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Brand name manufacturers are taking the offensive against private labels.

In its first major effort on the issue, the Grocery Manufacturers of America kicked off a yearlong public relations campaign in defense of national brands on Feb. 12 with a speech by GMA President C. Manly Molpus (see related story in Forum on Page 22).

His talk, at the International Food & Lifestyles Media Conference in Chicago, urged journalists: "Don't buy into the fallacy that brand equity is fading, and report fallacy as fact-because the facts won't back you up."

Mr. Molpus used data from A.C. Nielsen Co., Information Resources Inc., Willard Bishop Consulting and Yankelovich Partners to back up his arguments.

"We haven't been vocal enough on this," GMA Senior VP Patrick L. Kiernan told Advertising Age. "Partly it's because companies don't want to be perceived as critical of [retailers'] strategies. And some of them make private labels themselves.

"Also, many didn't see private labels' growth as anything more than the traditional cycle of recession and price consciousness. But then the financial community began to say that brands are dead, and it began to affect stocks."

The GMA held a phone conference with more than 50 Merrill Lynch & Co. analysts and met with a series of national journalists last week to argue its case. It plans to try to reach retailers as well.

The trade group contends it is unfair to lump all private labels together when comparing them with national brands, and claims that outside of upscale premium store brands, most private labels are not doing as well as some analysts think.

The GMA's efforts come as the latest IRI figures show a slight decrease of 0.03% in unit sales of private labels in supermarkets for the 13 weeks ended Jan. 2, vs. the year-earlier period. GMA claims private labels are about 15% of grocery sales; the Private Label Manufacturers Association says 18.2%.

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