Retailer of the Year

White Noise

April 1, 2007
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White Noise
By Lori Sichtermann

The redesign of the Publix-brand line of products has caused much excitement for the retailer, serving as the subtle keystone as the company continues to expand and change shape.
Regardless of a store’s size, the demographics of the community it serves or the products available within its four walls, each retailer who offers a store brand program strives for the same goal: brand recognition that conveys quality to the consumer and builds loyalty.
These objectives are fairly easy to reach for a retailer who operates a handful of stores in similar markets, but what happens when you have 900 stores in five states, each encompassing vastly different consumer markets?  
A text-book solution to this question lies in the innovative way in which Publix Super Markets Inc. uses its Publix brand of products to create brand cohesiveness and sustain a message of quality throughout all of its stores. By developing a creative, and often humorous, line of private label packaging, the Lakeland, Fla.-based retailer has been able to connect with consumers on a number of levels, serving their needs almost individually.
Throughout varying geographic locations, as well as diverse cultural and economic markets, the unique design of the Publix brand of products remains the same — serving as the common thread that connects the store’s diverse, yet loyal, communities.
Given its efforts in creating an acclaimed store brand program through packaging design, establishing a cohesive identifiable brand within its markets, as well as dedicating itself to its employees and the communities in which they live, Publix Super Markets Inc. was an easy choice for PL Buyer’s Retailer of the Year for 2007.
With more than $21.7 billion in annual sales last year, the privately held company is by all accounts, a regional giant — yet it still exudes the small-town, community-oriented personality of the independent store it was back in 1930 when George W. Jenkins opened the first Publix Super Market in Winter Haven, Fla.
Today, the company has multiplied throughout Florida, as well as having branched out into Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee. And as the company continues to grow and change shape, the same principles of customer and community awareness are at the core of its operational model, especially when it comes to the chain’s Publix-branded products.
As one of the first supermarkets to offer shoppers electric-eye doors, frozen food cases and air conditioning, staying modern and innovative for consumers is important to Publix Super Markets. Leading up to the summer of 2003, the company was beginning to feel as if the Publix brand of products wasn’t striking the exact chord it should have been with its growing customer base, and realized it was time for a change.
“As we initially started doing the concept of the new design system, we were really trying to improve the sales of our private label brand,” explains Tim Cox, director of creative services for Publix. “But we knew we had to improve the quality perception and we also had to increase awareness of our brands on the shelf. Therefore we had to come at it from a different angle. The previous direction of the Publix private label program was very similar to other private label brands — we copied or developed a look that was very similar to the national brand equivalent. As a result, our product tended to blend in with everything else that was on the shelf. So in the planning process for the new line, we really felt like there was an opportunity to do something different.”
And different they did. Throwing caution to the wind, the in-house, private label design team comprising only six members at the time, redeveloped the line, which has become one of the most innovative, recognizable and successful private label programs in the industry.  
And Then There Was White
Since 2003, Publix has moved through its private label program, carefully applying creativity and humor to redevelop a brand of products that are aesthetically unique, identifiable as a brand and extremely effective at creating customer loyalty. Looking back four years later, the process between concept and completion seems almost as simple as the product’s current look.
“From a designer’s perspective, we went into stores and looked at what everyone else was doing, and we did the opposite,” Cox recalls. “What we saw on the grocery shelf was everyone screaming for attention. There were lots of bright colors, lots of noise — lots of visual clutter. So we did just the opposite.”
In doing the opposite of its competition, the Publix design team created a look that was simple, clean and downright calming compared to adjacent products on the shelf. The uniqueness of the design is anchored in the now-signature Publix look that features a single, colorful graphic floating within a sparse white background — a look that is exactly the same throughout the banner, regardless of the product or category.
