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How to Build an Iconic Brand – by Muji Founding Board Member Kazuko Koike

A pioneer behind the global proliferation of Japanese design principles shares key insights

Kazuko Koike wearing a mask designed by Tadanori Yokoo

Tokyo-born creative director Kazuko Koike has been a member of the Advisory Board for Muji (Mujirushi Ryohin) since its founding in 1980. In 1983, Kazuko founded the Sagacho Exhibit Space, where she was president, offering a platform to numerous Japanese and international modern artists to showcase their work. In 2020, she organised an exhibition about the iconic space - which closed in 2000 - at The Museum of Modern Art, Gunma.

Kazuko has also authored numerous books on art and design, including the recent Art/Meson Kazuko at the Frontline of Creation (2020, Heibonsha). In 2020, she was awarded the Agency of Cultural Affairs Commissioner’s Commendation, and she is currently an honorary professor at the Musashino Art University.

Here, the esteemed creative director, shares some insights into the making of the iconic Muji brand, which has sustained itself for some 40 years.

It was back in 1991 with the first London branch that MUJI came to Europe. It was an idea that came from a buyer from Liberty, who had eyed the very first Mujirushi Ryohin store in Tokyo (Aoyama). Mujirushi Ryohin launched in Japan initially as a private brand for a supermarket. In addition to a wide array of products from everyday miscellaneous items to clothes and food, its iconic all-encompassing name provoked a big response from the public.

MUJIRUSHI RYOHIN – which translates to ‘No Brand Goods’ is written with four Chinese characters and was seen as a novel approach to coining a phrase. The thinking that runs through the product lines is captured in these four characters, distilling the essence of the discussion between creative and business minds who shared a passion for quality lifestyle in the midst of the social, economic, and market-focus trend of the 70s.

"The thinking that runs through the product lines is captured in these four characters"

The culminating mission was to simply deliver the value of the product to consumers with a focus on quality materials and ingredients, carefully managed production processes, and removing any frills as well as excess packaging. It was clearly an antithesis to the trend of that era. Also, a series of products that suggested this particular lifestyle choice became a novel concept for the Japanese.

When the brand was to be launched abroad, various naming options were considered, however, it was the staff in London who decided to communicate this original mission by keeping the Japanese name but shortened to Muji. This, in turn, in Japanese, is a term that means plain, no pattern, or monochrome. Mr. Ikko Tanaka, the art director, immediately went to work to design MUJI which complemented the original logo and the global identity of Mujirushi=MUJI was born.

A walk in the forest of verbs from the ‘MUJI IS’ book.

"These verbs summarise the thought process behind each product, which underpin corporate message"

MUJI came into being based on two key principles: subtract/eliminate and extend consideration. These have underpinned the design ethos of the brand, which continues to define the present and the future of this company. Here, I share these principles as presented in the MUJI book I authored, which consists of 15 chapters where products are organized not chronologically but with verbs that inspired their creation. These verbs summarise the thought process behind each product, which underpin corporate message.

Subtract/Eliminate    
Simply deliver the value of the product without any extra elements or price. The products are borne out of the concept of subtraction, removing all the frills. They include a monochrome futon without any flower patterns, recycled craft paper notebook, etc.

Extend Consideration   
MUJI products extend consideration for not just the user but also the producers and the environment. Products include kid’s furniture, cotton products made with 100% organic cotton, or even a project to support women who have been affected by the Great East Japan earthquake with their craft product development/sales. 

At the heart of MUJI is the founding concept and these words which everyone at MUJI, old and new, value, protecting its identity through all their efforts. The global debate of late that focuses on Sustainable Development Goals and Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance is a humble reminder that such a mindset has always been the DNA of MUJI from the beginning.

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