Back when generic food brands sported labels that looked as though they’d been issued by the U.S. Army’s one-typeface print shop, those items – which have since graduated to the title of “private label” – weren’t considered serious competition to household-name brands. They were cheaper, that’s all.

Those who cared to drink a 19-cent can labeled “Cola” typically knew they were consuming a container of poor-tasting chemicals that were appropriately priced. Generic aspirin? Not much difference from a name brand there. But generic cola? Could need at least another brown crayon or two to provide an actual flavor.

In the Age of Specialty Everything, including specialty food markets that are giving more traditional super-grocers a run for their money, many private label brands are now gaining ground in the taste department – to the point that generic food items are said to taste as good or better than national brands.

A bite as good as its bark

How do marketers respond when a major consumer publication – in this case, none other than Consumer Reports magazine — comes out and says that brands those marketers oversee might not perform/taste as well as those from generic issuers?

It’s hard to argue convincingly with a source that’s earned a reputation for being unbiased in its product reviews. Especially when that source provides a convenient online table showing the average cost per serving of name brands versus store brands – a comparison that largely favors the store brands. (Other than differences of a handful of pennies on the high side of the range, the only major disparity that favored the name brands was a private label version of frozen shrimp that cost considerably more per serving.)

But when the taste category also gets the consumer watchdog’s nod? That’s a recipe that wants almost as much damage control as when food prices spike due to shortages or crop damage. Or, worse, when supplies become tainted and unsafe to consume.

In categories such as ice cream, trail mix, mozzarella, mixed vegetables, and more, we found at least one store brand from the national grocers Costco, Kmart, Sam’s Club, Target, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, and Whole Foods that was equal in quality to the big name.Consumer Reports

Just the facts

In fact, the magazine’s panel of expert taste testers, after trying two samples of each brand, found that 33 out of 57 private label brands tasted better than their more famous competitors:

  • Every private label brand of cashews tasted better than the national brand, and every store-brand version of frozen shrimp tasted as good or better, too.
  • OK, nuts are nuts and shrimp are shrimp. What about things that require mixing of ingredients, like sauces and some condiments? CR says it found a nearly identical ”market twin” for name brands from Heinz (ketchup) and Hellman’s (mayonnaise): Target’s ketchup brand, as well as, respectively, the mayo private-label offerings from Target, Walmart and Costco – all of which came in at more than a third less expensive than the name brands.
  • While store brands in places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s didn’t always come in cheaper than name brands, CR says that products at Target, Sam’s Club, Walmart and Costco consistently registered as among the lowest-priced in every category. A majority of Sam’s Club products came in at 50% to 60 % less expensive than name brands – though shoppers should be prepared to buy super-sized packages when looking for deals in a grocery warehouse.

CR is quick to point out that, in terms of taste, store brands aren’t necessarily an exact duplicate of national brands. According to one of the magazine’s senior editors, “They may be equal in quality, but have a different flavor profile based on ingredients or recipe.”

Even so, store brands are making a difference in how consumers shop for groceries – one that looks to stick around for a while. Phil Lempert, editor of, points out that store brands have improved over the last few years, both in terms of packaging and overall quality.

His prediction? Look for store brands to continue to siphon away market share away from the name brands. And that’s not just factoring in the price and taste quotients. “There’s no risk to the consumer here,” Lempert told CNBC, which reported on CR’s story. “Store brands come with a money-back guarantee. If you don’t like it, just bring it back.”

Staying on message

All unwell and disturbing, if your job is to usher a famous food brand through the marketing paces.

Or is it?

While slicker packaging, improved recipes and lower prices are likely to hold consumer interest for a while, people usually clue in pretty quickly to superficial or minor differences. Unless that no-name spaghetti sauce really and honestly tastes better than what a consumer has been used to from their favorite name brand, chances are they’ll be willing to spend a half a buck or even more to get what hooked their taste buds in the first place.

There’s also the idea that some shoppers only turn to store brands for low-priced basics like flour and sugar. When shopping for fresh items like meat and produce, however, those same shoppers just might opt to complement their planned weekly dinner menu with brands they know and trust. Especially when marketers have succeeded in strongly suggesting that, say, a burger is only great when it’s topped with a name-brand condiment. Or that salads really do taste better when accompanied by name-brand dressings.

In other words, marketers need to continue to play to their brands’ respective strengths. Which just might include staging a few taste tests of their own, possibly in combination with other national brands that complement their products. Grey Poupon gourmet on a Hebrew National hot dog, for instance, sounds a whole lot tastier than army-issue yellow goop on an Acme frank.

After all, the taste-test showdown served as valuable TV-commercial fodder when Coke and Pepsi went head to head a few years back.

Remind us which one won again?

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