The definition of private label branding has evolved significantly over time. Some would argue the term “private label” is a misnomer of great proportions. There is no question that the words “private label” acknowledge the birth, history and existence of generic and store brands. Yet, the term does not adequately capture the extent to which private label has progressed. Today's retail marketers are managing their proprietary brands with the same combination of care and innovation as manufacturers of national brands.
In recent years, retailers have been liberating themselves from the traditional definition of private label marketing as being the poor relative of national brand consumer goods, and, in doing so, opening up huge opportunities for private label branding. These opportunities require the adoption of a different set of marketing and branding practices to support and propel the retailer’s business and marketing ideals for its private label brands.
The key to successful marketing management for today’s retailers is to understand the contribution and role of their proprietary or “own” brands in the long-term business strategy and marketing mix of the retail store and consider both the supply side and the demand side of the equation. Effective category management can enable retailers to solidify and optimize supply-chain relationships. Strategic brand management goes hand in hand with these endeavors to establish sustainable points of difference in each aisle and segment within the store. It also spurs decisions about how to appropriately define the retailer’s “own” brand portfolio in order to galvanize consumers to connect and reconnect with its franchise in a compelling manner.
Historical Marketplace Dynamics
Private label brands were traditionally defined as generic product offerings that competed with their national brand counterparts by means of a price-value proposition. Often the lower priced alternative to the “real” thing, private label or store brands carried the stigma of inferior quality and therefore inspired less trust and confidence. Yet, they still grew and prospered by providing consumers lower priced options for what was often a low involvement purchase decision. Retailers continued to push more and more private label products into different categories of the marketplace because they represented high margins and the promise of profitability with little to no marketing effort.
Over the years, this proliferation of private label offerings perpetuated a myopic approach to private label brand management. Previously successful yet, currently flailing private label brands clued today’s retailer into some important pitfalls to avoid in proprietary brand portfolio management. Most importantly, these examples underscore a need for private label marketers to be cognizant of how their initiatives play a role in the overall marketing mix and the long-term definition and impact of their portfolio.
Historically, private label retailers appreciated that it was important to tout certain category and product benefits to incite consumers to purchase. Yet, rather than look at the consumer directly to understand his brand and product selection criteria, they took their cues from the national brand competitors that had already identified and manifested some of the category’s salient attributes and benefits through advertising, packaging and other brand messaging. The result was often a series of “me-too” private label positionings that strived to emulate the category leader.
This approach to private label management had resounding impacts on a category as a whole as well as the individual product offerings within it. By commoditizing their private label products, retailers undermined and commoditized a category’s overall potential. They adopted the role of the omnipresent, cheaper choice and often forced branded competition to lower their prices to compete, thereby erasing margins for national products and private label alike. It also created missed opportunities for all category players (manufacturers, suppliers or retailers), since they were not considering latent or untapped consumer needs that their category had the ability to fulfill.
The Shift in the Private Label Paradigm
Private label brands have clearly become a more instrumental priority for today’s retailers. They are starting to diversify their offering beyond the expected, enabling them to compete more effectively in existing product categories and foray into new and different product categories that have traditionally been dominated by national brand players.
In many instances, private labels have surpassed a national brand’s capacity to deliver on visibility, consumer interest, involvement and appeal. Proprietary brand decision makers are often able to command close to parity or parity pricing for their products, without articulating cost as the differentiating factor. This represents a point of departure from the past: there is an acknowledgement that today’s proprietary brands have the ability to transcend the negative baggage and problems of traditional store brands, creating unique, resonant benefit propositions for consumers.
Retailers are beginning to recognize that they cannot simply rely on national branded products to draw consumers into their stores and sustain loyalty. This is due to the fact that manufacturers’ product brands often have the ability to transcend geographic location, distribution channel or retailer (e.g., Bounty paper towels are available at a wide array of grocery stores, drug stores and mass merchandisers across the United States.) Due to this pervasive presence of national brands, consumers need not have a strong relationship with a particular brick-and-mortar store setting to have access to these products. It is only the proprietary brands, exclusively available at a specific retailer that can be a magnet to draw people into its store versus others and accrue direct meaning and loyalty to the overarching banner.
