Have you seen a pack of Paper Boat, the new beverages brand that is making waves in India? I bought one last week, and drank the delicious mango-flavoured drink ( aamras ) which it held, with gusto. The pack is as beautiful as the drink. It has a stark white background. The name “Paper Boat” is written in a big, flat font. A large picture of a mouth-watering mango dominates the centre of the pack, drawing your attention immediately. There is a small paper boat floating at the bottom. The rest of the pack front is neat, clean and empty. I loved the pack, and thought to myself, here is a wonderful example of minimalist brand design.
As a marketer, I understand minimalist design as one that is very simple, and sharply conveys the essence of the brand. It is design that is most basic, beautiful and meaningful at the same time. It is uncluttered. All this is true of the Paper Boat packs, and also of the products they hold – which are very simple, natural drinks from our childhood days. I think this simplicity and minimalism is a big reason why the brand appeals so much to the new-age Indian.
Famous minimalist brands I have known some wonderful minimalist brands from my days in the wrist watch industry. Scandinavian brands of watches such as Jacob Jensen, Skagen and Obaku all revel in minimalist design. These watches have clean and uncluttered looks, and the dials are a joy to dwell on, because they radiate so much peace and calm. Obaku says it is inspired by the simplicity of Zen philosophy. Closer home, the Titan Edge watch, which is famous as the slimmest watch in the universe, is also built around minimalist design. I wear one to office every day, and it elevates me. Indeed, minimalist brands have this magical effect of elevating people. Think of some of the finest modern brands we use today. Think Apple, for instance. All its products – the iPod, iPad and iPhone - are based on minimalist design principles. Using these Apple products certainly elevates its customers, which is why they are willing to pay a hefty premium to own them. In fact, Apple takes this minimalist philosophy into all aspects of its marketing. For instance, the huge hoardings for the new Apple iPhone 6 are excellent examples of minimalism themselves – they feature just a gigantic picture of the product, nothing else. No byline, no text, no other distractions. The hoardings catch the eye instantly.
Similarly, consider the Google homepage. Reflect for a moment on how stark and minimalist its layout is. Most of the screen is empty and white. No clutter here, no text beyond what is absolutely essential. That is part of the addiction of Google, that it is so simple. Or Nike, arguably the world’s most famous brand of sports shoes. Nike’s iconic Swoosh logo is now featured in minimal simplicity on the shoes, packaging, advertising, storefronts and even on headbands worn by athletes – mostly all by itself, without even the brand name or byline accompanying it. Yet it is so impactful, and raises brand salience and appeal immediately, perhaps because of this very reason.
A host of other iconic global brands – including Coke, Pepsi, Guinness, Evian, Nivea, Absolut Vodka and Durex condoms – have all been migrating towards minimalism across many of their consumer touch points. A single colour dominates, a single distinguishing feature stands in focus. In India, this trend is visible in relatively new brands such as Kohler bath fittings, Cadbury Bourneville chocolates and Indigo Airlines. So why are so many new-age brands moving towards this philosophy of “less is more”, in sharp contrast to the heavy, ornate looks of the previous century? Here are some initial hypotheses, for marketers to reflect on.
Simplicity in a cluttered world There is growing evidence that lots of consumers – in particular, affluent and upper middle class urban people – are seeking space and simplicity in a world that is increasingly cluttered. We want space for ourselves, and we often wish that we were leading simple lives, free of all the hectic pace and complexity of modern living. Minimalist brands, therefore, attract such consumers greatly by offering them the simplicity and understated beauty that they are craving for. So when you hold and drink a pack of Paper Boat aamras or jaljeera , you are transported to a simpler, cleaner world for at least a few minutes – indeed, that is what the brand is trying to provide you, through its minimalist philosophy.
A touch of class “Minimalist” products or brands are often viewed by consumers as being premium and aspirational. Perhaps this is because the minimalist look, insofar as the world of marketing is concerned, has its origins in the space of luxury brands. To illustrate this point, consider premium brands such as Chanel, Patek Philippe, Longines, Mercedes Benz and Apple. All these upmarket labels have a clear minimalist point of view, which permeates their product designs, packaging and communication. Therefore, over time, consumers have come to equate the stark, simple look with premiumness and class. As the Indian upper middle class grows rapidly, and increasingly aspires to buy premium products, minimalist brands will therefore hold even greater appeal.
Impactful brand story Minimalist brands tell their stories far more effectively than their cluttered counterparts. Because they make just one important feature the focal point of their product or packaging or advertising, and this is always the most important aspect of the story that they are trying to tell. So Nike always focuses on the swoosh everywhere, and this logo stands for the brand’s philosophy of everyday athleticism and “Just Do It”. The packaging of Paper Boat focuses sharply on the Indian fruit or ingredient (kokum, mango, and such) which is the core of its traditional beverage recipe. Parachute, another iconic brand, always focuses its packaging and advertising on the coconut, which is at the very heart of its offering. Consumers understand these single-minded stories instantly and very well.
Breakthrough brands Go to your nearby kirana store or supermarket, and take a quick look at all the brands there – toothpaste, shampoo, soap, tea, coffee, etc. You will see that most products are loud and colourful. Packaging bursts to the seams with all sorts of information. Advertising for these brands is often full of unreadable text. Such busy clutter is unfortunately the norm today with most mass-market and mid-market brands in India. Hence, minimalist brands will break through this clutter immediately, just because they will be so different from the herd. I strongly believe that a brand with simple, stark design, packaging or collateral will stand out immediately in an Indian supermarket. Which is half the battle won, because in many mid-market FMCG categories, a majority of consumers choose a brand after entering the store, and a brand that stands out on the shelf is always more likely to be picked up.
For all these reasons, Indian marketers should consider moving their brands towards minimalist moorings, particularly if they wish to premiumise their products or appeal to upper-middle class urban consumers.
A brand becomes minimalist through the removal of pointless clutter in its product formulation, packaging design, advertising, collaterals, Website, everywhere. One important point of caution, though, while undertaking this voyage. Marketers should be very careful to ensure that the brand does not end up looking too stark, luxurious, expensive and out of reach. So the distance one should move depends on the specific category, context and current face of the brand. It would be best to bear in mind what the famous scientist Albert Einstein once said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
(Harish Bhat is author of Tata Log: Eight modern stories from a timeless institution.These are his personal views. The author acknowledges valuable inputs from Jishnu Surendran, Tata Sons, in the writing of this article.)