Death to Traditional Brands … or Maybe Not?

There is a lot of discussion lately about whether or not brands as we know them are dead. Clearly, shopping and communication channels are evolving at warp speed, but how does that impact brands? Let’s discuss.


  1. Five words: Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Costco

These three organizations have busted the myth that store brands can’t be good. Even more, they’ve asserted that store brands can contain the highest caliber products at reasonable prices. And just to be sure we’re on the same page, store brands are products manufactured specifically for a retailer and branded under the retailer’s own name or the retailer’s own brand


365 is Whole Foods’s store brand. The “365” brand equity aligns with the modern-day shopper, who is seeking transparency, trustworthiness and clean ingredients. 365 offers both organic and natural to cater to a range of needs. Then add in the Amazon guerilla in the room (or aisle as it may be), and the potential power of private label for Whole Foods goes into the stratosphere. See, brands do matter.


Trader Joe’s is a master of “brand experience.” Who wouldn’t want to shop in a tiki-themed environment and find out that goat milk brie is a thing, and it’s a thing you now love. And who doesn’t smile at Trader Jacques and Trader Giotto’s brand names? There is such pent-up demand for new Trader Joe’s locations that there are innumerable Facebook pages intended to entice Trader Joe’s to specific cities. This goes to show the power of a great in-store discovery experience, paired with playful branding.


Costco, while more suburban and larger-family focused, is legendary for its free samples. One can have a six-course lunch while browsing on a Saturday. Prices are solid, and because the selection can vary there’s a treasure hunt aspect to the experience. It’s an extra bonus when one stumbles upon new offerings from Kirkland, Costco’s store brand. Just ask anyone about the Kirkland sea salt caramels. Costco is keeping the brand game fresh with the intermingling of mainstream brands and their top-notch Kirkland.


  1. Let’s come out and say it: Millennials

Millennials cover such a large range of ages that it is hard to buy into some of the learning and perspectives about them. But a number of things about this group do make inherent sense.


Fifty-one percent of Millennials compared to 39% of Boomers feel that “I have no real preference between private label vs. national brands.”* This makes complete sense when we take into account that Millennials are the first to really focus their attention on alternative media channels versus traditional broadcast and print. They have avoided some of the repetitive messaging that XYZ brand whitens teeth better or ABC truck gets more MPG. They’ve had the ability to watch only five seconds of an ad before they skip to the YouTube content they were seeking at the onset.


Pair this with the Millennial orientation of being equality minded and focused on the greater good.** This results in Millennials looking for mission-driven brands and organizations, many of which have only come to fruition in the past decade or so. Look at Toms Shoes, around since about 2006, yet now with annual sales of around $500 million.*** That’s proof that money follows the good, at least in some cases.


Millennials are seeking products and brands that resonate with both their needs and their values. Spend up, spend down, there’s no one way in which they behave. It really varies by brand and by category. Take a look at your brand to ensure it’s communicating with heart and soul to spark loyalty, regardless of price point.


  1. Brand backlash

You’ve likely heard or read about “Brandless: Forget the BrandTax™.  Save 40%.” Brandless has jumped on the anti-corporate backlash with a fervor. They state they have eliminated the cost of developing and supporting a brand, hence their ability to offer all products at a mere $3. Now, when we dig a bit deeper, what Brandless has really done is rebrand private label and created their version of an Amazon Prime subscription model. Everything $3. Membership for $36 equals free shipping.


Put aside the fact that one can buy Target’s private label pasta sauce for $1.59 in the same size as the Brandless offering. People are buying more with their ethics and values these days, so the proposition of BFY products and free meal donation to the hungry with purchase holds high appeal.


Given all this, one can be cynical and say, “BRANDS ARE DEAD!!!” But that’s nonsense. Brands need to find new ways to emotionally connect with their target audiences. Consumers’ value systems may be evolving and may be playing a larger role in purchase decisions, but that doesn’t have to leave your brand in the dust. Take a fresh look at your brand and the story behind it. There may be components of your story that haven’t yet been marketed but are meaningful in today’s world.


After all, consumers are still consumers. They want brands that they feel align with their lives, their values, their needs. After all, isn’t that what branding is all about?!


*Cadent Consulting Group study
**Hiebing MRI and YouGov analysis