Podcast Episode

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
You probably have a favorite local TV ad, something that’s low budget with lots of graphics and terrible music and it stars a fun, charismatic, in-your-face, local business owner like New York’s favorite stereo salesman, Crazy Eddie.

[IT’S A CRAZY EDDIE CHRISTMAS-IN-AUGUST AUDIO BLOW OUT BLITZ! CRAZY EDDIE’S GOING TO SAVE YOU A BLIZZARD OF BUCKS ON STEREO RACK SYSTEMS, COMPACT DISC PLAYERS, PORTABLE STEREOS.]

Roman Mars:
Or the Martin furniture guy.

[HI, MARTIN MCDERMOTT FOR THE MARTIN FINE FURNITURE STORE. THE ONLY FURNITURE BUSINESS IN INDIANA AND OUR PRICES ARE OUT OF THIS WORLD.]

Chris Berube:
But if you grew up in Toronto in the 1980s, you probably know our local supermarket guy, Dave Nichol. By contrast, he was extremely low key.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer, and notable Canadian, Chris Berube.

Chris Berube:
Dave Nichol might be the most milk-toast guy to appear on television. He had these big wireframe glasses and this dome of brown hair and a prominent Southern Ontario accent.

Dave Nichol:
“In the past few weeks, there’s been a lot of shouting about lower grocery prices. Recently, the major newspapers in Toronto and Ottawa, compared prices at the major supermarkets. In both surveys, Loblaws had the lowest prices.”

Roman Mars:
In the ’80s, Nichol helped run a grocery store chain called Loblaws, which makes me giggle just to say it. They had an inexpensive line of products they called the “No Name” brand which Nichol would sell in a series of sleep-inducing commercials.

Dave Nichol:
“For example, these brand name pickles are almost twice as expensive as No Name, why is it then that in many supermarkets you find the national brand in one aisle…”

Chris Berube:
In these ads, Nichol would sit on a stool in front of a black background and he would just talk, that was it. Though, sometimes for added excitement, he’d include his dog in the ad.

Dave Nichol:
“This is not ET, this is Georgie Girl, and she’s a French bulldog.”

Chris Berube:
These discount ads were part of a strategy. The ads were notably plain, just like the products because No Name had basically no package design.

Roman Mars:
If you bought No Name cookies, here’s what you get, a box with some cookies inside. Which, I guess that’s what you always get. But in this case, the box had a plain background with black text, that said, “chocolate chip cookies.” And that was it.

Chris Berube:
There was No Name peanut butter, No Name detergent, No Name orange juice. All of it was dirt cheap. And Loblaws wasn’t unique, it was one of the many supermarket chains across North America that was riding a generic product craze in the late ’70s and the early ’80s.

Roman Mars:
But Loblaws took it further than anyone. Their generic marketing plan changed the way we eat and shop. And ironically, their strategy to go brandless became one of the most successful branding campaigns. About a hundred years ago, we really didn’t have supermarkets. If you went shopping, you had to go to the greengrocer and the butcher, and then someone delivered your milk, and it was so, so time-consuming. But in 1916, Clarence Saunders opened a store in Tennessee called “Piggly Wiggly” which was the first place with self-service groceries, rows and rows of products that you could pick out yourself. Soon, America was overrun with grocery stores

Chris Berube:
After World War II, these stores were filled with famous national brands. A couple of factors helped the big brands take over, like the new interstate highway system which made it easy to deliver goods. And of course, the rise of television.

[WHEN THE LOOK ON THE FACE IS HAPPY, THE NAME ON THE BOTTLE MUST BE HEINZ KETCHUP, THE RED MAGIC.]

Terry O’Reilly:
Think about the cereal aisle, soft drinks, cleaning detergents, Proctor & Gamble, Nabisco, General Foods. Those were the biggest advertisers in the postwar era. They really are the big spenders, and the big spenders were the brands most people wanted.

Chris Berube:
This is my favorite marketer, Terry O’Reilly.

Terry O’Reilly:
And I am the host of “Under The Influence” which is a CBC radio show and podcast. And I am a 40-year ad man.

Chris Berube:
O’Reilly says, back at the advent of TV, telling people about your new product was pretty easy, if you had the money to buy commercials on the biggest shows.

Terry O’Reilly:
There was a time when you could buy the Ed Sullivan Show and Bonanza, and maybe Gunsmoke, back in the ’60s. And by buying just those three programs, you would be reaching 80% of America and Canada.

Chris Berube:
The name brands became dominant. They were most of what people bought at grocery stores in North America.

Roman Mars:
To fill up the shelves, supermarkets would make their own store brand products too. Often, these look kind of like the big brands with the name of the supermarket slapped on the side of the box.

Chris Berube:
Store brands were mostly popular with people who wanted a low-budget alternative to the name brand stuff.

Stephen Hoch:
They wanted to buy something that was not as good, but not as expensive.

