How Canada's blandest brand became an icon and a muse
Contains the stories of several artists who've referenced No Name products
It's not Union Station anymore. It's "subway platform: with assorted commuters and trains." And the whole place is wallpapered yellow. Shocking yellow. A shade reserved for caution tape, poisonous frogs...and jars of "chocolate hazelnut: spread."
If you're Canadian, you'll get the joke — at least, No Name is banking on the fact that you will. The budget brand that's appeared in Loblaws-owned stores for generations is the subject of a massive marketing campaign, its biggest since the late '70s, and outdoor ads are turning Toronto into the biggest and weirdest No Frills in the world. Any available ad space can be "No-Named," so to speak: taxis, stairwells and even billboards, like this one off West Queen West, a two-storey wall labelled "building: may contain people."
The ad's a few blocks from Tobias Williams's place in Parkdale. Plenty of folks have been LMAO-ing about it on social, where No Name keeps the gags coming. (Since June, they've been spoofing "Brand Twitter" through their newly weaponized dry corporate voice.)
But Williams wasn't exactly laughing when he first saw the billboard this fall. "It sort of seemed like something that I would have thought of," he says.
Williams doesn't work for an ad agency. He's an artist, and in 2017, he animated a medley of No Name products — pineapple sauce, diet cola, etc. — floating around in a "yellow void." The video, called no name city, first screened on the side of an advertising truck. Part of a mobile series curated by Younger Than Beyoncé Gallery, the truck drove through the downtown core during that year's Images Festival.
Williams isn't demanding credit for the ad campaign or anything, and he's hardly the first — or only — artist who's riffed on No Name's aggressively bland brand identity.
Douglas Coupland seems like the obvious first example. A jug of No Name canola oil appears in his brand-patriotic 2001 still life Canada Picture No. 9 (flour), and hell, he's occasionally co-opted their Helvetica and Pantone Yellow C aesthetic as his own. (Exhibit A: the entrance to his 2015 retrospective at the Royal Ontario Museum.)
Like Coupland, Williams started playing with his generic food because he was making art about Canadian cultural identity. "I think that consumer products can tell us a lot about how we think about ourselves," he says. But the story they're telling isn't necessarily outlined in the corporate style guide.
When Adrian Jean looks at a No Name can, box or bottle, a few things come to mind. Jean is a past president of Graphic Designers of Canada and the executive creative director of Ottawa-based agency Spark Advocacy. "The power of the original design was the simplicity of it," he says. Its Swiss-influenced look, designed by Don Watt, has barely been tweaked in 40 years. The stripped-down style is meant to scream "cheap!" — as if the manufacturer were drastically cutting costs by ditching graphics and hyperbole.
"It has this timeless quality to it," he says, "because it still follows the same rules set out in 1978."
"It's called No Name, but it is truly a brand." In both style and behaviour, it has been unflaggingly consistent, he explains. "It's a brand that tries not to be a brand but is a brand because it is doing it so well," laughs Jean.
But over 40 years, the way people respond to it has evolved. Says Jean: "We kind of wrap it in our national culture a little bit because it's spanned generations and because it's something that many of us remember from our childhood."
Maybe that's why it has its defenders online. Every now and then, someone on Twitter or Reddit (usually a non-Canadian) will post about the brand, sparking a thread packed with references to Lost and Repo Man and other works of dystopian sci-fi where non-perishable items are nominally featured. Eventually, a Canadian user will raid their kitchen to post a photo of No Name "teriyaki sauce" or whatever. Maybe someone will even declare the brand "one of the greatest things" about the country — the kind of superlative that's completely at odds with No Name's humble-bot ethos.
OK. CANADIAN CHALLENGE. What's the *most* no name® food item in your kitchen (you know what I mean. I'll start) <a href="https://t.co/7rrm8kAZbl">pic.twitter.com/7rrm8kAZbl</a>—@neville_park
"If you look in my pantry, it's very, very yellow," says Heather Buchanan with a laugh. She's a Calgary-based illustrator, and a few years back, she reached into her cupboard to paint a can of tomato soup. Part of a diptych that also features Walmart's Great Value generic line, she called the piece Andy Warhol for the Economic Crisis.
"Warhol talks about how he printed Campbell's soup because that's what he ate every day for lunch," she explains. "When I looked in my own pantry, it was just yellow labels everywhere." Obviously, the piece is going for the lulz. A lot of Buchanan's work does. And she says she's been laughing at the No Name ads she's been seeing online, too.
"I think it strengthens [my work]. The work I did was years ago, but it was about [No Name] being iconic and available and something that's really present in my life," she says. "The fact they're leaning into it and advertising it and really engaging with their own concept sort of enhances what I did because it only adds to the ubiquitousness of it."
Like Buchanan, Toronto artist Anna May Henry knows what it's like to have an all-yellow pantry. She references the brand in prints and ceramics — something she's been doing for the last two years. But there's no fondness involved, no cheerful childhood nostalgia.
As the cheapest stuff at the grocery store, No Name can generate more complicated associations than brand cheerleading. "I'm not interested in working with it because I love this company," says Henry. "Basically, all of my work is about the experience of having grown up low-income and how it's shaped my identity."
As a kid, a yellow cupboard was something to hide, and on Instagram, people share their own difficult memories with Henry. "A lot of the conversations I've had around this artwork is how this experience is so invisible because of that shame," she says. In her first print, yellow packages are re-labelled "no good," "no money," "no joy."
"I think for a lot of people, when they see No Name imagery presented in this subversive way, it's a very emotional experience," she says.
Henry bristles at the tone of the brand's current campaign and posted a rant about it last week on Instagram.
"For many people no name products (and other bargain brands) are not COOL or FUNNY but just FOOD. For some, they may also be a source of shame, despair and insufficient sustenance," she writes. But she says that something positive could still come from it. "If this rebrand takes some of the stigma out of buying No Name products for people who are living with food scarcity, then that is something good," she tells CBC Arts.
Henry is currently finishing a new print, but it'll be her last to reference the brand. "I'm feeling like maybe this imagery is not going to resonate the same way for me because of these ads," she says.
As a product that never advertised, she saw No Name as a blank canvas. Williams says he felt the same way. "Maybe because they didn't have a public voice, that was part of the appeal of using it for art purposes," he says. "You could make all these associations with it."
Because of the campaign, it's possible that No Name won't conjure the same layered meanings to viewers, either. Williams says he's already seen it happen. An art instructor at post-secondary schools around the city, he recently kicked off a lecture by screening one of his own works: no name city.
"The class just didn't get it," he says. "They were like, 'I don't understand. Were you just advertising for No Name?'"