Brandless: Can a product be without a brand?

Over the last week, at the crossroads of Forbes and all of my favorite food blogs, everyone was covering the launch of Brandless. Riding $50 million in venture capital, the company launched their online store Tuesday, selling a range of small goods and everyday food basics “brandless” for the fixed price of $3. The online direct-to-consumer tide has been rising for some time now, from Everlane to Warby Parker, but rather than tackling luxury or lifestyle products, Brandless is going after basics for the home and pantry, all of which are non-GMO, free of artificial preservatives, chemicals, largely organic, etc., etc.

Brandless doesn’t shy away from the conundrum of their name. “We are unapologetically a brand,” co-founder Tina Sharkey told Forbes. Still, the concept and name raise some interesting questions about how we approach brands, how we relate and respond to them, and especially: Could a retail product ever really be brandless?

Brandless—the brand—doesn’t look like a brand as we know it, though there are undoubtedly thousands of R&D hours behind the very tangible brand of Brandless. The products are well designed, housed in cohesive-beyond-the-definition-of-the-word, stripped down, two-color packaging that immediately made me think of the grocery store from “High-Rise” (pictured below).

But have we jumped some kind of shark here with a company so carefully branded in such a way as to look intentionally generic and hyper-mass-produced? The reality is that 99 percent of product branding works the other way around, and Brandless is designed to look like something we might consider generic in a set design kind of way. In other words, not without a wink.

The concept is a product of some really bright marketing folks who have essentially turned the idea of branding into an enemy of itself. It’s a kind of mutiny, but the mutiny is its own marketing ploy, and for a brand like Brandless, whose entire concept is to be free from branding gimmicks, it’s—well, it’s interesting.

Putting Brandless aside for a moment, what would it mean for the product inside if something were “brandless”? What expectations am I allowed? When you buy a generic brand from the grocery store and it’s not quite what we were hoping, we accept it as luck of the draw, we don’t write an angry Facebook comment about wasting our money. Even that is tied up in branding: The generic brand product we bought is basic, undressed and the packaging reflects that, guiding our expectations.

Brandless also alludes to the concept of removing brands not just to bring cost down, but as a way of removing the stress of choice. On the heels of Whole Foods selling to Amazon, in an age where “transparency” itself has become so trendy that it starts to become questionable again, and in a marketplace where retail seems to be pushing towards the more homogenous, the most convenient, the fastest, the less hands-on, the faceless, I struggle to picture a world that is brandless that doesn’t also feel a little dystopian. Not to say that Brandless is contributing to this because they are, after all, a brand!

But couldn’t they have just called it Three or something so I wouldn’t be doing this mental hopscotch?