Chris Berube:
This is Stephen Hoch, he’s an Emeritus marketing professor at the Wharton School. And he says, store brands weren’t always the highest quality, but many of them were close enough to the name brands, mainly because a lot of grocery store products are easy to make. Take for example, corn flakes.

Stephen Hoch:
What did you need? You need some machine that can spit out corn batter and into some machine that nukes it and all of a sudden it’s a cornflake. So, there’s always a bunch of manufacturers that can do it. And for instance, shampoo, anybody can make shampoo. All you need is a bathtub and some chemicals and some bottles.

Chris Berube:
But the store brands weren’t big sellers until they received a boost in the late 1970s.

Roman Mars:
After the oil crisis, the global economy went into a recession. Unemployment hit 11% and suddenly middle-class families didn’t have money for name brands like Coke or Kellogg’s. Consumers wanted cheaper food.

Chris Berube:
In response, there was a new demand for low-cost store brands. One chain in France called Carrefour was developing one of these discount brands when they had this idea, instead of using bright colors or putting their name on the box or using slogans – you know, branding – their products would be brand-less. Just the name of the food in black text on a white background. This minimalist design was a brilliant marketing tool. It delivered the message that “This is cheap, we’re cutting costs, and we are passing the savings down to you.”

Terry O’Reilly:
This is bare-bones and you’re having a hard time coping here because maybe you’re unemployed or whatever. And so, here’s a way that you can substitute away from a more expensive product and still satisfy your kids. When they wake up in the morning, they want some cereal for breakfast.

Roman Mars:
In 1976, Carrefour launched the new product line, which they called “Les Produits Libres,” which means in English, “free products” which, you know, they weren’t actually free, but these products were 20 to 30% cheaper than everything else at the store.

Chris Berube:
And it worked. Soon, the Produits Libres were a hit. Grocery store executives from North America were actually flying to Europe just to check out Carrefour and see what the hype was about. Soon, the Produits Libres idea was being copied by everybody. Steven Hoch says, “At first, it was a bit of a shock.”

Stephen Hoch:
I just had moved to Chicago, and the big grocery chain there was called Jewel. I remember going in the store, and all of a sudden I saw these black and white packages. It was black type on a white package, for every single one of those thing. So it said “napkins,” and that was it.

Roman Mars:
It’s like a minimalist’s heaven. Chain stores like Jewel in Chicago and Ralph’s in California were packaging and selling their own generic products. In many stores, the generic products were given a separate aisle. This helped promote their novelty, but it also prevented shoppers from comparing them side-by-side, with the nicer looking brand name products.

Chris Berube:
But one Canadian grocery store took this idea of generic branding to a whole new extreme. And the catalyst was the man a lot of Canadians knew from local TV ads, the president of Loblaws supermarkets, Dave Nichol.

Roman Mars:
Dave Nichol wasn’t born rich, but he was a man of refined tastes. He went to Harvard Law School, he loved to fly first class, and he personally knew the chefs at many of the three-star restaurants in Europe.

Chris Berube:
Dave Nichol was friends with Galen Weston, who was from one of the richest families in Canada. The Weston’s owned Loblaws and they tapped Dave Nichol to help run the company, even though he had no experience running a supermarket.

Roman Mars:
At the time, Loblaws was in a really bad place. They were trailing way behind their competitor, the grocery chain Dominion. Loblaws was closing stores, laying off workers, the only thing Loblaws had going for it was a celebrity pitchman, named William Shatner.

William Shatner:
“Hey, right now, Loblaws is having a huge frozen food sale. Frozen vegetables, frozen meat entrees, frozen concentrated juices, ice cream. If it’s frozen, you can save plenty. Don’t get left out in the cold…”

Chris Berube:
Nichol saw the low sales and the stores closing, and he decided we need to change things up. So Loblaws took Carrefour’s discount branding idea and they ran with it. They launched No Name. It was just like the black and white generics you could find in America and Europe, but the Loblaws products had one big design flourish.

Dave Nichol:
We hired a great designer named Don Watt, who just chose yellow – stark, banana yellow – and just big chunky Helvetica type. Yellow feels like a discount color, I guess like its cousin orange. And I think Don Watt really chose yellow because it was a color least used by big brands. It was almost like Orwellian, no romance in it.

Chris Berube:
But Nichol didn’t just launch the product line, he made it an entire store.

Roman Mars:
The worst performing Loblaws stores were shut down and rebranded as No Frills. These new stores carried very few name brands, it was dominated by No Name products. To make this painfully clear, the entire store was painted black and bright yellow.

Chris Berube:
The first No Frills opened in Toronto in 1978. Dave Nichol was actually doing a TV interview, when he found out what certain customers thought about the color scheme.

Dave Nichol:
“What do you think the problem is?”

Customer:
“The color outside is lousy.”

Dave Nichol:
“What do you think about the prices? Have you checked the prices?”

Customer:
“No, I haven’t checked the prices.”

Chris Berube:
It was a real bargain bin experience. People had to bag their own groceries. And while the products were cheaper, some customers expressed ambivalence about the new store.

