Why Private Brands Are Un-American and What Retailers Can Do About It!

February 21, 2012 by  Filed under: Branding 

As the U.S. private brands industry collectively cranes its neck across the pond with an envious smile at the U.K. private brand share success (approximately 47 percent in dollar share), I question how we’ll ever achieve this level of penetration with our current strategies. Instead, rather than wringing our hands about U.S. dollar share, we should respect our cultural challenges, acknowledge our U.S. heritage in retail, and evolve our approach accordingly.

Did it start with the Founding Fathers? Or was it The Beatles? The U.S. remains a bit obsessed with England, and the private brand industry is no different. Is that why we are compelled to compare their 47 percent share and question if it’s a result of the U.K. being that much better than us? Or is it simply a difference of country maturation? We want the U.K. and U.S. to be similar, but the reality is we’re quite different.

Here’s why. Behavio(u)r. We even spell it differently. And if we spell it differently, how can we expect people to act the same? When it comes to behavioral data, retailers, through their loyalty card programs, have plenitude. We know what she’s buying, whether it was at a promotional or regular price, how many times a year she’s buying it, in how many trips per year, the total of her annual spend, and her average basket size. What we don’t know is why. Why does she choose our brand only some of the time? In only some of the categories? On only some of her trips? And collectively, why do our U.S. private brands hover at only 18 percent share? What retailers often need to better consider and prioritize are the unconscious motivations that drive that behavior.

U.S. private brands purchasing behavior is influenced by two critical components: the impact of our culture on private brands as a concept, and America’s heritage of retail. By placing a lens over these two drivers we are better equipped to understand her private brand perception, and therefore begin to answer the “why”-especially as it relates to share comparison with the U.K.

In The Culture Code, Clotaire Rapaille defines the very term Culture Code as “the unconscious meaning we apply to any given thing: a car, a type of food, a relationship, even a country, via the culture in which we are raised.” When asking Americans what they think of America, the author deduced, from their stories, that the Code for America is “DREAM.”

That should come as no surprise to Americans. It makes perfect sense. We are a country built on the visions of dreamers. America’s Founding Fathers dreamt of big ideals like the separation of church and state. Our ancestors emigrated through Ellis Island in pursuit of their dreams for a better life. And people still emigrate to this country today to fulfill their dreams. Without a doubt, the “American Dream” is our Culture Code.

Let’s examine the other driver of purchasing behavior: the role of retail in the United States and its unique heritage. To understand where we are today we must understand where we were yesterday; this holds true for all types of relationships. Therefore, we must remind ourselves of how retail, and private brands, have developed in this country to ensure a realistic assessment of how consumers perceive those brands today.

In the United States, real estate is vast. Our large geographic footprint not only enabled expansion, but also encouraged our desire to expand, to fulfill the American Dream. In any country, retail is a derivative of real estate, and as retail developed across the U.S. it was very regional. Even today, we have limitations with grandfathered, regional store banner brands. To the consumer, this is a highly fragmented experience. In consumers’ minds, retail became a transaction. Also-and it should come as no surprise-the concept of the supersized grocer or “supermarket” was first developed here in the U.S. Correlating to our geographic footprint, retail became a very big transaction. And it’s getting bigger; reports show a 15-20 percent increase in SKUs over the past decade. Essentially, retailers believed that the way to win, in executing on a satisfying transaction for customers, was to provide more variety and increased choices (through the expansion of the store and additional SKUs).

Because we are a nation of expansionists and dreamers, we are constantly looking at the horizon and asking, “What’s next?” Dreamers inherently question boundaries, seeking out new possibilities, and in turn, new opportunities. As Americans explore and pursue new things we, on some unconscious level, need guideposts to remind us we are not lost-a source of comfort, if you will. As marketers, we know that brands can provide that source of comfort. Beyond providing a solution, brands bring us a sense of belonging and an intimate relationship that is built on trust. Unfortunately for private brands, because of our regional retailer fragmentation across our vast geographic footprint, the only guideposts from one coast to the other to provide our consumers that comfort have historically been national brands.

Then came a pivotal moment in U.S. history: World War II. After WWII there was a strong sense of national pride. Everyone wanted American anything. Then, the 1950s economic boom stirred the marketing boom, and the two became enmeshed in our minds. Therefore, the message of the American Dream got translated into “consume stuff.” Specifically, consume American stuff. But there were no nationwide retailer brands available to capitalize on this unbridled enthusiasm, only national manufacturer brands.

To juxtapose British culture and behavior, The Culture Code states that, “The English Code for America is UNASHAMEDLY ABUNDANT.” This can be further contrasted if we consider the British heritage of retail. Retail, as a derivative of U.K. real estate (focusing on the 20th century), was much smaller and more intimate when compared to its U.S. counterpart. Moreover, retailers were positioned as arbiters of good taste, maintaining this intimacy with their patrons. This has been demonstrated through the British retail solution of providing a focused selection (reinforcing that intimate understanding of their shoppers) versus the American strategy of providing variety (or SKU proliferation). It is a subtle distinction, but it should be respected. In addition, U.K. retailers have always treated their brands like brands. Sainsbury launched their private label as far back as the 1890s. The concept of “generics” was tested in other European countries, but not in England. (Remember, the focus is on the heritage of retail, deliberately ignoring the recent events where it seems the U.K. retailers, Tesco and the likes, are demonstrating a bit of what they have defined as the American experience: “unashamedly abundant” by their expansion into superstores.)

