. Paris: PUF.

[3] Idem

[4] If you want to know the source of those diagrammes, you should check: Jung, C. (1969). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. London: Routledge.

[5] Great documentaries to check for more information about the crisis in our models of consumption: “Food Inc.” (2008) and “The True Cost” (2015).