Reporter:
“There’s no butcher, no bakery, no frozen food, no air conditioning, no fancy displays and not even much choice of products. But what it does have is customers.”

Reporter:
“How do you like packing, having to pack your own bag?”

Customer:
“I don’t like it.”

Customer:
“It’s all right, I didn’t know I was supposed to have a bag. I’ll bring my own next time.”

Reporter:
“You’d come back next time?”

Customer:
“Oh well, of course.”

Chris Berube:
When the new store opened, Dave Nichol had replaced William Shatner as the face of the company. And he launched the bland new ad campaign, which sent a pretty clear message about what Loblaws was offering.

Terry O’Reilly:
You don’t have to pay for the mass advertising and all the design work and all the marketing that goes on behind that jar of jam. All you should be paying for is the jam. And Nichol called that “brand tax.”

Roman Mars:
The new stores were a success. It turns out a lot of consumers didn’t want to pay the brand tax. They didn’t want the bells and whistles. And in America, by the early 1980s, billions of dollars in generic products were being sold every year.

Chris Berube:
As they got more popular, it’s clear that generic products were becoming exactly the thing they were supposed to be rebelling against.

Terry O’Reilly:
The No Name brand is a brand.

Chris Berube:
Surprise!

Terry O’Reilly:
It is presented to the public as a non-brand, meaning a viable choice to big-name brands. But in itself, a generic product is a brand. You’re appealing to people or to shoppers, who think that people who do pay for big brands are foolish when you could have the same thing and just not pay for the advertising, not pay for the fancy label.

Chris Berube:
The generic brand was so powerful, by the early eighties, it was showing up on the fringes of pop culture. In the sci-fi movie “Repo Man,” it was used as this great visual joke, about how the world is becoming more and more conformist. In the movie, Emilio Estevez works in a grocery store that is slowly crushing his soul, and only stocks generic products. In one scene, Estevez eats out of a can simply labeled “Food”.

[MOTHER: PUT IT ON A PLATE, SON. YOU’LL ENJOY IT MORE.]

[OTTO: I COULDN’T ENJOY IT ANYMORE, MOM. MMMM-MMM-MMM.THIS IS SWELL.]

Roman Mars:
Generic products were featured in a music video by the band Suicidal Tendencies. And there was a whole series of books, thrillingly called “No Frills Books”.

Terry Bisson:
I thought of it as a satire on publishing, if you could have No Frills corn flakes, why couldn’t you have a No Frills romance?

Chris Berube:
This is Terry Bisson who edited the series, which was not affiliated in any way with the No Frills store, but the cover was black and white to make it look like those generic grocery products.

Terry Bisson:
It’s a No Frills book mystery, and then it says, “Complete with everything: detective, telephone, mysterious woman, corpses, money, rain. And the science fiction is complete with everything: aliens, giants, ants, space cadets, robots, one plucky girl.”

Roman Mars:
The No Frills series got positive reviews, including a feature in the New York Times book section.

Terry Bisson:
They got this enormous press attention because every newspaper in the country, in those days, had a book editor or somebody that was supposed to look at your stuff. Well, they all thought it was a hoot.

Chris Berube:
There was also a script for a No Frills movie, which never got produced because you can only take this joke so far. In the early ’80s, generics were a phenomenon, but the novelty couldn’t last. And while the branding was clever, it couldn’t hide the fact that some generic products… well, they just weren’t very good.

Stephen Hoch:
The toilet paper, I mean, it was… it just wasn’t, it just didn’t work doing its job. You know?

Chris Berube:
Stephen Hoch says this happened with A LOT of generic products.

Stephen Hoch:
I tried a few things and they really just weren’t… It wasn’t worth it.

Chris Berube:
And he wasn’t alone in that opinion. Jim White was an executive at Loblaws.

Jim White:
On April 4th, 1984, I joined Dave Nichol. And Dave was always going on TV, pitching No Name products. He was pitching the yellow and black product line. All of them being inferior to the national brands. And their only benefit was, that they were cheaper than the national brand, but it took me a couple of months to figure out that No Name was no bueno.

Roman Mars:
To bring down the price for generics, some supermarkets were cutting corners. Shoppers were finding cans full of bruised peaches in the generic section.

Terry O’Reilly:
I think nothing will kill a product faster than good marketing. So if you’ve got great marketing on your generic brands, and then people are drawn to try it and it tastes terrible, nothing will kill a product faster than that.

Chris Berube:
Now, to be clear, not all generic products were bad. Many of the generics were the same product as the brand names, just in different packaging. Loblaws actually used taste tests for their No Name products, but a couple of low-quality generics spoiled the whole bunch for a lot of customers.

Roman Mars:
The recession ended. And when the unemployment rate dropped, people went right back to the brand names. In a lot of ways, generic branding was out of step with the culture of the 1980s.

Terry O’Reilly:
That was really the era of over-exuberance and yuppieness and BMWs and big salaries and fancy clothes and electronics. I think that era, for whatever reason in the ’80s, was about spending money.