Brands Take a New Approach to Private Label Branding
There are certain contemporary brands that have either been placed on a pedestal or carefully noted by retail marketers and consumers alike. Their situations and strategies start to lend insight into a more compelling definition for a retailer’s proprietary brand offering and more importantly, a sense of how to optimize success as an exclusive, proprietary brand.
It is worth mentioning that these examples are mostly in grocery and mass, however, they still inform and enlighten the strategic approach of other types of retailers including drugstores and department stores.
Retailers in the United Kingdom have been private label innovators in many respects. Take the supermarket landscape as a case in point. Since the UK consumer buys a significant proportion of his weekly purchases from one store, the competitive focus is at the store level and this is where it has been imperative for retailers to create a persuasive consumer connection. In order to accomplish this objective, retailers have had to elevate themselves above competitive retail outlets by having a comprehensive offer. They would develop their portfolios and provide proprietary products in categories where national brand manufacturers’ offerings did not suffice.
Perhaps the strongest success story in this regard was that of the Marks & Spencer brand in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was a clothing retailer known for good basics that complemented its offering with proprietary branded food products. Quality was the cornerstone of the food product range and the only brand provided was its proprietary label. Mainstream retailers could neither emulate Marks & Spencer’s premium quality, nor its price.
Sainsbury’s is another interesting retailer to consider in understanding how to develop an appropriate proprietary brand strategy. In the mid-1990s, it became the first mainstream UK supermarket to have more than 50% of its turnover accounted for by private label. Yet, despite previous accomplishments, Sainsbury's faces an uphill battle today.
A key learning from this retailer’s situation is that it grew its private label brand according to the industry’s traditional approach and failed to build proprietary products on the platform of a real consumer need. As a result, it has been forced to look elsewhere to fill these needs. It has reversed its limited value private label strategy to invite Starbucks to run its coffee shop, Yo Sushi (a well-known High Street sushi brand) to provide ready-meal sushi. The retailer has a licensing relationship with popular chef, Jamie Oliver, borrowing from his expertise and charisma in food and cooking to increase sales volume and interest. While this overall strategy is far more consumer driven, it has abdicated the advantage to the competition who, through their successful customer-focused private label brand development, have much more profitable relationships with manufacturers.
It is conceivable that retailers who reached this point were taking private label success for granted and not being fully cognizant of the resounding long-term impact of their private label brand development. The fact that they were providing branded products that emulated manufacturers’ product in terms of quality and price and at the same time were delivering much better margins fueled their portfolio expansion. Yet, for some this heralded the beginning of the end of the traditionally branded good. There was, it seemed, nothing that could not be privately labeled. A proprietary branding phenomenon that had started in limited product categories like fresh produce had expanded out to cake mixes, cookies, pet food, pharmacies, coffee shops, and even, financial services.
Meanwhile, Tesco, Sainsbury’s nearest rival had been developing its offer using a different tack: carefully segmented private label echelons and ranges. Tesco has a value selection for cheaper commodities categories. Yet, this value brand was not manifested as the generic, store brand of the past. The critical point of difference with these products is that they are defined less by which manufacturer gave the retailer an opportunity in a certain product category and more by what a working class family on a tight budget would need to get by.
Concurrently, Tesco created an organics line, a kid's line and, perhaps most impressively, the Tesco Finest sub-brand. Tesco Finest started in ready meals and chilled foods, where the retailer has a natural advantage (these products are difficult to prepare and distribute). Integral to its success was its very high premium-ness. The exceptional price and quality were well received by the higher end consumer. It was also evident that Tesco Finest was an encompassing proposition and could stretch into other categories. But rather than trying to rule the world, Tesco selectively ventured into those specific areas where it could add value.
High-end cookie tins, which are popular Christmas gifts, are a good example. Tesco was smart to recognize that manufacturers were struggling to add value in this seasonal, yet, premium playing field because branded products deemed suitable for everyday consumption dominated the category. Tesco Finest was able to compete here because, as a brand, it had more permission to extend into the premium sector. In view of that, its Tesco Finest cookie ranges have been a big success.
