Size does not matter a bean

Own-brand, long-established or unique…marketers will be shocked to hear that these qualities will hold greater sway over grocery shoppers than brand size or perhaps even marketing spend

News that Tesco is building an in-house publishing team (MW last week) to promote its non-food products is further evidence that UK consumers are not always drawn to brand names. When first considering which brands consumers would most desire or prefer, one might be excused for assuming that brand “size” would be the best indicator. However, a recent study commissioned by integrated agency Geronimo suggests that such received wisdom is questionable.

The research asked grocery shoppers to specify (spontaneously) which brands they would be disappointed not to find on the shelf. They were asked to choose between three levels of disappointment: “very disappointed – would not buy an alternative”, “disappointed – would consider an alternative”, “fairly disappointed – but would buy an alternative”.

Relative “brand minnows” Sarson’s vinegar and Colman’s mustard scored significantly more “preference points” than giants such as Ariel and McVities. Certainly, there is little evidence to indicate that marketing spend is strongly linked to preference.

Even within specific categories, the study contradicts the assertion that because a brand is big it is more preferred. Take the dogfood category, for instance. Value sales of Pedigree Chum main meal dogfood are about 150 per cent more than Bakers main meal dogfood, yet Bakers scores 50 per cent more preference points than Pedigree Chum.

This disparity is repeated across the grocery categories. A number of the findings are unexpected and perhaps make uncomfortable reading for some in the UK marketing community. Of the top 100 most-preferred brands, 87 are either own-label products or “long established” (older than 25 years). Of the 13 remaining brands, 11 are imported – leaving just two that are UK brands launched in the past 25 years/ Covent Garden Soups and Kingsmill bread.

Three of the 11 imported brands sit in the Dove portfolio. Six Dove variants were mentioned as being most preferred, which if put together would catapult Dove into fourth position overall – no mean feat for a brand that only launched in the UK in 1992.

The study also ranks own-branded products against each other and against named brands. The strength of the Tesco own-label range shines through: eight of the top 100 most- preferred brands are Tesco own-brand products. Perhaps surprisingly, Sainsbury’s performs poorly, with Asda having six products listed ahead of Sainsbury’s own-label products. This suggests that price and value have a strong influence on brand preference.

Unilever will be pleased to read that its stable of brands is rated higher than that of rival Procter & Gamble. Once again, Tesco scores well: its own-brand products push it into fifth place ahead of a number of global brand champions, including Nestlé and Coca-Cola.

So what is the key to being preferred? “Perceived uniqueness” appears to be pivotal. This is perhaps why a category such as laundry fares relatively poorly. The category contains a number of strong brands and for many consumers, this can lead to an “either will do” mentality. Conversely, the often-ignored condiments sector received 40 per cent more preference points than the laundry category; probably because there are a number of (albeit smaller) brands that are perceived to be unique.

Certainly the top ten brands have no significant competitors. This makes them truly “fortress brands”, but perhaps also makes them obvious targets. Perversely, this leads to an interesting conundrum. Should new product launches hoping to take on fortress brands be looking to create something unique about themselves, or merely try to occupy the same space?

There is a value to both retailers and consumers in having a credible alternative product available – after all, these fortress brands have a virtual monopoly of fixtures in stores. On the other hand, the key task for most brands is to increase their perceived uniqueness so that they can increase their “preferred” status.

The implication for retailers’ stocking policy depends on how big their store format is. Eighty per cent of the total preference mentions a core of 300 products. Retailers operating a smaller store could do a lot worse than making sure they have these 300 in stock.

However, just as interesting was the sheer number of “quirky little favourites” among 1,800-plus products cited in the research. Most retailers appear to have at least one – and often four or five – favourite brand tucked away in the corner of a super store. And therein lies a key raison d’étre for these stores’ existence. The bigger the store, the broader the stocking policy, the more likely we are to find our favourites.

Richard Oldham, senior consultant, The Value Engineers

Whether it is derived from technological superiority, heritage and longevity (Colman’s and Sarson’s) or from perceived “thought leadership” (Covent Garden Soups), differentiation is the lifeblood of brands. In mass-market categories such as washing powder, where a product is bought for functional reasons and true technological differences are difficult to introduce or sustain, achieving perceived uniqueness is increasingly tough. Some consumers may buy a specific brand for powerful emotional reasons (“my mum used Ariel and I can’t bear my clothes to smell of anything else”) but in most cases, differentiation is built via communication. The massive budgets of Ariel and Persil might then link more strongly to acceptance than preference; without it, they might not have a position at all; so, differentiate or die.

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Tom Fishburne is founder of Marketoon Studios. Follow his work at marketoonist.com or on Twitter @tomfishburne See more of the Marketoonist here

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