Note from the author: In keeping with the idea of this blog -- that it houses either the personal or the professional or an amalgam of both -- I've decided to try an experiment here. The first half of this is personal essay, the second part is a more factual market analysis. Love to hear what you think!)
It used to be plainwrap or generic was synonymous with “off-brand” which was synonymous with low quality which was synonymous with YOU ARE POOR. I was raised by my grandparents, who had bootstrapped their way out of the Great Depression and into a comfortable, middle-middle class existence. They were one of the OG double-income families, with my grandfather working in aerospace and my grandmother as a professional astrologer.
The nouve-middle class part of grandmother had a love-hate relationship with generics: as we shopped, she would scowl and glower at them, and actively denounce them. But the Depression had left an indelible mark on her, and even though her deeply analytical mind that was in touch with the reality told her, “Ease up, everything is fine,” there was another, more primal part of her brain that shrieked, “BUT WHAT IF WE RUN OUT OF FOOD?”
So she appeased both her inner consumer and her inner indigent by hoarding food: If we went shopping and she needed two or three cans of beans, she would by 20 more. On any given shopping trip, about 30% of our order was “just in case” food.
At one point, she converted a walk-in closet into a pantry that was stacked, floor to ceiling, with canned goods. About 50% of them were plain-wrap, because the fatalistic part of my grandmother understood that they were a lifesaver. The message I got was “plainwrap foods are only OK if your choice is that, or starving to death.”
Know what I mean?
Years later, as a low-budget college student, I had to form my own relationship with plainwraps, out of necessity. I know that’s what college students are supposed to do, right? But I remember loading up my cart and feeling something worse than shame: I felt like I was a fraud. I was the first in my family to go to college; I would not feel the total weight and gravity of this until many years later, or understand how proud I should have been, but instead, I felt like I was pretending at middle class, I didn’t belong in college and could never finish, and the blue-and-white, nondescriptly packaged items in my shopping cart proved it. It reminded me that I was just a few years removed from being poor white trash. (My grandmother was from the Ozarks and her formal education stopped in the single-digit grades. But I need to point out that she was one of the smartest women I’ve ever known and later in her life, she threw herself into educational pursuits.)
But the thing I discovered was that plainwrap stuff was good! Living under my grandparents’ roof, there were always other alternatives, but in college, I didn’t have those choices so I ate the foods, used the cleaning supplies, and drank the soda (and a tangent for another time: all the goofy names for plainwrap sodas. The silliest, in my opinion, was the Dr. Pepper alternative, Dr. Skipper. And for the record, pretty much all plainwrap sodas taste terrible.) Some of the time, the difference wasn’t that big, as with many frozen and canned vegetables. A few of the products actually ended up being preferable to name brands.
Today, I buy plainwraps by the cartful and DGAF. I’ve been lucky enough that I can buy what I like: I happen to not just like, but actively prefer many plainwrap products. I do admit the idea of buying plainwrap food for my cats kind of skeeves me out, but everything else is fair game.
One thing I remember about the inception of plain-wrap food back in the 80s was that it all pretty much seemed the same, from store to store – like it was all squeezed out of the same tube at one, huge, centralized place supplying every store in the country. You could imagine one giant facility…a veritable river of peas flowing down a conveyor belt into endless cans that would be shipped out to Vons, Safeways, Ralphs, Food4Less, Kmart, and every other store. (The cooler among you -- ha ha, and by "cooler" I probably mean "older" or "children of the 80s" -- will recognize the photo above from Repo Man, which had a running joke about planwraps. BUT THEY REALLY DID LOOK JUST LIKE THAT.) But today, many stores have elevated their store brands, with some fancier, premium products and appealing, distinctive branding.
I’ve always thought that Ralphs (which is the West Coast version of Kroger) was killing it with their house brand – and house branding. Their packaging is well-articulated, attractive and consistent, but they go many steps beyond just the in-store experience. Even as a seasoned advertising professional (read: total cynic), I can't figure out how much of my enthusiasm for Ralphs products comes from the product itself, versus coming from the brand.
Usually, when most of us think of branding, we think of color palettes, fonts, styles of photography. But branding is really every touch or interaction a product or company has with a consumer, and much of Ralphs’/Kroger’s branding is done through data. By collecting and aggregating information on shoppers gleaned from store's customer loyalty/club card purchase data, they can very carefully target shoppers and match them up with offers. A couple of times a month, I receive high-quality, glossy, themed mailers – sometimes it’s ‘healthy eating’, sometimes it’s something seasonal – that have recipes, factoids and generous coupons. Usually 75% of the coupons are for things I’ve already purchased. And they’re not weak-ass “buy nine, get the tenth one free” coupons; they’re $1 off this, get a free that – worthwhile coupons that endear me to the store.
Something else that really impressed me: I recently got a mailer hyping their new store-brand pet food – it’s called Luvsome, and the only thing that gave it away as being store-brand was a small Ralphs logo on the mailer. The DM looked and read great, and there was even a website for the brand. (Which – pardon yet another tangent – is definitely respectable-looking; no extravagant bells and whistles, but it’s totally functional and looks nice. My beef with the site is the animals just aren’t that cute.)
Kroger really saw an opportunity and went for it: with our shaky economy, there are so many shoppers trying to do more with less – but at the same time, we live in a world where brands matters. Kroger carved itself a nice niche by making viable alternatives to big branded products…and then once customers take the bait, Kroger reels them in with personalized offers and solid, professional direct mail and other communications.
Don’t just take my word for it: Kroger has grown into one of the biggest grocery chains in the world, and they’re doing so well, they need to hire an additional 20,000 workers to keep up. And according to Marketplace.org, the company attributes much of this success to pushing its house brand, which accounts for $1 billion a year in sales.