Commentary by Rance Crain


Superstore Brand Campaigns Win on Performance, Quality and Price

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The advertising business is totally unprepared to do battle with the new store brands that mimic, and often exceed, national brands in packaging sophistication,
Rance Crain, editor in chief, 'Advertising Age'

performance and quality. Yet advertisers continue to believe they can differentiate themselves by attaching an aura of emotionalism or entertainment onto how they fit into consumers' lifestyles. Instead of product benefits, however, those characteristics then become the brand's added value.

Lovin' the products
But look at what's happening in the market. McDonald's has yet to launch its new ad campaign, built around an "I'm lovin' it" theme, but it turned in much-improved results based on its fresh-salad offerings and its de-emphasis of cheap $1 foods. McDonald's customers are back to lovin' what the company offers based on the merits of the product. Its new campaign will turn out to be a distraction (perhaps even a negative if critics say it gets customers to feel good about the fatty foods it serves up).

McDonald's doesn't compete against Wal-Mart (yet) but the increasingly competitive store brands teach consumers the only things that count are performance, quality and price. Even if a marketer persuades consumers its product is in sync with their lifestyles, all that good feeling easily transfers to the lookalike house brand that resides next to the marketer's brand on the store shelf.

Superstores as consumer battlefield
As Fortune noted in its Aug. 11 issue, superstores are taking over as the predominant "mass channels" of awareness. With so many TV choices, it's much harder to register with consumers. So the big grocery-and-drug outlets become the real battlefield for consumer attention. "It's that mass channel,

not the mass media, that is now attracting the bulk of marketing dollars," Fortune says.

By not emphasizing the advantages it enjoys over its competition, a consumer brand plays right into the store brands' hands, as well as into the hands of other marketers of traditional consumer brands that sell themselves on the basis of product advantages -- anything from variety to convenience. My wife, Merrilee, likes a pasta, pappardelle, and the only version she can find is a house brand, Shaw's Signature, from Shaw's Supermarkets in New England.

Skip the intangibles
While the house brands train consumers to compare price and quality, brand marketers compete the old-fashioned way by imbuing their brands with intangibles found only in their advertising. This is a losing battle. Take wireless-phone service. Ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners recently won the AT&T Wireless ("mLife") account by promising ads that infuse the product with more emotion. Co-Chairman Jeff Goodby said in our family newspaper that the big challenge for telecoms is that so many ads push features and price. "AT&T Wireless has the best name and the best technology," he said. "We've done the research to prove it."

I would think a "best technology" story could be an effective product-benefit story. But the technology story is too uncool. Maybe so. But today's very cool, very hip store brands are re-educating consumers about what's important. The challenge for marketers is to cut through the clutter to deliver creative, entertaining messages of solid product benefits -- not commercials where the creativity and the entertainment themselves are the only benefits.

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