Is it worth it to splurge on name brands?

Where Generics Come From

In the mid 1970s, a man named Al Williams left Albertsons Stores, where he had been working as a private label product line manager, supervising the creation and manufacture of Albertsons branded products. He started a consulting firm, Keynote Marketing, dedicated to creating generic product lines.

Williams started a trend, and soon several national chains were introducing white-labeled versions of their own products. One company, called Jewel, created the first generic supermarket line of products: no names or pictures, just the contents and required nutritional information. The grocery store Pathmark labeled theirs "NO FRILLS," and A&P changed the logo on theirs to read "P&Q" ("Price & Quality").

Of course, today's generic packaging is different. In fact, a lot of it doesn't look generic at all. Most stores carry a private label line of products that you may or may not even recognize as a store brand. You might remember one product recall in 2007: Over 60 million cans of pet food were recalled, all from the same company, Menu Foods, but marketed under more than 100 brand names. Is it any wonder most people are so confused by shopping generic, when they spend so much time selling us on brands and labels that ultimately mean so little?

A Consumer Reports study found that by sticking with store brands, they could save an average of 30 percent with every grocery trip. That adds up fast. And yet the marketing for certain brands is so successful that consumer surveys regularly show our beliefs that name brands are better: better tasting, more nutritious and higher in quality. And the younger we are, the more likely we are to avoid store brands. In fact, half of us rarely, if ever, buy store-brand wine, pet food, soda or soup.

It's telling that this likelihood rises when the product category contains highly profitable and strongly marketed brand names like Coca-Cola or Campbell's. They put all that money into advertising so that we'll refuse to pay for anything less, no matter how identical the store brand is.

So, having put aside our brand loyalty for a moment -- just long enough to think about the way store brands actually make it to the shelves -- let's look at other ways we're resistant to buying generic. It's in corporate interests to make sure that we're nervous about quality and health, but when it comes to food, there's another big component: taste.