Proper Gander – Super marketing
What’s the difference between Wagon Wheels and Cart Wheels? About 10p a pack and the colour of their packaging: Cart Wheels are Aldi’s cheaper version of the perennial chocolatey snack, which original maker Burton’s insists hasn’t shrunk over the decades. The differences – and similarities – between established brands like Wagon Wheels and supermarkets’ counterparts were the subject of Channel 4’s Secrets Of The Supermarket Own-Brands. Presenter Denise van Outen checks out the products lining the aisles, and chats with various experts to reveal how supermarket own-brands are more than just slightly inferior copycats of ‘proper’ brands. How they are marketed is as important as how they are manufactured, and the documentary only has enough time to outline some of the methods used to flog us one variety of comestibles over another. With its jaunty music and bright colours, the programme is pitched as a cheeky nudge to be more shopping savvy rather than a hard-hitting exposé of a racket. Despite this, it highlights how much we’re manipulated not just in what we buy, but also what we think we’re buying.
Most supermarkets have at least three ‘tiers’ of own-brand goods: the cheapest ‘budget’ range, the standard one which just undercuts the ‘proper’ brands, and the ‘premium’ one with the swankiest wrapping. Traditionally, ‘budget’ ranges were packaged in an obviously no-frills way, with the apparent cheapness of the design echoing the lower price. A tin of Tesco’s Value baked beans with its stark blue and white stripes looked quite unlike a can of Heinz Beanz. Strategies started to change around 2018, by which time discount chains like Aldi and Lidl had established themselves in the marketplace. Since then, ‘budget’ supermarket own-brands have been more likely to ape the packaging of their branded counterpart, such as Cart / Wagon Wheels and other favourites like Hula Hoops and Robinson’s cordials. Often, the branding will barely mention the supermarket and instead go for an image that suggests a homespun, small-scale producer, such as Sainsbury’s Stamford Street or Tesco’s Stockwell & Co. Both strategies disguise that the products are ‘budget’ own-brands, although the ‘premium’ ranges, such as Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference, aren’t shy with mentioning the shop. All this suggests that supermarkets no longer want their name to be associated with cheapness, even though cheapness is what more people are after since prices rocketed. Still, the strategies are doing what they’re supposed to, proven by how supermarkets generate more profits from their own-brands than from branded products.
The way that own-brand goods are manufactured is planned to maximise profits by minimising costs. Richard Crampton, Sainsbury’s Director of Fresh Food, admits that sometimes the three ‘tiers’ of their own-brand products, from ‘budget’ to ‘premium’, are all made in the same place. One example is their own-brand stuffed pasta, with each range distinguished from the others by slight variations in their recipes ‘enhancing that product’ to the ‘same high standards’, enthuses Crampton. There are also more similarities in the content of branded and own-brand goods than we might expect. For example, Hula Hoops and their replicas are both produced in the same crisp factory, albeit with varying ingredients or processes. And the six most well-known brands of washing powder are made by only two companies, with nearly all own-brand ones manufactured by a third. The diverse range of brands for what boils down to similar products by a few producers gives only an illusion of choice, one of capitalism’s hallmarks.
The companies get away with this because of how their branding strategies are underpinned by an understanding of psychology. One state of mind which they aim to encourage is loyalty to a particular product. We’re most likely to stick with ‘proper’ brands for toiletries, beauty products and cleaning materials, no doubt reinforced by their advertising campaigns which can ‘shout louder’, according to retail expert Miya Knights. While there’s more competition between own-brand and branded food and drink, some long-established names have maintained their loyal followers, such as Coca Cola. The documentary features YouTube food reviewers the Smythe family, whose parents resolutely only buy Coke. However, the predictable result of a blind taste test is that they mistake Lidl’s Freeway cola for ‘the real thing’, showing that the brand they adhere to isn’t as distinctive as they assume.
A related point was made when Denise and brand psychologist Jonathan Gabay set up a street stall to hand out Magnum-like ice creams to passers-by. Some are promoted with a snazzy image and an elaborate back story about how the ice cream gets churned, and others are only announced with the word ‘Aldi’ written in felt-tip. Even though the same ice cream was given out throughout, those which came with the sales pitch were thought to taste better than the ones without, even once the hoodwinked recipients were told the truth.
The two experiments show us how much our preferences, for food in this instance, are shaped by how they are commodified. A small number of producers have dominated the market by finding the most cost-effective ways to manufacture our more popular fodder. Tweaking the details of a basic recipe creates versions of the product which can be pitched to customers grouped by levels of spending ability. This lack of real choice between ice cream, cola or pasta is disguised by varying the branding, either a little or a lot. At its most manipulative, branding can even impact on how appetising we find the product, when we associate its image with good taste. Throughout, money dictates how this process plays out, in the costs of manufacturing and marketing, and then in the sales which turn into profits for the owners. The way that commodification moulds what we consume is inescapable in capitalism, of course, not just in what we use but also what we watch. Secrets Of The Supermarket Own-Brands itself was interspersed with glossy adverts and sponsored by a big name brand.