Underpinning Tesco's winning private label strategy was spectacular packaging design across the entire range. For instance, Tesco Finest packaging was in silver boxes that were very premium looking with first-rate product photography. There was also a section of the aisle dedicated to the range. It was well marketed and supported from start to finish.
Of course, Tesco's was not baking its own cookies. It was sourcing them from the very manufacturers with whom Sainsbury's was looking to compete. However Tesco was offering to buy at wholesale those products that the branded manufacturers would struggle to sell.
Similar to Tesco in the UK, Canada’s largest food retailer, Loblaw’s is also a trailblazer in the private label arena. It too perpetuated a segmented strategy for its two proprietary brands. Together, its No Name and President’s Choice proprietary portfolios have over 5000 SKUs. The No Name brand is its multiple category, competitively priced, value range of products. President’s Choice, on the other hand, is a complementary, higher end private label brand that has premium imagery and a commitment to taste appeal and quality that inspires unquestionable loyalty to its retailer.
Retail marketers often cite President’s Choice as a shining example in the area of exceptional private label product quality. This is evidenced by Loblaw’s commitment to the innovation and creation of a superior tasting, excessively chocolaty, chocolate chip cookie that fulfilled a marketplace desire for a rich and indulgent consumption experience. By looking at consumers’ needs wants and desires rather than manufacturers’ existing products for success cues, President’s Choice was able to develop its own unique cookie product that carved out a niche in the category by resonating with consumers in a way that its national brand competitors had not considered.
This visible shift to a consumer-centric brand definition gave President’s Choice believability and a point of difference that enabled it to stretch to new and different product categories. It is now considered a premium brand that transcends food, paper goods, hair care and even plays credibly in discrete categories like financial services.
In the US, Trader Joe’s is a prime example of a retail brand that uses multiple best-practice strategies for its proprietary portfolio offerings. While Trader Joe’s may be considered small in reach when compared to other food retailers, it is clear that this brand has been developed around its target audiences because it galvanizes a cult-like following of loyal gourmet food enthusiasts.
The supply side of the coin is as interesting to note as the consumer demand side. Trader Joe’s should be admired for its ability to manage and sustain powerful relationships with manufacturers and suppliers. It purchases in bulk from manufacturers whenever possible and does not mandate slotting and promotional allowances from partners.
In addition, a clear commitment to superior product, a store environment that furthers the brand proposition and well defined merchandising strategies round out the strategic direction of this retailer.
Trader Joe’s private label offering contributes powerfully to its brand proposition; approximately 85 or 90% of store offering is private label, there are about 2,000 SKUs in the portfolio, and sales per square foot are more than twice that of supermarkets and three times that of other specialty stores.
Another proprietary branding approach that is worthy of note is that of the upwardly mobile Target brand. One of the many reasons Target resonates with its consumers is by borrowing equities from design and lifestyle personalities like Michael Graves, Isaac Mizrahi and Cynthia Rowley in various parts of its store. The retailer has lines from each of these individuals and their allure and expertise provide a sense of contemporary relevance for consumers. Like an exclusive or proprietary brand, these brand personalities infuse meaning into the overarching Target promise and experience.
The tactic of exclusive offerings is something that has been apparent in department stores for a long time. If one is browsing through the INC or Alfani racks for work attire in a Federated Department Store like Macy’s, there is rarely a concern that the clothes are going to be substandard when compared to other fashion brands offered in adjacent sections of the store. More often than not, consumers engage with these brands in the same way they identify with other fashion brands of the same caliber. The fact that INC and Alfani have crafted a credible and relevant standing in the minds of their consumer following is important. But of greater significance is the knowledge that consumers who are exclusively loyal to INC and Alfani consider Federated Stores the sole outlets that offer them access to these favored work wear brands.
There are also countless brand success stories outside of the immediate industry that can provide insight and inspiration for proprietary brand managers. NBC (the National Broadcasting Company), for instance, embodies Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the way its brand is manifested and expressed for its target audiences. It not only connects with consumers through its varied television programming and celebrity personalities, but it occupies a compelling place in their lifestyles. There are many Americans who religiously start off each morning with coffee, breakfast and the “Today Show” or who rally their regular Thursday night ritual around “Must See TV”. Like the NBC brand, proprietary brands have a similar capacity to not only carve a place in consumers’ hearts and minds but in their everyday lives as well.
