To achieve success, sometimes you need to go against the grain. That’s a formula that has worked for MUJI, the Japanese retailer that in an age of excess is standing out from the competition by designing and selling products that are stripped down to their minimalist core.
“We believe we can liberate consumers by eliminating all unnecessary aspects of the products we make,’’ said Satoru Matsuzaki, president of the company behind MUJI, Ryohin Keikaku, at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore last Thursday. “All our products address the basics, the essence of life. It is the consumer that adds value to them.”
MUJI is arguably one of the world’s most contrarian companies. While many designers today are pushing boundaries and creating ever more elaborate, new, and better products so the machinery of selling can grind on, MUJI’s minimalist approach could be described as anti-design, anti-consumption.
Founded in 1980 in Japan with just 40 products, MUJI now sells 7,000 of its simply designed goods in about 700 stores in 31 countries. Matsuzaki attributes the company’s success overseas to his belief that consumers in other countries aren’t that different than those in Japan. They also respect and appreciate simplicity as the essence of life, he said.
In the nearly four decades since MUJI opened its first store, however, the essence of life for many Japanese has evolved. Traveling abroad was rare for Japanese in those days; today it is common. MUJI has responded by recently opening its first MUJI hotels, with two in China and another slated for Tokyo this April.
“Travel has now become a central part of life,’’ Matsuzaki said, “and so we are trying to make inroads in that business.”
MUJI’s hotels, however, follow the same philosophy of simplicity. The rooms are minimalist, and rather than attempting to create a feeling of luxury, strive to replicate the feeling of a home.
The company’s home nation has evolved into an aging society. Older Japanese people rely more on public transportation, Matsuzaki said. And with climate change threatening our resource-diminishing world, public transport is gaining in importance in many countries. All of this has MUJI to enter the mobility market and design an autonomous bus that Matsuzaki said will arrive on roads in Finland in 2020.
While marketers the world over are targeting ever-narrower niches, MUJI continues to grow by adopting the opposite strategy. “The fundamental aspects of life should be the same for everyone, no matter their race, gender or age,” Matsuzaki said. “That is why we design products that we believe everyone can use.”
In other words: A recipe for success can be a simple one.
For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.