By Todd Maute
Where on “The Spectrum of Love” does your private label brand live? After all, if you think about how people relate to brands, there really is quite a broad array of possibilities, from the cynical (“I couldn’t care less about that brand.”) to the quasi-mystical (“The brand and I are one.”).
On one end of this spectrum — call it the left side — you start with brands that are sadly lacking for love stories of any kind. These are brands people know about but rarely or never use. On the other side of the scale are those beloved, even iconic, brands people gladly identify with and use.
Unfortunately, the ho-hum side of the spectrum happens to be where a great many private label brands reside. This includes everything from below-average product quality to meet a price point to the merely functional. The common thread is the lack of inspiration in packaging and overall product and brand vision. There is simply nothing interesting or enticing about many of these products; they elicit a “So what?” type of response from consumers.
For the most part, private label branding continues to be rooted in appeals to the price-conscious buyer, in a relationship that feels more transactional than emotional. When it comes to private label brands, one could ask, “Where’s the love?”
A prerequisite is persuading retailers of the need for private label to transcend the mundane in the first place. After all, if the retailer sees its brands through the functional lens, its customers are bound to do the same. By contrast, when retailers embrace and love their brands, consumers will as well.
Some might not see anything wrong with accepting private label as merely functional. However, would they actually go on the record to admit that their highest aspirations are to be followers rather than leaders? In what other competitive arena is this passive mentality considered acceptable? Imagine being a brand manager at Apple, Nike or some other national brand and saying to the c-suite execs: “Sure, people like those other products way better than ours, but our latest sales are still OK.” Cut to the scene where you head out to your car with the contents of your desk in a cardboard box.
The question, then, is how to find a way to make private label brands live in consumers’ hearts and minds?
The uninspiring part of the spectrum is about low or nonexistent expectations. Happier with a name-brand light bulb because of its aura of greater longevity, a customer nonetheless grabs a private label brand on the way out of the store; it was the first one she saw, and it might be as good as the national brand — it’s only a light bulb after all. Intent on buying some Ben & Jerry’s “Karamel Sutra,” another disappointed shopper grabs a private label brand she has never heard of; they were out of Karamel Sutra, and the retailer’s brand looks kind of similar and is cheaper, to boot.
Moving to the more emotionally resonant part of the spectrum, you start to find brands that people actually enjoy or even love to use. One example is Trader Joe’s, where lively atmosphere and enthusiastic customer service help make up for the shortcomings of the company’s whimsical but imperfect packaging. Nonetheless, most consumers are happy with the net effect, and the chain’s hardcore fans really do love going to Trader Joe’s and buying their products. Consider that in May, Trader Joe’s once again came out on top after Market Force Information asked 6,200 consumers to name their overall favorite grocery store.
The research firm noted in a release: “With its quirky branding, unique private label products such as Speculoos Cookie Butter and Green Tea Mints, and a constantly rotating array of merchandise, Trader Joe’s has amassed a loyal following of shoppers looking for an unconventional grocery shopping experience with a neighborhood feel. The national chain is regularly recognized for delivering a level of service and customer satisfaction that exceeds expectations.”
Likewise, Amazon’s Kindle is a private label brand beloved by millions of digital bibliophiles. These on-the-go readers will never forget that first experience of, say, getting stuck with a lengthy flight delay but then, within seconds, downloading a juicy book to help them while away the hours at the airport (and it would be much easier to read, if only CNN wasn’t blaring over the TVs). Building on this initial masterstroke of innovation, Amazon has retained these customers’ loyalty by continually upgrading Kindle technology and, much to the chagrin of Amazon’s rivals, doing everything it can to corner the market on digital books.
Another example of an emotive private label brand is Duane Reade’s deLish, which scored a hit by speaking to New Yorkers in their own language (“delish” is a legitimate adjective among native New Yorkers of all stripes) and offering convenient, sophisticated food options.
With this spectrum in mind, here are few big-picture approaches that can move private label brands toward the emotional end.
Embrace your hometown and bring it to life on pack.
Have you ever heard of a hyper-local restaurant? That’s a trendy way of describing a restaurant that has its own garden — onsite. In today’s marketplace, consumers are in love with all things local. If your private label narrative includes a hometown-oriented origin story or founder, consider making it a part of the package as Duane Reade has done with Skyline, which features a UPC code in the shape of the city’s famous horizon. Most retailers are regional. Why shouldn’t they make a bigger regional play with their private label?
Branding is always serious business. But this doesn’t mean your private label brands have to be prim and proper. Bright colors are no longer sufficient to pop at shelf. The wry wit of a standup comedian? That is something people don’t expect on the product aisle. Done right, humor and lightness can be a differentiator.
It’s OK to be bold and beautiful.
Design matters. Consider the simple white packaging at Waitrose. This is elegance in action. When you create a new brand, the results of your approach don’t have to be measured solely in terms of sales or market share; there is also the dimension of aesthetic success and the pursuit of broader goals such as customer loyalty and long-term brand building. (Remember, too, that good design doesn’t have to be expensive. Even chains with small budgets can leverage design and shopper insights to create love affairs with their customers.) How invested are you in making sure the brand is forward-looking and relevant? Are you taking any risks? How do you want the brand to make people feel?
Indeed, many retailers would do well to think more about the role of emotion and personality. Find out not just how much money your core customers want to spend, but also learn what kind of statements they want to make about themselves. Study what makes them laugh or causes them to roll their eyes. If something about the product is awkward or embarrassing — maybe it’s in the hygiene or cleaning category — would trying to hide this aspect of the product really work? Or, would it be better to “keep it real” by taking the unconventional route in a way that causes your consumers to smile or even laugh?
Can every private label brand move up the spectrum? No doubt. There is clearly a huge amount of room for private brands to bolster their emotional appeal. If you ignore the emotional side of the spectrum by sticking with a functional approach, how can you take your brand to the next level?
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