A New Approach to Private Label Branding
In order to be truly successful, retailers must advance from the generic or store brand mindset of the past to a new private label paradigm. Many retailers have begun to describe their private label brands as “own” brands because there is recognition that these proprietary, exclusive offerings are tools that represent momentous power and potential for the retail store.
The term “own” brands acknowledges that today’s visionary retail marketers have powerful proprietary portfolios that they control and manage and there is potential to reap bigger and better rewards by taking a closer look at the way they orchestrate the role and expression of these brand offerings in the eyes of consumers in each product category. Those retailers who appreciate the magnitude of this brand opportunity have created a new industry standard in their realm of influence and activity.
“Own” brands are articulated and developed in a way that they not only fit with the brand promise of the retail store, but if effective, they also give consumer drivers a key point of departure to enhance and celebrate the overall retail brand proposition to keep consumers coming back for more.
Implications for Retail Marketers
1) Collaborative category management is vital. Strategic category management is instrumental for a retailer to realize its “own” brand goals and aspirations. It requires the development of a symbiotic relationship with manufacturers and/or suppliers to elevate relationships and further a mentality of partnership.
Contrary to the previous mindset of private label management, this approach does not commoditize the manufacturers' brands by offering a comparable product at a significantly lower price point. This would undermine the value inherent in the whole category and lower margins overall.
In this new way of thinking, the retailer and trade partnership becomes more about cooperation and less about the retailer negotiating with the manufacturer or supplier on price and listings. By working together, the parties involved can solidify trade relationships and ensure that the category as a whole remains profitable and emotionally appealing to the customer so that both private label and branded goods win.
In the spirit of effective category management, there should be a collaboration in understanding and deciding how to optimize the product lines and SKUs that will progress the category definition as a whole and determine planagrams and shelving scenarios to rally the greatest degree of category interest and excitement from consumers.
2) Recognize that a salient consumer need should be the springboard for an “own” brand proposition. The “own” brand promise should be defined as a holistic representation of resonant functional and emotional attributes and benefits. This ensures that it takes into account need states that are important to consumers and offers a credible point of difference from other category players.
By crystallizing a differentiated value proposition, an effective “own” brand considers the approach that national brands use to arrive at a holistic benefit proposition rather than the specific positionings they use. This furthers an “own” brand promise that has been informed by the competition, but is clearly not a “me-too” expression. It is also successful because it demonstrates a commitment to offer consumers multiple options and varieties with distinct attributes, benefits and price points.
3) Do not underestimate your power to leverage and own the consumer connection. A successful “own” brand literally has the ability to own the consumer connection. If it is broadly defined, it has the capacity to strike a chord with consumers in multiple product categories.
Unlike national branded products, “own” brands are exclusively available through a specific retailer and can often transcend specific product categories because they use a consumer focus rather than a product focus as their brand foundation.
They have the potential to be magnets that draw consumers into one specific retail store over another. Take Wal-Mart’s success with its exclusive brands like Ol’Roy for dog food or Reli-On for diabetes. These brands inspire such trustworthiness and allegiance from their loyal consumers that Wal-Mart is their pre-meditated retail source whether they are running low on dog food or diabetes medication.
The exclusive brands may be the reason that consumers are initially drawn into the store, but once they are there, Wal-Mart also has the opportunity to encourage them to spend more on incidental or impulse purchases.
Therefore, exclusive or “own” brands not only reinforce enduring loyalty and positive feelings for the overarching retail brand, they often enable the retailer to capture a more significant share of the consumers’ wallet, heart, mind and lifestyle than a national product brand.
4) Optimize and promote synergies of the points of touch you own and influence. Retail marketers are becoming more cognizant of how various aspects of their “own” brand marketing mix work together to create a strong, consistent brand message.