Chris Berube:
With consumerism dominating culture, buying generics became embarrassing.

Roman Mars:
Lots of American supermarkets gave up on the generic experiment, but in Canada, Loblaws didn’t get rid of No Name. They just moved it lower down the shelf and they created a second product to attract the yuppies.

Chris Berube:
Here’s Jim White again.

Jim White:
I think what in my own mind was, I wanted to go after the more affluent shopper. We should create the first premium private label program in North America. It didn’t exist, it only existed in my head.

Chris Berube:
So, premium private label is another term for a nicer quality store brand. Basically, Loblaws wanted to make a store brand that was affordable, but felt luxurious. Jim White remembers talking about it with his boss, Dave Nichol.

Jim White:
He said, “What do you think we should call it?” And I… this guy Dave, had a very large ego. He was very, very pleased with himself. And knowing that, I simply said to him, “I think we should call it President’s Choice.” And then he rose and he said, “Yes. Do it.”

Chris Berube:
The packages for President’s Choice were definitely nicer to look at. They were also designed by Don Watt and his team, and they used lots of color. They had these pictures on the front, that resembled the photos in Gourmet magazine. Oh, and the logo was the words “President’s Choice” in Dave Nichol’s handwriting.

Roman Mars:
The products even had fancy names. They didn’t carry macaroni and cheese, they had white cheddar deluxe macaroni and cheese, that’s deluxe with an “E”. Their Oreo imitator was called Lucullan Delights, named after the hedonist Roman general, Lucullus. They eventually had to change the name on that one because nobody understood the reference.

Chris Berube:
Dave Nichol was still doing TV ads and talking directly to customers, but now, instead of focusing exclusively on rock bottom prices, Nichol also talked about his world travels in search of gourmet flavors.

Dave Nichol:
Every year I take two or three extended trips, let’s say to Singapore or to Bali. And usually, because of the length of the distances, we layover in Hong Kong. And so, I’ve spent a lot of time eating in the restaurants of Hong Kong, and I think one of the flavors that has always intrigued me…

Roman Mars:
Loblaws was spending a lot of money on research and development so that their new food would live up to all these fancy product names. Jim White even spent months trying to make the perfect chocolate chip cookie.

Jim White:
It took nine months just to make the chocolate.

Chris Berube:
And this new super-cookie, would be called “The Decadent.”

Jim White:
And then we launched it, and history was made.

Terry O’Reilly:
It seems so odd to say that in hindsight, that a cookie could be so powerful in the marketing of an entire grocery chain, but it happened. So, if you tasted that cookie at that time, it was mind-blowing.

Chris Berube:
The Decadent quickly became a bestseller. And soon, Dave Nichol and his Loblaws’s team were hired to develop new fancy store brands for big supermarkets across America.

Terry O’Reilly:
He was eventually revered across North America as a great grocery merchandiser and marketer because even Sam Walton hired Dave Nichol to come and consult on his private label brands. Even a company as big as Walmart was trying to pick Dave Nichol’s mind at that stage.

Chris Berube:
Walmart rolled out its own version of President’s Choice, called Sam’s Choice. And after leaving Loblaws, Jim White helped create premium private labels all over the world.

Jim White:
Wegmans and Walmart and Safeway and Vons and Stop & Shop and Finest and Fred Meyer and Myers. I created products for all of them.

Chris Berube:
Today, one in four products sold in American supermarkets are store brand. And that’s partly because more of those store brands follow the President’s Choice model.

Roman Mars:
These products all have colorful packages and aspirational names, like “Signature Farms” or “Market Cafe.” They look fancier, even if they cost less than the national brands.

Chris Berube:
The message for generic products used to be, “this product is just good enough.” Now, the message is, “you were a discerning shopper, who’s looking for a more curated product experience.”

Roman Mars:
Entire supermarkets like Trader Joe’s are built around this principle. Here’s Stephen Hoch.

Stephen Hoch:
If you kind of look at store brands versus national brands, store brands are giving the national brands in most product categories a real run for their money. And the reason why is because they’re just about as good.

Chris Berube:
The minimal generic products, the ones that just say cereal on the outside in black text, those are a lot harder to find in America now, but in Canada, those products are still going strong. In 2009, during the last big recession, No Name had an upswing in sales. And at the beginning of the pandemic, there were lines down the block outside of No Frills stores in Toronto because when the economy is bad, that’s when more people turn to a store like No Frills.

Terry O’Reilly:
I mean, imagine right now how appealing that pitch is to people who have lost their jobs, have been asked to take salary cuts, as everybody’s self isolates. Even now, that pitch is resonant.

Chris Berube:
Jim White said to me, his company started with No Name, but it graduated to President’s Choice. And that makes sense. Generic brands and nicer private labels, they’ve always been pitched as opposite. When you think about it, they’re really selling you the same thing. Both of them are saying, “You. You weren’t swayed by brand name marketing. You’re too smart for that.” And really, that’s one of the oldest marketing tricks in the book.

