This is the tale of two paths to brand building. One approach is through careful message management and paying a lot to keep that control. The other way is to depend on free media – publicity generated by news coverage and social media.
Which of these ways works better? Let’s find out by taking a look at two major grocery companies. Full disclosure: Free isn’t always best.
One company is Kroger, which has hired its first-ever agency of record with the intention of putting a new face on the company. The other is Wegmans, which has been reaping the equivalent of untold millions of dollars in free media about its stores. Both of these are food retailers, but their different experiences say a lot about how any retailer can craft brand management.
Kroger’s Pay to Play
Kroger is the largest conventional supermarket retailer in the country. It operates more than 2,400 big supermarkets in all parts of the country, except the Northeast. Only Walmart sells more food product than it does.
Yet, Kroger has long been reticent to toot its own horn, even though it has a pretty good story to tell. For a while now, Kroger has been working quietly to reduce costs and plow the proceeds into lower price points. And speaking of prices, it’s now only just marginally more expensive than Walmart while paying comparatively good wages to an organized labor force.
But now their silence is broken. It has hired the huge DDB New York as its first-ever creative agency. Previously, all marketing was handled by Kroger’s own in-house agency.
So far the agency results seem a little thin. A new Kroger logo has been designed. It’s a minor modification of its heritage logo — a little more elongated than oval.It is also going to pump up advertising campaigns for all types of media, including television, radio, outdoor, digital, print and so on. Seems like that would have been a logical move for Kroger regardless of hiring an agency. Marketing 101!
So far, this new media campaign seems like a long-overdue strategy intended to make sure Kroger looms large in consumers’ minds as they select a food shopping venue. Meanwhile, there remains a lot of positive things about Kroger that the new publicity plan doesn’t appear to consider. Campaigns could be built around the fact that in most places, shoppers have a Kroger store nearby, that Kroger has near price leadership and that the grocery selection is far better than that available at Walmart. In short: convenient location, good prices great selection. You could do worse.
Wegmans Viral Play
Wegmans is a much smaller company than Kroger with about 100 spread-out supermarkets. Most are in the Northeast, but some are as far south as North Carolina. Without doing much more than issuing a couple of news releases, Wegmans attracts much breathless publicity and hoards of shoppers clamoring to get in on opening day of new stores.
That happened not long ago when Wegmans’ southernmost store opened in Raleigh, N.C. Huge crowds showed up on Wegmans’ opening day. That also happened more recently in New York City. Big crowds showed up on opening day to see the Wegmans store at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, even though it was a cold and rainy day and the store is not at all convenient to public transit.
Most Exciting Event
Judging by news coverage, you might think the arrival of suburban-like store was the most exciting thing that ever happened in the City. Have reporters never seen a suburban store before?
A headline in the normally staid New York Times gushed: “Wegmans Has Come to Brooklyn. Why Are New Yorkers Losing their Minds?” Other media outlets called it the “beloved grocer,” “the long-awaited store,” “the cult grocer,” and “the source of entertainment.” One radio reporter I happened to hear exclaimed that Wegmans prices were on par with those of Trader Joe’s, which is far from the being the case.
However, the comment about “entertainment” is correct and explains a lot. Wegmans is well known for its fresh-prepared food that is of restaurant quality, if not better. Food purchased at food bars can be consumed in the Market Cafe seating area that features beer and wine service. Many shoppers see it as a good dining option. There’s a lot of in-store theater involved in the whole thing.
How to Build a Brand
So, in the end, is social/viral media the best? It is, assuming the news is good. But free media can be tricky and many companies have gone from being lauded to being vilified.
We’ve been witness to the power of social media and eager reporting especially about top-management failures, such as grotesque greed, inappropriate sexual behavior, general ineptitude and a multitude of other evils. In that category we find WeWork, Uber, McDonald’s, Tesla, Under Armour and others. Sometimes consumer attitudes shift and turn a once-positive brand into a disaster. For example, the once-loved fast-fashion movement has morphed into a leader in wastefulness. The once-marginal resale store has turned into the successful RealReal et al. The once-valuable Whole Foods was rebranded by the public as Whole Paycheck. Social media and the collective voice of the public can make or break – overnight.
So when it comes to marketing, free media is all to the good until it isn’t. The jury is out on whether Kroger is on the right track controlling the message at a high cost. One could assume that so far there’s not enough going on at Kroger to warrant an enthusiastic social following. Wegmans’ clearly has the love of the public to build its brand.