When establishing brand identity, so many businesses look to their competitors. They try to copycat whatever amazing strategy shot them to the top of the dog pile. But when it comes to success stories like Trader Joe’s, it’s clear that you can’t build a lasting brand based on old strategies. You have step out from the crowd and carve your own path through the marketplace.
When Standing Out Is A Matter Of Life And Death
In 1967, when 7-Elevens began sprouting like weeds across Los Angeles, Joseph Coulombe’s small chain of convenience stores was in trouble. It was clear that this leaner, meaner competitor would soon dominate the already-saturated market. Soon, it was all Coulombe could do to even keep his business afloat, much less thriving.
That is, until he read a fascinating tidbit. Consumers with higher education were buying more alcohol than their less-educated counterparts. In response, Coulombe began stocking his shelves with 17 brands of local California wines — the largest selection in the state. The wines were a hit, and he was forced to restock again and again. Even in a seemingly mature market, Coulombe’s innovation stuck, cementing Trader Joe’s penchant for outside-the-box thinking early on.
The experience opened Coulombe’s eyes to the numerous untapped niche markets that existed in the grocery industry. He began supplying fancy mustards, gourmet cheeses, and other specialized goods.
The chain bucked the growing supermarket trend of stores carrying dozens of options for any one product. Instead, they focused on products that zeroed in on their demographic, and only those they could sell cheaper than their competitors. As Coulombe told Businessweek “We adopted a policy of not carrying anything we could not be outstanding in, in terms of price.”
An Instantly Recognizable Brand Identity
Now, Trader Joe’s is among the most beloved and profitable grocery chains in the nation. it consistently ranks in the top three for customer satisfaction in Market Force surveys. Two components of Coulombe’s approach are instrumental to its success: a tendency to take a drastically different approach from its supermarket competitors, and teams of consistently satisfied, happy employees.
You won’t find Coca-Cola on the shelves at Trader Joe’s, nor will you find a bag of Lays potato chips. Instead, the company buys products at significant discounts from businesses large and small and sells them under their own brand. True to Coulombe’s original vision of the company as a market for over-educated, underpaid shoppers, Trader Joe’s ruthlessly culls its product line until only high-quality, niche-friendly products remain, whether national brands secretly manufactured those products or not.
They don’t accept coupons, don’t use an arcane loyalty card system, and don’t offer weekly sales. Instead, they streamline everything so that they can offer quality products at the lowest possible price every day.
Your Team Is Your Brand
But it’s not only the prices and products that keep customers coming back. It’s the positive shopping experience the chain provides. It’s spearheaded by teams of well-paid, cheerful employees who are eager to ensure shoppers are satisfied.
Other big supermarket chains view labor as an avenue to ruthlessly cut costs. But back in the 1960s, Coulombe instituted a policy to pay full-time employees at least the median household income for their area. In addition, the Trader Joe’s employment package includes health care benefits, even for part-time employees. This respect and reasonable pay for even the lowest-level workers creates an environment of positivity and service in every store, while increasing operational efficiency and driving sales.
All of this just goes to show that bucking the trend can pay dividends for shrewd business owners. Instead of aping your competitors blindly, learn your niche inside and out, take risks, and cultivate talent within your company. And think again if you believe your market is tapped out on potential innovations. There’s always a fresh, original strategy waiting to launch your business to the peak of the food chain. Who knows — with the right approach, maybe big-name brands will be clamoring to put your label over their own one day!