Roman Mars:
How the price of bread in Canada, affects the US presidential election, after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
Okay. Well, I’m here with Chris Berube. Hey, Chris!

Chris Berube:
Hey, how’s it going, Roman?

Roman Mars:
I’m doing pretty well. We’re under blankets or in closets talking to each other.

Chris Berube:
We are. It is.. there’s always a distance between us. But it’s more absurd when I see you under the blanket and you see me in front of all of my shirts.

Roman Mars:
Exactly. Exactly. So you have a little addition to this story. So let’s talk about it.

Chris Berube:
I do. So since I’ve been reporting the story for a while and since I started, No Frills and Loblaws have actually been in the news quite a bit. So I want to do kind of a round-up of all of the Canadian grocery store news that has happened since I started working on this story. And stay with us because, trust me, it gets really exciting. But first things first, Roman, I sent you a clip from the episode, and I think we need to talk about it before we do anything else. So could you play the clip?

Roman Mars:
Got it. Okay, here we go.

Terry O’Reilly:
“We hired a great designer named Don Watts, who just chose yellow – stark banana yellow – and just big chunky Helvetica type. Yellow feels like a discount color. I guess like its cousin orange.”

Chris Berube:
Roman, when I was talking to Terry O’Reilly, he’s a very persuasive man, and when he said black and yellow feels like a discount color scheme, at first I was like, “Oh, yeah, he’s totally right.” And then it occurred to me, that is also the color scheme of the show, 99% invisible.

Roman Mars:
It’s no problem. I sort of think of it that we’re black with yellow. So, you know that we have a slight edge.

Chris Berube:
That feels right. I mean, this actually brings me to the first news item about No Frills. Last year, No Frills launched this huge ad campaign. So for a brief time, that bright banana yellow and the black Helvetica font basically took over the city of Toronto. So if you were walking around, you would see it everywhere. So I’ve sent you a couple of photos. I want you to open up the first one.

Roman Mars:
Okay, this is great. So this is like an old building. It has this sort of mansard roof. Like a single section of the old building is just painted yellow. And it says the word “Building” on it.

Chris Berube:
So for a while, this was everywhere. This was a blanket campaign to get people aware of No Frills. So I’ve sent you another one. Actually, go on open up the second one and describe that too.

Roman Mars:
This is also like a tick off of the No Name label, and it says “No Name” and it’s a big yellow wall. And it says “subway platform with assorted commuters and trains.”

Chris Berube:
So this was the strategy of the ad campaign they put out last year, was to basically embrace the irony. They also launched this ironic Twitter campaign. At one point, they live-tweeted the Golden Globes. And one of the tweets from that was an actor has won an award. Like they really have doubled down on kind of the ironic elements of their brand. Right. Right. You know, some people found that really delightful. Like, I don’t know. How do you feel seeing all that?

Roman Mars:
I think it’s great. It’s really like, you know, it taps into nostalgia, which I’m always a little bit nervous about. But I think it brought greater joy into the world. I’m always in favor of greater joy.

Chris Berube:
I think that’s right. But there is also some backlash to this ad campaign.

Roman Mars:
What could possibly make people mad about this ad campaign?

Chris Berube:
So the main argument, this is coming from people who are working in food security. So this is largely from advocates who are saying, look, No Frills is a discount brand. It’s not really funny. Right? Like to them, the yellow and black packaging recalls, you know, scarcity. Recalls times when we didn’t have a lot of money. So for them, it kind of really clashed with the ironic embrace of the silliness of the packaging.

Roman Mars:
I don’t know if there’s an inherent quality of making fun of the fact that there’s discount in these things, so I don’t know.

Chris Berube:
And I guess the flip side of it is also that if you are taking this kind of ironic, funny tone, maybe it takes away some of the stigma, if there is any stigma of buying at like a discount grocery store. So I think on the whole, like that ad campaign is pretty, pretty good.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, yeah, I agree.

Chris Berube:
So this kind of brings us to the second news item about Canadian grocery stores. So this one is actually about the parent company of No Frills and pop quiz, you remember the name of the parent company of No Frills?

Roman Mars:
Yes, I do. Loblaws.

Chris Berube:
It is Loblaws. So Loblaws has been getting a lot of bad press recently. And part of that is because, of course, COVID-19 has made all of these people who work at grocery stores, frontline workers. And at the beginning of the pandemic, Loblaws and lots of other companies announced that they were giving grocery store workers a raise of two dollars an hour. It was basically hazard pay for people going in to their jobs who had to go ends that we had a food supply that was secure. Well, then in June, Loblaws announced that they had decided to end the hazard pay. What they were saying was that we can’t afford to keep paying people at a higher rate. And a lot of people are mad about that, partly because Loblaws earnings have gone up because more people are going to the grocery store during the pandemic. So that has been this big story. And as a result, there’s actually been some workers who have been striking at supermarkets that are owned by Loblaws.