By developing store environments, in-store messaging like signage, merchandising systems, and packaging as well as external messaging like circulars, catalogs and advertising in a congruent manner, the retailer is able to create an enduring impression in-store, at shelf, at the time of purchase and during usage.
Many of these brand expressions do not require revolutionary change for extended periods of time, so they perpetuate an eloquent branded voice because of strategic integration rather than constant investment and reinvestment.
5) Strike the right balance of similarities and differences with brand messaging and portfolio offerings. Brand architecture is a critical consideration for “own” brand marketing. Once the brand proposition is solidified, the brand architecture strategy enables decision makers to promote this promise at the retail store level in order to engender a sense of familiarity, recognition and trust.
At the same time, “own” brands tend to straddle a broader set of aisles than national brands. Because of this, it becomes more and more important to differentiate an “own” brand’s attributes and benefits on an aisle, category and product basis.
For instance, when shopping at a drugstore, the consumers’ purchase decision pathway in the over-the-counter cough and cold care category is quite distinct from their drivers in the paper goods category. Brand architecture and design expression can help the consumer navigate the breadth of the “own” brand portfolio and understand its depth of expertise in different areas of the store.
6) Calibrate the “own” brand promise and the proof in the product. It is important to consider how package design, nomenclature and product strategy can propel and support the retail marketer’s vision for the “own” brand promise.
Re-branding efforts often go hand in hand with packaging redesign and sub-branding initiatives. These are critical tools that help to visualize and verbalize what the “own” brand stands for and demonstrate its expertise and points of difference in various product categories. These brand executions are the vehicles through which “own” brands deliver on category-mandated functional and emotional virtues, spurring consumers to select the retailer’s brand over others.
However, decorative packaging and product names are not enough for today’s sophisticated shopper. The packaging may be the reason that a consumer picks a specific item off the shelf, but if the product does not live up to his anticipations in use, he will be less inclined to repurchase.
Product quality and innovation are a necessary functional underpinning for an “own” brand offering. This is the reason that re-branding efforts are often synchronized with product portfolio rationalization. By undergoing quality assessments, the retailer is able to ensure that its products live up to consumers’ expectations and that negative consumption experiences do not undermine the brand promise that is being developed and executed.
In the past, private label was a moniker for consumer products that were lower priced and lower value. Retailers fostered them as they represented a growth engine because of high returns in terms of margins and profitability on a relatively small investment.
As the industry continues to advance, there is increased acknowledgement that this approach to private label management may allow for near-term gain, but can have a detrimental impact on a retailers’ long-term success.
There has been a rapid shift in mindset about the role and requirements for today’s private label brands. Retailers are evolving to a new definition and greater focus for these proprietary offerings to elevate their stature and influence on the current and future business strategy.
Today’s private label brands need to embody the attitude and demeanor of an “own” brand. “Own” brands are relevant to the broadest set of audiences. The trade feels an affinity and desire for the “own” brand to prosper. The consumer is loyal to “own” brands and seeks them out as an integral part of his/her lifestyle. The retailer celebrates and nurtures the “own” brand as a vital embodiment of its brand proposition that will build and sustain a greater degree of loyalty.
This new paradigm of private label thinking requires that retailers consider an arsenal of often-overlooked business and branding tools to further success.
Category management and brand management must work together to fuel the marketing strategy. One cannot replace the other. Both product and positioning points of difference set the “own” brand apart in consumers’ minds. A consumer-centric approach is at the heart of “own” brand development and elevates above the product-centric thinking of the past.
In order to have a consistent and compelling brand voice, retailers need to understand the contribution and role of proprietary or "own" brands within their business and also within the lives of their consumers. “Own” brand products, branded communication and expressions should all be developed in accordance with this thinking.
When “own” brands are appropriately created and steered, they have the potential to reach their pinnacle of success. In doing so, they create a persuasive connection with consumers, drawing them into a retail store, but more importantly, becoming an essential, experiential and indispensable lifestyle choice that they embrace over the long-term.
Meera Mullick-Kanwar is a Senior Strategist at Interbrand in New York. She is involved in consumer brand, private label and brand packaging initiatives.
With additional contributions from Fred Burt at Interbrand.