I should confess that I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to private label brands for pet specialty retailers before I was contacted by Mark Kalaygian for this article in Pet Specialty Magazine – but I probably should have: it makes a lot of sense. A line of high-quality private label products can help not only to differentiate a retail chain, but also provide a solid lift to the profit margin – if done correctly.
Most of our experience with private label branding has been in tools, appliances and semi-durables, like storage containers and kitchen gadgets. Our initial exposure to private label branding was in the development and assessment of marketing programs for one of the original, blockbuster “store brands” – Craftsman tools. Craftsman’s dual brand differentiators – “Made in America” and “Guaranteed for Life” – made it the most recognized and, the most respected, brand of hand tools for nearly 90 years. Even after Sears current management team degraded the brand’s essential positioning by shifting some production overseas and substantially weakening the guarantee, Sears was still able to sell the brand to Black & Decker for a reported $900 million – enough to stave off the complete collapse of the once-dominant retail chain for the time-being. Had the Craftsman brand’s reputation been preserved, it could have netted much, much more for the parent company.
Part of our engagement with Sears and Craftsman involved the conception and launch of the Companion Tools line of hand tools. Companion Tools was a second line of private label tools designed to help maintain Craftsman’s near-premium pricing strategy. Until the late-90s, Sears had used the Sears brand for its opening price point (OPP) line of hand tools. Sears brand management team correctly determined that this had the potential to tarnish both the Sears brand and, by extension, the Craftsman brand as these OPP tools were not nearly as well-made, nor as durable, as the comparable Craftsman hand tool. Working with Sears brand management team, and a brand identity agency, we were able to craft a positioning platform and a communications strategy for the Companion line of hand tools that telegraphed value, utility, simplicity, and friendliness. Companion Tools were carefully positioned as the light-duty but reliable line of hand tools for the weekend warrior faced with a “Honey-Do” list of typical household repairs.
Through a series of qualitative communications checks, exposing both brand image options and packaging mock-ups, we developed a likeable, approachable and reassuring brand identity: a retro-image handy man, dressed in blue bib overalls and a work cap, leaping forward, tool in hand, to be of immediate assistance. Whereas Craftsman tools were targeting both the professional and the high-aspiration DIY aficionado, Companion Tools were there for the men and women who just wanted to fix or repair something without a lot of fuss – and without spending a lot of money on the necessary tools.
With the launch of Companion Tools, Sears after-thought line of OPP hand tools, carrying the store’s own brand, was transformed and reintroduced as a parallel line of private label hand tools that protected Craftsman’s near-premium pricing strategy while appealing to an entirely different target group. Even without specific brand-focused advertising – there was none – Companion Tools netted Sears over $5mm in incremental sales during the first year in store, followed by a steady build toward more than $50mm in incremental sales after four years on shelf. This opening price point private label brand was projected to generate $100mm in incremental sales 10 years after launch.
Done right, private label branding can bring enormous rewards. From my experience, the keys to success involve careful strategic planning and positioning, the development of a compelling product line, and a thoughtful exploration of both the brand image and the packaging designs that, together, will carry the burden of the PL brand’s primary communications.
The perfect fit…
Post script… After writing this piece I checked Sears website for “Companion Tools” and found that virtually all of the brand discipline we had developed for this line has been abandoned. Not a surprise given the depressing state of decline suffered by the parent brand under the current management. The Companion Tools logo has changed and is clearly displayed only on a 1/2” steel tape measure. A shame: this was a truly successful private label initiative – but it takes continuing management commitment to keep this type of program on the rails.