Roman Mars:
As well within their rights. It’s absolutely like not any less dangerous than it was when this thing started. And so it makes total sense to me that they would keep getting their hazard pay to keep feeding a nation, which is of critical importance. So I wish them the best of luck.

Chris Berube:
Well Roman, this brings us to the third news item about Loblaws. It’s also kind of a negative story about Loblaws, but I think you’ll agree it’s quite a bit funnier. It’s the great Canadian bread price-fixing scandal. So you obviously know that this, right?

Roman Mars:
I must admit that I missed most of that.

Chris Berube:
This is kind of a complicated news item. But follow me here, because there’s a lot of twists and turns and it involves the American presidential election. So Roman, do you know what price-fixing is?

Roman Mars:
It means basically different competitors are all agreeing on a price. They’re flouting the market and making a higher price for consumers.

Chris Berube:
It’s illegal, right? That’s anti-competitive behavior. What happened in 2017 is that the Competition Bureau of Canada announced that for 14 years, Canadian grocery stores had been teaming up to inflate the price of bread. So this was a big scandal. Loblaws admitted that they had a hand in this and they agreed that they had to make good. They were very sorry for what they had done. So they were going to give a 25 dollar gift certificate to anybody who wanted it, who shopped at Loblaws.

Roman Mars:
And that’s it. For 14 years of making people pay higher prices for bread. You got 25 dollars.

Chris Berube:
A lot of people obviously were very mad because they were like, wow, this seems like a huge scandal. So this was a big news story in Canada. A lot of people got their 25 dollar gift cards and it died down. And then this year, the story came back up in the news. And that’s because Pete Buttigieg ran for president.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So please close the loop on this from me because I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Chris Berube:
This isn’t logical for you? So you remember Pete Buttigieg?

Roman Mars:
Of course. I remember Buttigieg. I had some affection for Pete Buttigieg. Of course.

Chris Berube:
Yeah, sure. Mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Military veteran. So Mayor Pete, when he was running, there was some criticism of one of his previous jobs, which was that he was a business consultant for McKinsey. So McKinsey is one of these companies that goes in, offers advice on how businesses can run more efficiently. And there’s a lot of pressure on Mayor Pete to divulge what work he had been doing for McKinsey. So he gave out this list of like, here’s all the clients that I consultant on for McKinsey. And one of them was, take a wild guess!

Roman Mars:
Was Loblaws?

Chris Berube:
It was Loblaws.

Roman Mars:
Oh, well, yeah.

Chris Berube:
Here is the actual wording of a press release that Mayor Pete put out. He said he was a consultant with Loblaws on the effects of price cuts on various combinations of items across hundreds of stores.

Roman Mars:
Oh my goodness.

Chris Berube:
So when this came out and people started piecing together the timeline, there were all these Canadians saying, “Hey, wait a second. Was Mayor Pete the reason that our bread costs so much money for years?”.

Roman Mars:
Was he part of that?

Chris Berube:
Loblaws says no. And Mayor Pete’s campaign said we have no idea what you’re talking about. What is this bread price scandal? But it became this controversy and he kept getting asked about it. In fact, when he was doing his big interview with The New York Times editorial board, it was one of the big questions. So I’ve sent you this video link. Have you seen this video?

Roman Mars:
I have not seen it. So let me watch it.

Chris Berube:
So let’s play it.

Binyamin Appelbaum:
“You have been on the frontlines of corporate downsizing. You’ve been on the frontlines of corporate price-fixing. You’ve been on the frontlines of our misadventures in foreign policy. You’ve had direct experience of many of the things that make a lot of young people very angry about the way that this country is operating right now. You don’t seem to embody that anger.”

Pete Buttigieg:
“So the proposition that I’ve been on the frontlines of corporate price-fixing is (bleep). Just to get that out of the way.”

Binyamin Appelbaum:
“You worked for a company that was fixing bread prices?”

Pete Buttigieg:
“No, I worked for a consulting company that had a client that may have been involved in fixing or what was apparently a scandal. I was not aware of the Canadian bread pricing scandal until last night.”

Roman Mars:
Wow, that’s quite a moment.

Chris Berube:
Yeah. So it was published in The New York Times, this whole exchange about the bread price-fixing scandal. And it was probably the most emotion Mayor Pete showed on the campaign trail. And I have no evidence that the great Canadian bread price-fixing scandal torpedoed his candidacy. But, I mean, that didn’t help. That wasn’t a good moment in his campaign.

Roman Mars:
That’s amazing that it had such a huge effect. And what a bizarre footnote to this story. Loblaws bread.

Chris Berube:
And hey, look, I know a couple months ago when I pitched I want to do this story about Canadian grocery stores, that maybe that wasn’t the intrigue of other things you’ve done on the show but I mean, I think with all of these news items, what you see is that grocery stores are mundane, they’re very “every day,” but they also affect us, you know, like the thing with everyday things is they really have an impact on our lives. There’s so much of people’s lives that are tied to these grocery stores, even though we kind of take them for granted. There’s just so much going on there.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Oh, just for the record, I was always sold on this as a story.

