Target's Good & Gather label. Courtesy Target.

Imagine, if you will, that you’re in a grocery aisle looking for flour. Your eyes scan bags upon bags for something familiar, but the brand you normally buy is out of stock. There’s this other one, though…lowest price (that’s good). Nice packaging, too. Chunky serif lettering, rich colors (that’s unexpected). Less expected: it’s Target brand? Add to cart. 

This is something like my first encounter with Target’s Good & Gather, a private label brand launched in summer 2019. Unlike the generic brands of my childhood, Good & Gather is designed to make a shopper feel less like they’re budget shopping, and more like they’re treating themselves to something nice. In any given store, where there are dozens of options available for a single product, Target’s brand has created a mental shortcut that ensures you that a) you’re getting the best price and b) you’re getting good quality. Why would you bother with anything else? 

With private label, design isn’t meant to get consumers to pay more for a product. Instead, it’s supposed to make people feel better about paying less.

This is the value proposition of a new trend of private labels, which today bring in billions of dollars a year. By making their own brands into an easy, attractive, looks-nice-in-the-pantry choice rather than a compromise, mid-tier retailers improve their margins and drive brand loyalty. It’s tempting to look at ShopRite’s Bowl & Basket (designed by Pearlfisher) and think that it’s just another example of premiumization through design: Companies know that nice packaging can get people to pay more for things. But private label brands defy this norm, since price doesn’t increase in direct relation to an investment in packaging. It can’t. With private label, design isn’t meant to get consumers to pay more for a product. Instead, it’s supposed to make people feel better about paying less

In recent decades, private label brands have grown in market share, a trend that, like many others, has been magnified by the pandemic. For big box stores like Target and grocery chains like ShopRite, design is a differentiator that allows them to stand out in a crowded aisle. Michael Taylor, president at Daymon, a firm that specializes in private brand development, says that for decades, store brands were less focused on building out their own visual identities than they were on positioning themselves as the better value. It was common for generic brands to “cue” national brands, imitating their look and language. But today’s private label packaging are following the move among direct to consumer companies towards rounded serif typefaces paired with rich, prop-styled imagery. In the broader economy, this look is everywhere—from healthcare to housewares—but it’s arrived slower to the grocery aisle. (A notable exception here is privately-owned Chobani, whose 2017 redesign arguably helped kick off this trend.)

Today, most private label food brands aren’t trying to look, or even taste, like Nabisco or General Mills. The evolution of the design of private label products has followed the evolution of the products themselves, says Shelley Balanko, a senior vice president at the Hartman Group, a consumer research company. A shift from a “base value offering to a premium product” started during the last recession in 2009, when private label brands shot up in popularity. Retailers saw an opportunity to sample more sophisticated flavor profiles and expand beyond staples into new categories like snacks, beverages, and prepared frozen meals. 

In a way, private label brands are the original direct to consumer brands. Distribution costs are much lower than those of national brands and, as the saying goes, those savings get passed onto the consumer. They pad the margins of retailers, who work directly with third party co-manufacturers to outsource production of their own versions of grocery products. For a long time, those products were limited to what co-mans were equipped to produce—basics like bread and butter. But the growth of niche food brands, many of which also outsource their production to co-mans, has led to more options across the market. 

Fred Hart, creative director at food and beverage design agency Interact Boulder, says that in the past decade, co-mans have sprung up to cater to the demand for innovative, organic, and “clean” foods. This makes it possible for Safeway, for example, to find a partner that can deliver organic puffs at scale, allowing the major grocer to sell its own offerings alongside those of other companies. Hart cites Trader Joe’s as a longtime leader in this corner of the market, but he says that, increasingly, for all kinds of retailers, “innovation can be easily bought and turned on with a switch.” 

Alongside this increased manufacturing muscle, retailers have also been making advances in collecting customer data. With stores able to track shopping trends and use that information to self-manufacture products they know people will want, the power has shifted away from national brands like Kraft towards national retailers. Kroger, Stop & Shop, and Publix have all recently launched or revamped app-based loyalty programs that incentivize customers to link every purchase to their account, giving retailers a detailed view on their buying habits. That’s something that national food brands, as well as smaller brands, don’t have. 

Of course, any conversation about an omniscient view of the way people shop wouldn’t be complete without Amazon, which acquired Whole Foods in 2017. Perhaps one of the most representative rebrands showing how the food market has been reoriented around the tastes of younger consumers is that of 365 by Whole Foods Market. With a national rebrand this past summer, the label uses negative space, black lettering, and a minimal logo to hint at a product that’s not quite luxury, but definitely not ordinary. 

When 365 by Whole Foods Market first launched in 1990, it started with just pasta and tomato sauces. Today, it comprises over 3,000 individual products, 400 of which were launched in 2020. “We wanted the rebrand to capture the modern, clean aesthetic of our brand, but be joyful and whimsical at the same time,” says Will Chau, the company’s executive leader of creative and design. Though Chau says the 365 brand update wasn’t related to the acquisition by Amazon, it’s easy to see how the flexibility of the rebrand works well with Whole Foods’ expanded reach. (Amazon Fresh stores carry the 365 private label, and it appears online, too.) 

Technology has made it possible for retailers to dial in on what customers want—from flavors to fonts.

“Joy” is a defining descriptor of these brands. Target says Good & Gather is about helping customers “discover the everyday joy of food” (to the tune of $1 billion in sales in just over a year). The ampersand in Bowl & Basket, apparently, “symbolizes a starting point for moments of joy.” We know what “joy” looks like when it’s packaged and sold today: bold, but not overstimulating. Warm, but not hokey. Playful but also sophisticated, as fun as it is functional. As technology has made it possible for retailers to dial in on what customers want—from flavors to fonts—consumer expectations, too, have been shaped by technology and the branding norms it perpetuates. Food may seem like an oversaturated industry, but as retailers know, it’s prone to habit on the consumer side. If you can get them when they’re young, maybe when they’re scrolling through Instagram, or trying to spend less, you have a good chance of keeping them.