Brandless: oh dearie me

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POSTED: July 15, 2017

Sometimes I read something and then either forget about it or ignore it. Sometimes I read something and find myself drawn back to it later: asking myself how good (or how bad) do I find this idea? Yesterday I read about Brandless in CO.DESIGN (their capitals, not mine) and I have thought about it on and off ever since, wondering “how much stupidity do they think I can house in one head?”

I read a second article, also from Fast Company, that provided some background information. I learned that

A few years ago, Ido Leffler, a Bay Area-based entrepreneur and founder, woke up in the middle of the night, suddenly bothered by a system he’d been participating in his whole life: the inflated cost of consumer packaged goods. “It just hit me: Why were we spending $15 or $20 on things that cost maybe $2 or $3 to make?”…

That, Leffler thought, should not be the case. And when he met with Tina Sharkey, then the CEO of Sherpa Foundry, the incubator arm of the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Sherpa Capital, he learned that she’d long been thinking in a similar vein…

Ultimately, Sharkey and Leffler are aiming, by doing away with excess costs and supporting an ethos of transparency, to eliminate the background noise of financial stress and choice overload. “It’s not just about creating a community of people that are looking for everyday things that are affordable and match their values,” Sharkey says. “It’s about taking action, putting people first, and ushering in an entirely new way of modern consumption.”

They “want to create a platform where people could find items that reflect their values–whether it’s organic, non GMO, or gluten-free–across a wide swath of products at a price that’s accessible to almost everyone” which sounds neat until you ask what it actually means.

According to the original article it means that

The company sells a limited number of products that range from food to kitchen supplies to beauty products, all for $3 or less. Brandless’s CEO and cofounder Tina Sharkey says this is possible because most food has what she calls a BrandTax, a markup in price that customers pay for the privilege of consuming a particular brand–which means that customers end up paying up to 40% more than what food actually costs.

The original article – this one – focuses on the design challenges of branding a company called Brandless and that makes fascinating reading if only because it become clear that Brandless, unlike say Muji, has an approach to not branding itself that involves totally branding itself.

I went to the Brandless website and had my fears confirmed. They usher in “an entirely new way of modern consumption” by replacing the search for home-made or locally-made products, made by people who love what they do, with stuff that “reflects your values” in the vaguest way possible. The website tells me that

At Brandless, we put people first. That means you. We know your values are important and you look for better-for-you products in every aspect of your life. So do we! Around here we focus on “just what matters.” That starts with offering products that match your values, preferences, and at times requirements—where it matters our products are non-GMO, sometimes organic, fair trade, kosher, gluten free, no added sugar and more. It’s different for everyone.

Run that past me again: “where it matters our products are non-GMO, sometimes organic, fair trade, kosher, gluten free, no added sugar and more. It’s different for everyone.”

Well that’s reassuring, don’t you think. More importantly though: what does it actually mean? It seems to offer everything while actually offering nothing specific at all. “It’s different for everyone” tells me nothing at all. What? Why? How do they know?

(In fairness, at another place on the site they do say that “our vast food assortment is entirely non GMO and well over half is organic” but, in the context, I find this confusing rather than illuminating. Does this mean that all foods count as “where it matters”, in which case why don’t they say so, or make the headline statement clearer and less obviously equivocal-by-design?)

They then spell out, in a diagram, the alleged damage that the oddly trademarked idea of the BrandTax actually does:

Again this looks at first glance as though it explains something while actually explaining nothing at all.

It seems to suggest that Brandless does not have “markups” when they obviously do. At best they have a lower mark-up, which raises questions about their supply-chain which they simply ignore.

Somehow they slip into the diagram the idea of “inefficiencies”, without explaining what this idea means, and without suggesting how these “inefficiencies” arise for Proctor & Gamble and similar companies, but don’t arise for them. If by “inefficiencies” they mean shameless profiteering on the backs of brands we grew up with, then they should say so. If they mean something different then they should spell it out, because I can’t work it out for myself from the little information they have given me.

I could extend this critique for thousands of words. I could, for example, analyse the drawing of the “Source” with its suggestive tree and sun, and happy producer. However I have other things to do. I will only add here that they appear to have identified a problem (some stuff seems too expensive) which supermarkets have already addressed by developing their own in-house brands. They then seem to have dressed it up in focus group-driven language for concerned hipsters, whose concerns centre round their own convenience; and then created a design strategy that invalidates the very language they have strived to create.

They claim that “We’re a group of thinkers, eaters, doers, and lovers of life with big dreams about changing the world. Our mission is deeply rooted in quality, transparency, and community-driven values. Better stuff, fewer dollars. It’s that simple.” They have “raised around $50 million in funding from investors like New Enterprise Associates, Google Ventures, Redpoint Ventures, Cowboy Ventures, and Slow Ventures”.

You might conceivably seek to “change the world” by encouraging people to rethink how they live and buy; by encouraging people to buy at lot less stuff of higher quality (by which I mean stuff produced by people earning real wages, and in ways that damage the world as little as possible). You might “change the world” by encouraging people to know their producers, know what and how their producers produce. If these ideas lie at the heart of Brandless then I have misunderstood and I apologise.

On the other hand, Brandless, you started the conversation and I have not heard anything from you along these lines. I have only heard meaningless fluff about “community-driven values. Better stuff, fewer dollars” which, according to you, means that “It’s that simple” (whatever that means).

If my mind had not boggled a long time ago, then it might start boggling now.