Chris Berube: I know you are sold. I feel like, though, telling other people I’m doing a story about Canadian grocery stores might not have been the bombshell dynamite pitch.

Roman Mars:
I mean, I think the fact that the pitch included a clip of Repo Man was enough for me to green light it. I really appreciate it, Chris. Thanks so much.
Chris Berube: Absolutely. Everybody go watch Repo Man. Thanks, Roman.

———
Roman Mars:
99% invisible was produced this week by Chris Berube. Music by Sean Real Sound Mix by Seira McCarthy. Special thanks this week to Linda Burbank, the YouTube channel “Retro Ontario,” the archival team at CBC Radio, and the late, great journalist Anne Kingston.

And thanks to Terry O’Reilly, whose newest podcast is called “We Regret to Inform You.” Our senior producer is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Emmet FitzGerald, Joe Rosenberg, Vivian Le, Abby Madan, Katie Mingle, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

We are a project of 91.7 KLAW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which is scattered across the North American continent but will always be in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. We are a founding member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative listener-supported, 100% artist-owned podcasts in the world. Find them all at radiotopia.fm.

You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. We have all kinds of new merch at the 99pi store, including Amabie masks and t-shirts with funiculars on them, plus links to purchase the brand new book. It’s called “The 99 Percent Invisible City.” It’s out October 6th. All of that and more at 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

Producer Chris Berube spoke with Terry O’Reilly, host of Under the Influence; Stephen Hoch, an emeritus marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business; Jim White, a food writer who became an executive at Loblaws; ad Terry Bisson, editor of the No Frills Books.

    1. Kamal

      This story reminds me of franklins in Australia, which had a no frills brand as well.

  1. Andrew Bunnell

    I have to agree with Roman. There’s a distinct difference between Black with Yellow and Yellow with Black as far as the budget nature of an item is concerned. Here in Melbourne, Australia budget supermarket plain lable packaging follows the “Black and Gold” format but we also have a large sporting franchise called the Richmond Tigers, who’re dressed in Black with a Yellow sash. The two graphic packages offereing very different expectaions.

    Enjoy the show, thanks for taking the time to make it.

  2. Hearing that yellow (and black) are considered a ‘discount colour’ brought back serious memories. I’m from the Netherlands and for years our biggest high end department store chain called ‘De Bijenkorf’ (transl: the beehive, don’t ask me why?) had a huge annual sale called ‘Drie Dwaze Dagen’ (transl. 3 crazy days) with huge yellow advertisements everywhere. And that would have been interesting on its own. But in 2010 I went on foreign exchange to Finland. And Stockmann, the high end department store there, had a huge sale too. With huge yellow and black advertisement too… When I googled the translation of the name of the sale I was a bit flabbergasted. ‘Hullutt Päivät’ means crazy days in Finnish. The sales may have even coincided, time wise, but I don’t remember that exactly. I never really looked into it, but I somehow expect that the companies are related.

  3. JB Lawton III

    Repo Man was a great callback. But there’s another 80s movie that plays around with generic marketing. And it co-stars a very young George Clooney!

    1988’s Return of the Killer Tomatoes (currently available on Amazon Prime) is a fun ultra-low-budget comedy. As in 1984’s Repo Man, store shelves and countertops are filled with black and white generic products. The payoff to the gag comes at minute 45 when the whole movie comes to a crashing halt because they’ve ostensibly run out of money. Clooney comes to the rescue, pointing out that that they could embrace “product placement.”

    The next scene is great as the actors shamelessly hawk brand name products. (And while you’re flipping around with your remote control, skip ahead to 1:04:00 when the two heroes ride to the rescue aboard their “QuadRunners from Honda of San Diego!”)

  4. Cathy Smallwood

    When Dominion was taken over by Loblaw in Newfoundland in the late 1980s, they took the Loblaw logo with the big L, and flipped it upside down to form the D, keeping the Dominion name, as it was well recognized. No one had ever head of Loblaw unless they were ‘from away”
    We had just moved here from Ottawa where we shopped at Loblaw, so it was very strange to see the familiar logo turned on it’s head!
    And a foot note to the strike, now a week old: much of the perishable food has been distributed to those who will appreciate it!
    https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/domnion-produce-distributed-to-needy-1.5709192

  5. Anne Vandermey

    Thanks for the great episode! Growing up shopping at NoFrills and Loblaws stores, it was fascinating to hear how it all started. I also remember very clearly the “great Canadian bread scandal” and I got my $25 gift card. Loved the Pete Buttigieg connect too! That was hilarious!

