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From diapers to tequila: The stretch and grip of private labels

Posted by: Paola Norambuena on November 16, 2011


A stark white cardboard box with the words Macaroni and Cheese emblazoned stencil-like across the front. The same black type spelling out the word Beer on a gleaming white can. Perhaps you recall sitting down for such an unbranded meal, or maybe you've heard tell of these original "private labels" from the generic age. The premise was simple: During lean times, value conscious customers would happily pay less and skip the branding.

then and now

Well, you've come a long way, generic baby. The inheritors of the private label tradition now vie for shelf space at retail chains and price clubs everywhere, with personalities, eye-catching logos, color palettes and, yes, actual names.

It seems every retailer has one — or more. As Walgreens spreads it brings a full line of foods branded with the colorful Nice! label. Target goes to market with Archer Farms for its premium and organic food line – which, like the Whole Foods private label, are sometimes priced higher than the name brands they mirror, turning the value-conscious, no-frills origin of the private label on its head. Meanwhile Target goes cost-conscious with its Up and Up private label health and beauty products, while Whole Foods markets to the place where health conscious and value conscious meet with its 365 brand. Hard to imagine our old black-on-white bargain players grappling with the notion of brand architecture and portfolio management.

Meanwhile at Costco and Trader Joe's the future of private label is now. Trader Joe's entire model is predicated on private label – and the brand is playfully ingenious in its flex: Italian products are attributed to Trader Giotto, for example, and the fruit bars sport names like This Blueberry Walks Into A Bar….

But at Costco, the earnest value seeker and the ironic hipster can stroll the aisles shoulder to shoulder. And, unlike most others, Kirkland is slapped on everything from diapers to tequila, permission most private-label brands don't have.

Is Kirkland stretching the branded private label too thin? We think not. Because what's authentic about the Costco experience is the warehouse feel, the artlessness of the deal, and the supersized aesthetic of stocking the American larder against whatever hell or high water may come. It plays in Peoria and Williamsburg. And more importantly, changing Kirkland diapers all day might drive any parent to reach for the Kirkland drink.

Paola Norambuena
Executive Director,
Verbal Identity – North America

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