It’s fair to say that that when it comes to retail and behavior, America has its own set of challenges:

  • Our country is built on expansion. Expansion in stuff and expansion in experiences. Let’s ask ourselves, “How can retailers and their private brands enable that insatiable appetite for new things?”
  • U.S. banner brands (the brand displayed above the door) have different relationships with consumers. Remember-historically, the role of retail was regional, fragmented and transactional. As an aside, I have fond memories of shopping (and being forced to bag the items) at the local Waldbaum’s with my Mom on Long Island, New York. I remember the excitement and sense of wonder I felt as we entered the store every Saturday morning. Today, I live in San Francisco, and these intimate memories are surrendered to disparate experiences in West Coast chains.
  • Private brand portfolios hinge on the banner brand. There are two inherent challenges here. As previously stated, the banner brand lacks an emotional, intimate connection, so when retailers are finally able to create that intimacy through tangible products (she brings it to her home, feeds it to her family and stores it in her medicine cabinet) the brand lacks any true emotional meaning of its own. In fact, the brand parrots the personality and point of view of a national brand.
  • There are certain limitations, even for the Brits. Private brand share and price gaps vary by category. Before activating any strategy, at the portfolio, brand or product level, consider the realities of that category, and how that category supports the banner brand strategy.

And historically, we haven’t done much to overcome these challenges. We went from emulating national brands-creating a SKU-by-SKU fragmented “label” impression as part of an already fragmented experience, to emulating the U.K. retailers-(e.g., Tesco, Waitrose) by creating value alternative solutions, using the banner brand, across an exorbitant number of categories. Retailers shifted from labels to painting their portfolio with a very broad brush. Too broad a brush. This leads us to today, where we find retailers conflicted between building brands with a strong point of view (and consistency), versus competing at the category level, as they are most comfortable, with blatant national brand cues and claims.

So how can American retailers course-correct? How can they make up for years of missed opportunities in building intimacy (and then preference) by making the consumer feel special? Here’s where I get patriotic… I recommend the following principles to drive everything you do from here on out:

Figure out a banner brand strategy. Encourage your organization to make hard choices about your corporate or banner brand. Without a well defined, distinct banner brand strategy, your portfolio of private brands lacks any meaning or direction.

Move from emulating to creating… and create something special. If private brands are truly about stealing trips from your competitors versus stealing share from national brands, then you need to create an unquestionably different experience. Work in tandem with your Corporate Marketing team to determine how the retail experience can drive your private brand strategy, and conversely, how the private brand strategy can drive the retail experience.

Move from imitating to innovating… and embrace product innovation. We’ve seen private brand innovation success happen most often in one of two ways: 1) Form, factor, and formulation or 2) An innovative category strategy. Demand more from both your strategic suppliers and your organizational partners: category management and product development. Create multi-category brands based on key consumer needs.

Embrace insights like never before and expand their richness. Only you know how your consumer behaves inside your store and how she feels outside of your store. Understand her like never before. Understand the “why” behind all of the rich behavior data. Talk to her in your store. Consider her needs and how she acts in the context of your store to drive any and all private brand activity. Know the areas in the store in which she’s engaged, and wants selection (not variety)- and create room for those items by reducing variety where she doesn’t want choice.

Know how to activate. Whether it’s through a unique product line, retail environment, or staff training-in everything you do-make her feel special. Turn your cashiers into guerrilla marketers. Influence your organization to educate and empower their staff to speak about your brands. Think about the attitudes of those who work at Trader Joe’s or the Apple Genius bar. Ask yourself, how do your workers and staff compare? Transform service into culture.

In conclusion, I wholeheartedly believe in private brand growth in the U.S.; however, we will never achieve the U.K. level of growth given our current approach. As you look enviously across the pond at that 47 percent share, I suggest instead to redirect your energy, consider our own set of challenges, and create ways to make her feel special. If you stop trying to force-fit a U.K. model and remember the principles, I believe we can build share way beyond 47 percent. In fact, let’s be unashamedly abundant.

Carol Best is Vice President of Brand Strategy in the San Francisco office of Anthem Worldwide ( http://www.anthemww.com ). Carol has spent the past 10+ years of her career as a brand strategist guiding the development, management and stewardship of some of the world’s most well-known fast moving consumer goods brands. Over the past few years, Carol has worked with some of the industry’s most progressive retailers, helping to ignite the private brand movement by creating and managing up-and-coming private brands. Carol’s ability to articulate a clear portfolio strategy that supports the corporate brand and business objectives with insight and creativity, has helped leading retailers strengthen their brand portfolios, improve brand performance and empower brand management support through a disciplined brand governance and activation program. Prior to joining Anthem, Carol was a senior strategist with Interbrand (New York and Cincinnati), where she was a member of Interbrand’s innovation team and helped build a strategy department in Cincinnati to service Procter & Gamble. The roster of clients Carol has worked with over the years include: P&G, Sam’s Club, CVS, Unilever, Petco, Dole, Safeway, Kellogg, Tesco, Revlon, A&P, Colgate-Palmolive, True Value, Jose Cuervo, Walgreens, Nestlé, Campbell’s, and Woolworths. Carol holds a B.S. in Economics and Marketing from The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

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