“To improve the customer awareness of our products, we decided to create a system that could be applied across all of our Publix brand products. Instead of canned goods looking this way, and salty snacks looking that way and soft drinks looking yet another way, we created a unified look throughout the store,” Cox explains. “This tactic really helped to improve customer awareness of the brand as a whole entity. By giving each of our Publix brand products a distinct and uniformed look, we were able to train [the customer] to look for a white package with a color bar across the top and the Publix logo typed inside of a black circle. This helped our products to stand out on the shelf against the other brands that are out there.”
But as many in the private label retail industry know, when it comes to customers, change sometimes does not go over well. With the introduction of the new packaging design, the Publix design team went out on a limb. The look was rash and revolutionary for Publix, and there was some anxiety once the new products were unveiled with how consumers would react to the product’s new look — but the Publix design team had a safety net of sorts.
“We knew from research that we had a lot of equity through the Publix name,” Cox asserts. “Customers told us they would buy the product just because it said Publix. That really helped us to feel confident about being able to take a design approach that wasn’t typical or traditional. With that thinking in mind, it also became our objective to improve awareness for the customer and try to communicate more of a quality image through the packaging.”
To look back on the project, knowing now the level of success the program has achieved, it’s easy to see where the inciting moments were that helped propel the redesign to success.
“To in-house [the redesign] we had the opportunity to ride it out, to stay consistent, to stay true to what this was supposed to be,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix. “It gave us time to get the design to where it needed to be.”
Once all was said and done, and customers began to embrace the new design of the Publix brand products, an interesting, and quite unexpected, phenomenon occurred.
“Customers began thinking we had increased the number of private label items significantly, when in actuality, that wasn’t the case,” Brous comments. “We’re always introducing new products; it was just that the design of our current products had changed so it was easier to find them on the shelf.”
“It has been gratifying to read the letters and e-mails from consumers who get it,” Cox adds. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised to read e-mails and learn that customers have an appreciation for the design of the system. I’ve read more than one e-mail in which a customer says they bought a particular array of Publix products because they like the way the products look lined up in their pantry.”
What’s Old Is New Again
With sparseness adorning the surfaces of the Publix brand products, consumers willingly offered their praise of the line’s new look. While the excitement is well-deserved for the retailer and its design team, the new design’s acclaim easily can be considered ironic.
The clean, crisp lines and the sparseness of the overall look is strikingly similar to the design schemes haunting the private label past of many store brand items — back in the days of black and white, when store brands were considered “generic.” Yet, the new look established by the Publix design team struck a chord with consumers.
“We knew it was going to take time because when you only have one or two of the newly designed products out there, they stand alone, and initially people might think they’re generic-looking and ask ‘what’s going on?’” Cox says. “But the more products we got out there, the more the system started to make sense. Some people may have perceived them as being generic, but the true ‘generics’ didn’t have any personality at all. Typically generics had the same boring block font, they had no unique pictures and no unique images. So, we added personality to our products.”
Give the Publix products a closer look, and you’ll be able to see that personality. Packages display images that communicate quality and, in some instances, when it’s appropriate, even a bit of humor. For example, the Publix brand Original Thins Potato Chips feature a picture of a butterfly made from potato chips with the phrase, “Floats like a butterfly, tastes like a chip” below the image. Giving a closer look at the Publix brand French vanilla coffee creamer, customers will see that the toy cow on the label is wearing a French beret. A more blatant humor element is the Publix brand trash bags, which feature a tall and mischievous-looking canine peering into a tall trash can.
“If someone takes the time to slow down and look at that, and we can make them smile, then all of the sudden we’ve connected on a whole different level,” Cox adds.
This type of personality certainly is not the norm with “generic” packaging. But for Publix, the intentions of its new packaging design went beyond wanting to make a customer smile. “We were really trying to connect with our customer on a different level — an emotional level,” Cox comments. “In all the ways Publix connects with its community by way of customer service, and being a gathering point for the community, we were trying to do the same thing with the packaging.”
“We spend a lot of time in the development and testing process before a product even makes it to the shelf, so the look and approachability of the packaging is a quality statement for our brand,” Brous adds. “Our private label philosophy states that our store brand products will meet or exceed national-brand standards as far as the integrity and the quality of the product.”