  6. Timothy O'Hara

    This episode brought back memories of my childhood in Upstate NY (Loblaws actually used to have stores here as well). I remember my Dad saying there was no way he would ever drink generic beer. He drank Genesee so I’m not sure there would have been that much of a difference :-)

    https://www.pinterest.com/pin/32158584813205772/

  7. Jonathan Douglas

    Not only was the No Name brand at No Frills written in plain Helvetica, but it was also predominantly lowercase, almost as though uppercase letters were too expensive or fancy. The few exceptions to this rule I recall being proper names such as “Caesar” in Caesar dressing. Although the store name now seems to be branded as “NO FRILLS”, it too used to be written as “no frills” as well.

    Separately, I remember Dave Nichol’s President’s Choice ads in the early 90s quite well. Some of his “Memories of…” food descriptions would probably run afoul of cultural appropriation these days. I see the Memories of Kobe sauce is still around, which, if I remember correctly, is tasty, but bears no resemblance to anything from Kobe (it even describes itself more generically as an “Asian-style” sauce, whatever that is). Oh well, their Key lime pie is still great.

  8. Catherine C.

    Great episode. A couple things that I think could use clarification, as someone who has lived in Toronto for 30+ years and has pretty much always shopped at No Frills: I don’t think it’s made clear in the podcast, but it’s important to know that No Frills also carries a ton of other brands. The black and yellow packaging is fairly low-key on the shelves among these other options. But the more important point, which kind of piggybacks off the first, is that being food insecure and having to consciously choose the black and yellow “No Name” items (as opposed to the infinite other brands in store, including the more respectable President’s Choice), wheeling them to the register, wondering if other people are clocking your (potential) poverty, can certainly make a person all too aware of their class status. I grew up in a food insecure household, and my mother would often make comments like, “One of these days, we won’t only have a sea of yellow in our cupboards…” Roman touches on this aspect of the shopping experience briefly when talking about the tongue-in-cheek ad campaign No Frills plastered Toronto with recently, but I think the complexity of what “discount branding” means in the lives of people who need to buy these goods could have used more of a deep dive. Anna May Henry is a local artist who makes incredible work using the No Name imagery (and other food branding) as a means to explore the complex feelings that come along with poverty and food insecurity – she is worth checking out.

  9. Budo

    Most large supermarket chains in these parts have store brands that aren’t of low quality, but are significantly cheaper because they get a better deal from the manufacturers. All have unique branding as well. I always check the labels because it always lists the manufacturer, so it’s easy to, for example, find good Italian pasta packaged as a store brand for less than domestic pasta brands which are as a rule inferior.

  10. Curt Wahl

    I was at the University of Minnesota in the early 80s, just at the end of the generics boom. I have fond memories of our off-campus liquor store where they sold generic beer. They had a hand lettered signs that said “Beer: ask for it by name” and “Beer: accept no substitute”. It wasn’t good, but it was cheap and we were broke.

  11. Pilou

    Hi beautiful team of 99pi. Small comment. In the podcast, you translate the Carrefour Packaging labelled “Produits Libres” as “Free products.”

    The translation is correct, but even more correct would have been to called it “Freed products” as the correct intention of the marketing team was to intend for a tongue in cheek where the products are actually “freed” rather than cheap.

    The reason why is that subconsciously, it relates to various elements that talks to the consumers:
    – Being liberated from the struggling economy / freeing the purchasing power
    – Freedom to choose between a branded product, or a similar product with a cheaper price
    – Freedom also rings a loud bell within a country that has the same value sitting atop of its republic
    – Not closely related, but somehow relevant, “freedom” as in the recent history of the nation where its new generation was born after WWII.

    Hope this helps.

  12. Kim

    Thanks for a great episode with many moments to make you chuckle :-)

    Here in Denmark we also have a supermarket chain using predominantly black and yellow (www.netto.dk, scroll down a bit and you will see it clearly) and they opened in 1981…Coincidence?…Perhaps; but the timing is “funny”.

    Keep making great stories!!

  13. SW

    After listening to this episode again, I’m wondering: how much did the plain packaging without images hurt illiterate people and people who don’t read English well? The design relies entirely on you knowing what the writing, “chocolate chip cookies” means. If you don’t, are you just left to buy the more expensive products that do have the pictures?

    Re: generic products
    While I often buy store-brand items, I always buy name brand frozen vegetables. My grandfather worked for a name-brand canning/freezing plant as a produce buyer and told us that the name-brand companies got the first pick of the crops and generic companies got the second and third picks.

    I’ve also seen that generic companies cut corners, such as leaving on more of the stems on their broccoli to increase weight, versus name-brand frozen broccoli that is made up of more broccoli crowns.

  14. Joe

    In 1986, at the height of the generics craze, the band Public Image Ltd (not previously identified as another example of a generic name in place of something more descriptive, like frontman John Lydon’s previous band, The Sex Pistols) released their fantastic LP Album (Cassette / Compact Disc). It had the same blue and white design of the Ralphs supermarket chain’s generics – the white with blue stripe (also used in Repo Man).

    What’s interesting about Album is that it was the least generic of the band’s output, had a stellar cast of musicians (Tony Williams, Ginger Baker, Steve Vai) and an outside producer (Bill Laswell).

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Album_(Public_Image_Ltd_album)

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