Brandless: When The Brand is No Brand

Quartz: “E-commerce company Brandless launched last week, but it is already billing itself as the ‘Procter and Gamble of millennials.’ The startup sells a variety of Brandless-branded foods and household goods, supplied by its proprietary partner manufacturers, and all priced at $3 … The company promises to keep prices low by eliminating the BrandTax, a phrase it requested a trademark for last November, and which it defines as the ‘hidden costs you pay for a national brand.’ Its simple white labeling was designed by a team of product and marketing experts and food scientists.”

According to CEO Tina Sharkey: “The Brandless movement is the ‘democratization of goodness.’ It’s that everyone ‘deserves better, and better shouldn’t cost more.’ The $3 price point is designed to make it ‘very freeing when you shop on brandless.com.’ Brandless wants people to ‘live more and brand less,’ to ‘tell their own stories,’ and to drop the ‘false narratives’ sold by Madison Avenue. ”

“In the meantime Brandless is crafting its own narrative. On its website, the company claims the average person pays a 40% or greater BrandTax markup on products ‘of comparable quality as ours.’ This seems likely true of Brandless organic extra virgin olive oil ($3 for 8.5 oz, or about 35 cents an ounce) but perhaps less so for its organic taco seasoning mix ($3 for a pair of 1 oz packets).”

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Tony Chocolonely: Slave-Free Chocolate Bars

Fast Company: “Since hitting U.S. shelves last fall, a new kind of chocolate bar company is trying a different tactic: Making ‘100% slave-free’ its central selling point. Amsterdam-based Tony’s Chocolonely features a wrapper with the brand’s name spelled out in large, cartoonish lettering. Inside, the chunky squares are divided unevenly to represent the inequality within the industry.”

“To meet that promise, company leader Henk Jan Beltman … had to rethink nearly everything about how traditional supply and production works. Rather than contract with international traders, the company deals directly with independent in-country farming cooperatives, which sometimes receive NGO support. All participants not only share practices to grow better crops, but agree to be monitored, ensuring instances of child labor are spotted and addressed.”

Tony’s Chocolonely “was originally started by a Dutch journalist named Teun ‘Tony’ van de Keuken who, after investigating how slave-based beans were mixed up and melted down with everything else, originally decided to make an absurdist documentary about the injustice in 2004. Van de Keuken bought and ate some off-the-shelf bars and then turned himself in to the police, citing his behavior as helping finance criminal operations. Theatric aside, he wasn’t convicted, so he launched a chocolate company to prove there was another way to ethically manufacture.” Says Beltman: “It’s the lonely battle of Tony to change the chocolate industry from the inside out.”

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Tea House: How ‘Pure Leaf’ Tells Its Story

The Wall Street Journal: At the Pure Leaf Tea House, fans of the beverage can enjoy it in various ways. The emporium, which opened in New York’s SoHo neighborhood in late June, offers everything from iced chai to a Japanese-style hot ‘popcorn’ tea … the airy, 3,000-square-foot space essentially is a promotional vehicle for Pure Leaf itself, a tea brand created in partnership by PepsiCo and Unilever.”

“Brands say they are going the open-your-own-store route as a way to tell their stories—rather than relying on other retailers to do it for them. ‘You can’t do this in the grocery’ store, said Pure Leaf senior marketing director Laraine Miller, speaking of the tea house’s elaborate setup. The shop incorporates museum-style installations featuring the history and uses of tea. Company-branded stores also afford the opportunity to test-market new products and showcase tried-and-true favorites in unusual ways.”

“Retail experts say the approach can pay off in terms of creating buzz for a brand, especially given New York’s reputation as a taste-making city. And the stores can become profitable, providing a brand with another income stream.” Ms. Miller says: “In terms of return on investment, that’s not how we’re measuring it.”