And relaying that message becomes more essential as the company continues to become more diverse.  
Across the Board
From what began as one, 27- by 65-foot store in Winter Haven, Fla., back in 1930 has grown now to include 900 stores in five states across the Southeast. The flagship Publix supermarket has multiplied throughout varying regions of the Southeast while at the same time two additional “themed” stores have joined the Publix family. The Publix Sabor stores cater especially to Hispanic and Caribbean products while the company’s Publix GreenWise Markets, set to open late summer/early fall of 2007, focuses on health, natural and organic product for health-minded consumers.
While both the new Publix Sabor and Publix GreenWise Market store formats currently are scheduled to be available only to shoppers in Florida, each is located in tremendously different markets in relation to each other, and in relation to the traditional Publix store in the area. However, each of the new formats are interconnected, regardless of the location or market — each features the identical, and extremely identifiable, Publix brand of products.  
“The consistency of all of our stores, no matter what the demographics of that surrounding community, is that our Publix private label products are available across the board,” Brous says. “We believe in the product, we believe in the quality, and we believe in the brand.”
In addition to the Publix brand of products prominent throughout each of the stores, the company also offers consumers consistency with its Publix premium items and its GreenWise items, which in addition to being offered in their own store, GreenWise products also serve as the company’s health, natural and organic line in the typical Publix Super Market and Publix Sabor stores.
With a line of products as recognizable as the Publix store brand program, it’s interesting to consider the store’s merchandising techniques. Do the products really sell themselves or does the company rely on the usual strategies when displaying and promoting its store brand products?  
“Before the redesign, our products blended in across the board, and it was difficult to see any distinction between them and the national brands. But when you look at us now, we’re still strategically placed next to our national brand competitors, but the Publix brand of products is more noticeable on the shelf,” Brous comments.
“It’s not so much that the packaging sells itself, but that it makes it easier for the consumer to make an informed choice,” she adds. “They can tell the difference in the packaging, they can see the difference in price, they can make a decision for themselves on what’s the best value for their family — what fits their lifestyle. We do merchandise, there’s no secret or science behind it — we want the customer’s sale, but more-so we want customers to believe in the product that we’ve taken the time to develop.”
And the developmental stage is far from over. Since the redesign of the Publix store brand product line began three years ago, the company has continued in its efforts to keep things appealing, light-hearted and attentive to the wants and preferences of consumers.
“We work hard to understand and connect with the customers in each community,” Brous comments. “Through surveys and market research, we get a clear idea of what they want, and we do our best to let them know we’re listening, and a lot of times this comes out in our private label offerings, available in all of our stores, regardless of the format.”
On a more basic level, food focuses around some of life’s more momentous occasions — it’s usually synonymous when we think about family gatherings. We’re a food society, and our job is to make shopping for food a more pleasant experience, even if that means slowing down and having a smile on us.”
Publix fax
For the 10th consecutive year, Publix Super Markets Inc. has been honored as one of FORTUNE Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For,” ranking as number 57 on this year’s list. The company also is one of only 18 companies to have made the list every year since its inception in 1998. What’s more, the company aids thousands of local projects and annually supports five organizations in companywide campaigns: Special Olympics, March of Dimes, Children’s Miracle Network, United Way and Food for All.
At A Glance
Publix Super Markets Inc.
Headquarters: Lakeland, Fla. Founded by the late George W. Jenkins in 1930 in Winter Haven, Fla.
Current CEO: Charles Jenkins, Jr.
Number of stores: 900 throughout Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennesee
Types of stores: Publix Super Markets, Publix Sabor, Publix GreenWise Markets
Average square footage: 27,000 -61,000 square feet; owned and operated by the company’s 142,000 employees
Total company sales: $21.7 billion
Web site: www.publix.com
PL Buyer’s Retailer of the Year Award has recognized other major retailers in years past. Check our archives for stories on past winners including Costco Wholesale, CVS and The Kroger Co.

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