A “Brandless” Form of Anticipation

By Daniel Burrus | Oct. 4, 2017

If you’re a consumer who stays on top of retail trends, you’ve likely come across a line of products that have a somewhat unusual branding and pricing structure.

As the name of the company suggests, Brandless’ products are packaged and sold simply for what they are. Hungry for a bag of vegetable chips? Brandless offers a bag of “vegetable chips.” Looking for hand cream to help smooth out dry skin? Brandless has a “hand cream.” No manufacturer name or a brand title that’s a clever play on words—just whatever happens to be inside the bag, box or some other form of container.

Further, if you enjoy the “hunt” that comparison shopping can afford, best to take your safari elsewhere. Every Brandless product costs $3, no matter if it’s coffee or toilet bowl cleanser.

But Brandless is more than just simplicity in both presentation and cost. It’s a powerful illustration of a company that’s using a variety of anticipatory organization strategies—a useful example that shows how leveraging both Hard and Soft Trends as well as cycles can lead to success with low risk.

A Brand That’s Not a Brand

Of course, in creating a line of products under the heading Brandless, the company is, in fact, creating a brand. In one respect, the brand is simplicity and a straightforward approach—simply labeled products, all of which are priced the same. That’s a definite form of branding.

Additionally, the brand represents a departure from the traditional system by which products are brought to market. By bypassing expensive labeling, delivery, marketing and other features that inevitably lead to significant cost increases for consumers—in the case of hand cream, often more than 300 percent--Brandless effectively takes the point for shoppers looking for the least expensive prices possible. That, too, is a type of branding.

But Brandless also incorporates a number of features of my Anticipatory Organization Model that can offer significant competitive advantages. One is what I refer to as the Law of Opposites. By forgoing conventional retail price add ons in favor of flat fees for every item in their product line, Brandless is taking an opposite tack from the vast majority of retailers. That’s a form of innovation in an era where innovation is an imperative to identify significant opportunities.

The Leverage of Demographics

Brandless is also taking advantage of another core component of an anticipatory organization, namely, the Hard Trend that demographics represent. At one end of the spectrum are baby boomers who want to make the most of ever increasing life expectancy. And, to enjoy those years as much as possible, they’re focused on putting healthy, organic products in and on themselves—the sort of organic items that fill Brandless’ shelves.

Then there are millenials, a group who spends more than $65 billion each year and influences upward of $1 trillion in total consumer spending, according to a recently released study. At the risk of painting a significant segment of the population in one broad stroke, millenials aren’t always keen on doing the same things and buying the same products that prior generations did. While the lure of organics cuts across generations, millenials are likely less attached to those brand names that their parents and grandparents loyally bought year after year. Hence, the lure of the “brandless” packaging and message.

The Opportunity of Cycles

However mistaken it would be to dismiss the potential that the Brandless model offers, it would also be inaccurate to suggest that its focus on millenials’ buying habits and preferences was singular in its insight. The fact is that millenials are behaving pretty much the same way that every generation in history has behaved—yet another powerful idea that affords enormous opportunity.

Think back to when minivans were first introduced in the early 1980s. At the time, although they were inherently practical—a vehicle designed to transport families, often ones with young children—the question nonetheless persisted: Since their parents had grown up hauling their own young families around in the classic design of a station wagon, would buyers take to the new design?

At the time, my response was: absolutely. My reasoning was simple: the younger generation was starting to have kids, but they didn’t want to drive around in the station wagon that had been a mainstay of their garage when they were growing up.

That rejection of things that came before has been repeated for centuries and has continued to this very day. For instance, people of a certain age are attached to sleek, stylish lines in automobiles. Not so with younger buyers. Just take a look at the number of squared off, boxy cars that are filling the roadways. Once again, a new generation of buyers simply doesn’t want to replicate what prior generations embraced.

That’s an established, cyclical pattern. And, as the Brandless model shows, recognition and application of the leverage that cycles afford can translate into enormous opportunities.

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Everyday Then, Extraordinary Now

Another way to understand the value of cycles on a large organizational scale is to look at them from a more personal, singular perspective—this involving the changing design and appeal of automobiles. But not just in buying a family car—rather, buying and holding onto certain types of cars whose value can change with the generations.

From the sixties into the early 1980s, the parents of baby boomers were collecting classic cars from the 1940s and 1950s. The motivation was simple. Now that they could afford it, they wanted the car that they couldn’t manage financially when they were younger. Plus, they were happy reminders of their youth.

That pattern caught my attention. In the 1980s, I began suggesting it was a timely idea to start buying late 1960s and 70s muscle cars. The reason was purely cyclical. Like their parents before them, baby boomers had reached a stage in their lives where they had the financial means to buy cars they once could not afford. If they held onto them long enough, the demand for them would be high, as would the prices they would command. In fact, that was already happening with their parents who, edging into their eighties and nineties, were cashing in on the cars they had bought and retained years before.

The overriding point is that you can predict what’s going to be appealing and of value just by looking at different generations as they pass through different stages. That’s precisely what Brandless is doing by targeting the cycle of millenials who are building their buying power and, at the same time, focused on types of items and goods that preceding generations had no interest in. Your organization can anticipate in the same manner by monitoring the cycles that your clients and consumers happen to be in, now and in the future.

Harley Davidson Reacts

A different use of cycles in developing strategy can be seen on an organizational level in a company that, ironically enough, is inherently involved in cycles—Harley-Davidson Motorcycles.

Let’s look at baby boomers once more. When they were growing up in the 1960s, they began to enthusiastically embrace motorcycles. But not Harleys. Initially, they preferred bikes from Honda and Yamaha. Although they didn’t have as much horsepower as they might have wanted, the quality of Harleys was decidedly lacking.

That changed in the 1990s when, through an aggressive emphasis on improving their products, Harleys blossomed into top notch bikes. The company stock took off. Baby boomers loved the motorcycles, often willing to endure a waiting list to buy one. Further, they bought not only the bikes but also T-shirts and leathers.

Of course, the appeal of a motorcycle gradually wore off as boomers grew older and simply didn’t or couldn’t ride as often as they used to. And, just as naturally, young people weren’t as taken with motorcycles. Further, if by chance they were into biking, they weren’t about to ride on the same bike that Dad or Mom had.

What could Harley do? Recently, the company announced a central shift in its strategy which, as they put it, focused on “building” riders and not just motorcycles. The effort focuses on getting people excited about riding through ridership training classes and other programs—including ones focused on women riders and consumers in foreign countries--geared to elicit interest in a changing market whose natural passion for riding has cooled.

The Harley example show how an organization can react to changing cycles—in this case, targeting the consumer him or herself rather than the product, yet another example of going in an opposite organizational direction. In an anticipatory manner, Harley recognized that, if they don’t “build” riders, even the best bike on the planet will be irrelevant if there’s no one passionate about riding it.

Brandless, Harley and other companies like them demonstrate that, in an era characterized by rapid change, it’s also valuable to watch those cycles and trends that have a history of repeating. Just as one-way, linear, exponential change provides opportunities, so, too, can cycles that have occurred in the past and will continue to do so into the future.

Written by Daniel Burrus
Daniel Burrus is considered one of the World’s Leading Futurists on Global Trends and Innovation. The New York Times has referred to him as one of the top three business gurus in the highest demand as a speaker. His latest book, The Anticipatory Organization: Turn Disruption and Change Into Opportunity and Advantage, is an Amazon #1 Hot New Release for Business.

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