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Slow Dollars: Key to Local Grocery Success

Anne Kadet: “It’s a mystery. Local markets clearly are losing business to national outfits such as Whole Foods Market , Trader Joe’s and Target. So why don’t they up their game? To my surprise, Enrico Palazio, who co-owns the Montague Street Key Food with his uncle, says he doesn’t view Trader Joe’s as competition. It doesn’t have a deli, butcher or even a respectable detergent section. ‘This is one-stop shopping,’ he says of his store. The real competition, he notes, is FreshDirect.”

“Mr. Palazio “spent a lot of money on last year’s renovation, aiming to outdo FreshDirect by making his store a pleasant place to shop. His markups reflect that investment, he says, but his prices are still lower than FreshDirect. Because his 10,000 square-foot Key Food is too small to carry products at every price point, Mr. Palazio caters to neighborhood preferences. He doesn’t sell the cheapest ice cream brand, for example, but he does stock McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream.”

“To handle more customers, Mr. Palazio says, he’d have to cram the store with more cashiers, baggers and stock clerks. The busy, hectic atmosphere wouldn’t appeal to his clientele, he believes. Burt Flickinger, managing director of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group, says this strategy is typical of many local supermarkets. ‘It’s the slow dollar versus the fast nickel,’ he says.”

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Technology Cannot Hug a Customer

The New York Times: “Technology, some hotels are finding, has its limits. ‘Technology cannot hug a repeat guest,’ said George Aquino, the vice president and managing director of AHC+Hospitality … That is the reason his company, which manages several hotels, has been running a training program for some of its managers and other staff members to improve their hospitality skills, connect with local business leaders and learn more about local tourist offerings.”

“Similar programs are sprouting in other cities, involving not just hotels but also restaurants and even cities themselves, which see the personal touch as giving them a competitive edge. For business travelers, in particular, talking to someone knowledgeable about a city can lead to a good restaurant. And it can also help expand business leads.”

“A consulting program based in Tucson, Certified Tourism Ambassadors, trains hospitality workers. Mickey Schaefer, the chief executive and founder, said she had developed the idea in 2006 while working for the American Academy of Family Physicians to plan its conventions. Hospitality workers sometimes did not know their own cities, leading to bad experiences, she said … The program, she said, ‘is more than just helping the customer. It is helping them find the richness of whatever they are interested in.’ She added that the program also instills civic pride.”

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Is Ecom a Jobs Engine?

The New York Times: Michael Mandel, an economist, “asserts that the move toward e-commerce is creating more jobs than are being lost in the brick-and-mortar retailing industry — and that these new jobs are paying much higher wages than traditional retail jobs … He says that government numbers and conventional industry classifications don’t properly count all the jobs associated with e-commerce — in particular, the numbers miss large parts of the industry like fulfillment centers and distribution warehouses.”

“Mr. Mandel has combed through the job statistics on a county-by-county basis and come to this counterintuitive view: From December 2007 to May 2017, by his count, the e-commerce industry has created 397,000 jobs in the United States, and this compares with the loss of 76,000 jobs in the traditional retail industry. And those jobs related to e-commerce, he says, pay about 30 percent more than the brick-and-mortar ones.”

“To Mr. Mandel, it’s not that e-commerce jobs are directly replacing traditional retail jobs. Rather, he describes a world in which some of what he calls ‘unpaid household labor’ that we all do when we drive to the mall, park, shop and bring the goods home has been transferred into the labor market.” As for automation and robots, he thinks “it will take longer for them to replace humans than we think.”

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Blind-Date Books: Novel Mysteries

The Wall Street Journal: “Booksellers across the country are enticing readers to take a chance on a surprise selected by store staff. To set up these ‘blind dates,’ the stores wrap the book to hide the cover and offer a few clues to give a sense of the hidden work’s genre and tone. ‘It’s been the most successful table we’ve ever put together,’ says Cari Quartuccio of the blind-date offerings at a location of Book Culture, where she is the store manager.”

“For customers, trusting the staff at their local store is part of the fun. The clues allow readers to select a gift for themselves. (And then, of course, immortalize unwrapping the mystery volume on Instagram.) At Book Culture, blind-date offerings are wrapped in brown paper and bear a note advising ‘Read me if you liked’ and a list of three books staff members think customers are likely to have read.”

