Where Are The Heroes?

Our latest article in the October issue of Global Retail Brands magazine. Check it out at http://bit.ly/GzF5Oq.

Where Are The Heroes?

The Future Of Signature Products

Sometimes we have to look at our past to chart the future, and so let’s go back to 1988 at Loblaw, when the President’s Choice “Decadent” chocolate chip cookie launched. It was amazing in its marketing simplicity, and this is why it became the #1 selling cookie throughout Canada in less than a year. Simple and brilliant.

The category territory was intelligent too in that Dave Nichol intentionally targeted cookies (one of the highest volume categories) where own brands hadn’t proven themselves, and where Nabisco’s Chips Ahoy was well entrenched, but a pretty marginal product experience.

The bold language at the time for the brand, let alone a retailer brand, “Decadent”, helped to get it noticed and give it some much needed hype, but it was the skilled twisting of product features that was the beauty of it all. The Decadent has more chocolate chips than Chips Ahoy, in fact 39% of the entire cookie, which was a blaring feature on the pack and embedded throughout the graphic language. It also was made with real creamery butter versus HFCS and cottonseed oils.

Note that the Decadent, one of the first signature retailer products in North America, wasn’t “premium”. A novel product twist, yes, artful brand language and positioning, yes, uncharted category territory, yes, but not “premium” in the way most retailers interpret it today.

The word “Premium” suffers from its imprecision, but many retailers interpret it as a tier today that signifies something gourmet or artisan. That is, in fact, how the largest grocer in North America, Kroger, has just repositioned its Private Selection brand, which expresses itself as “Gourmet and artisan food”, and “the finest culinary experience”. And while I feel this a viable brand positioning, I also think it is vulnerable to consumer interpretation as a little too precious, haughty even, unapproachable in its tone, and special occasion versus everyday. President’s Choice sought out the everyday ground as a reason for being.

I like “premium” that is approachable, fun, inventive, and believe this was Nichol’s intent with most of President’s Choice. It is the intent today of Trader Joes, which Nichol to a large degree emulated, and you see it in products like Trader Joe’s Double Roasted salsa. Nobody ingrained the obvious path for creating a double roasted salsa, no big national brands like Pace or Tostitos led the way for imitation.

The product story is simple in that they first roast the Anaheim green peppers over an open fire, then peel them and roast them again for a smoky, spicy flavor. The blogosphere has gone crazy about it, with all sorts of advocates praising it as irresistible.

Irresistible, unique, inventive, but not really “premium”. Definitely not gourmet.

Gourmet is pickled white asparagus spears, tapenade, marmalade, fancy stone ground mustards and Himalayan sea salt, and this is clear niche for sure. I don’t want to say this is not viable, but I also don’t think it is fishing where the fish are. Small categories exacerbated by an austere tone of voice in the marketing.

For retailers that are have a “premium” brand that veers more artisan, and an NBE (national brand equivalent) positioning in their tiering, there is a huge gap that sits in between that is more Decadent and Double-Roasted salsa-like in its positioning, uniqueness and attitude.

Heroes and signature products have to be approachable, their uniqueness can be subtle, their tone can be more fun and lighthearted. And most of all, your signatures have to be borne out of your inventiveness and represent who you are. Williams-Sonoma, Nordstrom’s or Dean & Deluca can credibly offer an artisan-tilted premium, but for most it is a stretch into a narrow niche.

Everyone has their version of the Decadent cookie now, or some paler version of it, so build the heroes that you can own and market with true distinction from the rest.

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