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How The Ordinary perfected the art of medical minimalism

How The Ordinary perfected the art of medical minimalism

The cult skin care brand is a master in the art of "unselling"

The cult skin care brand is a master in the art of "unselling"

Tom Vanderbilt | December/January 2020

“Let the products sell themselves,” sang the Minutemen, an American punk band, in 1984 in a caustic screed against the “psychological methods” used to stimulate consumer appetite. Looking at The Ordinary, a skincare line produced by Deciem, a Canadian company, puts me in mind of the Minutemen’s slogan – and not just because The Ordinary sounds like the perfect name for a punk band. The company was launched by Brandon Truaxe, a mercurial industry outsider who was frustrated by marketing guff. So he took a more plain-speaking approach.

His products almost look as if they’re not meant to be sold. Rather than seductive bottles clamouring for consumer attention at a department-store beauty counter, they look like they belong in some austere Swiss mountain clinic run by professional pharmacists. Recalling Henry Ford’s mantra that he’d give a customer a car in any colour they wanted as long as it was black, The Ordinary’s packaging comes in three non-colours: white, black and grey. And whereas a competitor like Glossier deploys playful monikers such as “Balm Dotcom”, The Ordinary’s lotions and potions come with unmemorable titles like “Caffeine Solution 5% + EGCG” or “Ascorbic Acid 8% + Alpha Arbutin 2%”.

The Ordinary is not alone in its medicinal minimalism. Clinique was the first to do it, back in 1968, with white-coated saleswomen and scientific design. But they employed Irving Penn, an American fashion photographer, to soften their aesthetic with a touch of glamour. Today Aēsop, an Australian cosmetics brand, takes a similarly no-nonsense line, covering the front of their bottles in lists of unpronounceable ingredients that most firms relegate to the back.

This strategy is called “unselling”. It is, of course, nothing of the kind. “Unselling” is just an effective way to sell stuff to one group above all: millennials. According to research from Pew, twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings are far more health-conscious than their parents were at the same age and more anxious about what they are putting into and onto their bodies. So, if you’re targeting this demographic, turning your label into an ingredients list gives a reassuring impression of transparency and authenticity. Then there’s the way consumers buy. The point-of-sale is increasingly a smartphone: if you are trying to sell through a small screen then stark, legible packaging is more important than ever.

“Advertising leads consumers into temptation,” writes design historian Thomas Hines, and “packaging is the temptation.” Compared with the mismatched riot of things in my own medicine cabinet, The Ordinary’s dropper bottles and tubes present a vision of clinical purity.