“Book Culture’s Ms. Quartuccio says customers seldom are lukewarm about the notion of blind-date books. Fans often make repeat purchases, with some even buying stacks as gifts. Other customers are perplexed by the idea. Finally, she says, there are those ‘who get really upset when we won’t tell them the title of the book. Mystery isn’t for them, but they still want to take part in it’.”

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Nike Hears Adidas’ Footsteps

The Wall Street Journal: “With the retail sector in flux, Nike Inc. is looking for new ways to sell sneakers and shirts, but some industry watchers worry that the company’s efforts to broaden its reach could damage its cultural cachet … Frequent online releases of coveted Jordan shoes could make them less rare and not as much in demand anymore, some industry watchers say. By making certain shoes available only through Nike channels or big chains such as Foot Locker, the company is diminishing the mom-and-pop shops that have served as community stewards of cool.”

“Matt Halfhill, founder of sneaker-news site Nice Kicks, which chronicles new releases across major shoe brands … said he has been involved in sneaker culture since the 1990s, believes the push toward direct sales actually hurts Nike’s connection with consumers.” He comments: “It’s a great way to sell commoditized shoes, but most boutiques even discourage you from buying on the phone. They only sell shoes in stores to customers, where you see everyone in line waiting for shoes talking to each other,” he said.”

Meanwhile: “Adidas’s resurgence includes new ‘franchises’—such as the NMD and Kanye West’s Yeezy line—that have gained a youthful following and made inroads on Nike’s cultural dominance. Nick Santora, a former sneaker-store owner and editor of online sneaker magazine Classic Kicks, said Adidas is more on point with youth culture of late.” He comments: “Kanye, for some people, for certain kids, that brand is now acceptable. Nike was always ‘sports, sports, sports,’ but if you’re over 11 years old right now, musicians are where it’s at.”

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Hamburger Helpless: Packaged Goods Plight

The Wall Street Journal: “The plight of the packaged-goods companies is a classic business tale. An industry creates winning products, carves out strong market positions and enjoys reliable, sustained revenue—only to be too slow to adapt to changes that threaten those cash cows … Many big brands didn’t move fast enough to remove artificial ingredients and haven’t been able to shed the negative perception of processed food, said several food executives and others close to the industry.”

Meanwhile: “The web and social media gave smaller food companies a direct path to consumers’ hearts, minds and stomachs. They gained traction through blogs and Facebook with little marketing spending, selling food online via Amazon.com Inc. or their own websites long before they would have been able to get it in stores … Big brands can no longer control perceptions about food with television advertisements and shelf placement.”

“Kellogg Co., General Mills and others have directly invested in food startups through venture-capital funds that they say will give them insight as to how to respond better to evolving trends.”

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Coney Island Quandary: Applebee’s or Shoot The Freak?

The Wall Street Journal: “It’s a quandary faced by the few original mom-and-pop concessions operating in a Coney Island now dominated by the likes of IHOP, Applebee’s and the squeaky-clean Luna Park. Is it better to evolve, or capitalize on nostalgia?”

“Corn-dog mecca Paul’s Daughter used to be the craziest looking joint on the boardwalk, with a riot of screaming signs and a display of fried food that was even more dizzying. It was with great reluctance that the family acquiesced to the landlord and modernized … Some of the old signs hang on the stand’s back wall, including one for corn-on-the-cob, which is confusing because corn is no longer served. Now it’s craft beer and $17 lobster rolls.”

“Among the outfits evicted from the boardwalk were Beer Island and Shoot the Freak, a wonderfully horrid ‘game’ that had players shooting paintballs at a live human target scrambling around a dusty pit … Carlo Muraco, who owned both ventures, now manages Margarita Island, a tiki bar tucked into one of the area’s more obscure alleys. The place is just five years old, but with its delightfully garish décor and Zoltar Fortune Teller Machine, it looks like it has been there forever.” He comments: “Coney Island is gritty. People come down here to let loose. It’s more of an adult park than a kiddie park in some of these areas.”

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