22 January 2013

Does de-branding reduce brand noise?

I was listening to a thought-provoking conversation about de-branded design on Monocle 24 radio between Monocle’s Design Editor, Hugo Macdonald, and Selfridges Creative Director, Alannah Weston (Section D, Episode 65, 8 January 2013). Selfridges London emporium has curated a concept entitled No Noise that invites people “to celebrate the power of quiet, see the beauty in function and find calm among the crowds.” No Noise encompasses the Silence Room, an insulated refuge within the extensive department store, The Quiet Shop, with minimalist design and de-branded products, and Headspace pods, offering guided meditation on themes that include commuting and technology.

I was particularly intrigued by the idea of The Quiet Shop and the offer of de-branded products. Arguably, brands with a strong identity and form do not need a logo. This is especially true where a marked emotional connection exists between the consumer and the product. Yet, consumerism is defined by the predominance of branded goods. Consumers are inundated with brand noise and so need to be clever about how they manage brand association and allegiance. Often, individuals will identify themselves with a brand, considering it a part of their character and ego. This is true in many instances, such as design, technology and fashion.

If I take myself as an example, I will only use a laptop, phone and tablet that has been designed by Apple. I identify with Apple’s minimal high-end aesthetic, where the products focus on usability and functionality, and where unobtrusive design is a principal component. I have a history with Apple, having used their products since school, and I have a definite emotional attachment. Apple’s logo is exceptionally powerful, yet I don’t consider it to be noisy or conspicuous. Many people using Apple’s products inadvertently remove the Apple logo themselves by placing a cover on their iPhone or iPad (the logo is on the reverse of these products). This is also a credit to Apple who do not feel the need to connect the user’s experience with an ever-present logo. Apple as an entity is compelling enough to be considered a lifestyle brand.

In the Selfridges Quiet Shop, a number of brands have removed their logos for a special edition collection. They include Levi’s, Beats by Dre, Marmite, Heinz Tomato Ketchup and Heinz Baked Beans. In the Monocle conversation, Alannah Weston argued these brands “have the confidence to say I don’t need a logo, I don’t need a name. The graphics are strong enough and the product is brilliant enough to speak for itself.” The notion of de-branding is in many ways rather quirky and depends perhaps on the level of urbanity demonstrated by the consumer. Alannah Weston suggested “everyone’s on a different journey in terms of their knowledge about brands… as the customer becomes more sophisticated it really becomes about the product itself [and] there is a trend towards people not wanting to be broadcasted to, [where] people want to find out things for themselves.” Whether branding is interpreted as being “broadcasted to” depends on the person. In an age of both internet access and austerity, people are better able to research a product and can be deliberate in their quest to find a product that is best value and fit for purpose.

Within the context of de-branding, Alannah Weston expressed that “there is a trend for minimalist design at the moment.” I don’t wholly agree with this assertion, although recognise it is contingent upon the particular consumer base. Minimalism in design, particularly furnishings and accessories, has been present for many years. It isn’t just a general trend or an inclination. From famous midcentury designers such as Charles & Ray Eames, Hans J. Wegner and Poul Kjærholm, to present day design luminaries, for example, muuto, nendo and NORM, minimalist, functional, unobtrusive design has underpinned their work. Classic designs such as the Eames Plastic Side Chair DSR, the CH07 Shell Chair or the PH5 Pendant Light, are recognisable by their form. They are not emblazoned with a logo and, as such, fall within the category of being de-branded. Their branding is about recognition and identity; an emotional connection.

I remain to be convinced that de-branding a brand will reduce its noise impact. Rather cynically, it could be suggested that the Selfridges No Noise initiative is an enterprising one, a subtle massaging of the exhausted consumer, readying them for another walk around the vast store. After all, one of the Headspace pod meditations in Selfridges prepares the consumer for “an extraordinary shopping experience.” Rather than a focus on de-branding or pretentious quiet rooms, we all need to take responsibility for curating the choices available to us in an age of excessive abundance. We are drowning in overindulgence, having to deal with a glut of products, websites, social networks, communication technology, reality television and advertising. Branded products have their place in the same way that non-branded products have their place. As consumers, we have the power to make appropriate choices, to take control and to make our reality a much quieter, more pleasant and fulfilling one.

Images at top: Heinz No Noise Tomato Ketchup, No Noise Marmite, Heinz No Noise Baked Beans, via Dezeen.

De-branded Selfridges shopping bag

De-branded Selfridges shopping bag. Image via Dezeen.

Removing the word ‘Selfridges’ from its yellow shopping bag gives us… well a somewhat nondescript yellow shopping bag.

Eames DSR

Eames Plastic Side Chair DSR. Image © Vitra.


CH07 Shell Chair. Image © Carl Hansen & Søn.

Louis Poulsen PH5 Pendant Light

Louis Poulsen PH5 Pendant Light. Image via Nest.

New editions of Walnut Grey’s discerning design blog published on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.