Dave Nichol: The man who revolutionized branding, and made simple exotic

The Globe and Mail

Dave Nichol, who died on Sunday at age 73, was a trailblazer in the marketing world for revolutionizing the lowly grocer’s house brands, transforming them into affordable luxuries, and using his folksy style in advertising to turn his products – and himself – into household names. (Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail)

Dave Nichol was a man on a mission.

More than 25 years ago, as a president at grocer Loblaw Cos. Ltd., he set out to make the perfect chocolate chip cookie and to outdo Christie’s then-best-selling Chips Ahoy. He had more than 100 samples made before he personally approved the final President’s Choice Decadent Chocolate Chip Cookie. And he personally appeared in ads to peddle the private-label treat.

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Mr. Nichol, who died on Sunday at age 73, was a trailblazer in the marketing world for revolutionizing the lowly grocer’s house brands, transforming them into affordable luxuries, and using his folksy style in advertising to turn his products – and himself – into household names.

The model worked so well that today, private labels account for about $9.4-billion, or 30 per cent, of Loblaw’s annual sales, significantly higher than the North American retail average of 17 to 18 per cent. Mr. Nichol was critical in helping turn around the business after he joined Loblaw in 1972. He left 22 years later, amid a clash with then boss W. Galen Weston.

His legacy lives on to this day, most visibly in the company’s advertising: Galen G. Weston, executive chairman of Loblaw and scion to the Weston family that controls the business, has borrowed from Mr. Nichol’s playbook, acting as pitchman in his own folksy ads. He even uses the same slogan – “worth switching supermarkets for.”

“He set the gold standard. Everybody in marketing would say, ‘we want to do a President’s Choice,’” said Rick Padulo, a friend of Mr. Nichol and retail marketing veteran.

His legacy is perhaps best embodied in a bit of branding irony: the fact that No Name is now a registered trademark.

The little “r” symbol that appears alongside the now ever-present yellow brand is a reminder of how store brands used to be seen as non-brands – cheap knock-offs of real products – and how Mr. Nichol used his marketing know-how to change that.

That was crucial in the grocery business, where profit margins are thin and high-margin store brands can add meaningfully to the bottom line. Mr. Nichol saw that kind of success at British supermarkets Sainsbury’s and Tesco, but re-engineered the concept by giving the products their own brands rather than simply the store name.

And years before anyone used the term “foodie,” he redefined the way many Canadians think about eating, as well. He would frequently speak to farmers, manufacturers and producers, big and small, to tap into new innovations, said Tom Stephens, a grocery consultant and former Loblaw executive.

He launched a line of sauces that were exotic at the time, underlined by the Memories of Szechwan peanut sauce, which he found in his travels to Asia. In television commercials, he showed consumers how the sauce could help perk up dishes with ease.

“They’d be willing to try these new tastes, and [he would] show them how to prepare it or that it wasn’t very expensive,” said Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business. While writing his dissertation on store brands in the early ‘90s, Prof. Middleton met with Mr. Nichol on multiple occasions and was given access to the company’s research. It showed that Canadians related to Mr. Nichol’s passion for food, and the fact that the products demonstrated how to bring new tastes to their tables.

“The ultimate marketing strategy is one that is compellingly attractive to your competitors’ customers, but is one that your competitors are unable or unwilling to replicate,” Mr. Nichol said in a Hall of Legends video in 2005. “Unique products that are only available in your store – that single line is what inspired me all these years.”

His persuasive TV pitches made those frozen foods and prepared sauces socially acceptable, said Joe Magnacca, chief executive officer of U.S.-based retailer RadioShack who worked with Mr. Nichol at Loblaw. “He was a trusted individual on TV and came across as a consumer’s advocate,” Mr. Magnacca said. “He had quite the following … He was a brand himself.”

With a sizable ego and a passion for food and products to match, he defined the company’s personality. Mr. Nichol eschewed traditional advertising agency relationships, preferring to produce the retailer’s advertising in-house and starring in TV ads and infomercials. In 2005, he became one of the first inductees into the Canadian Marketing Hall of Legends.

“Not all presidents and CEOs embrace marketing and the power of brand,” said Craig Lund, president of the Toronto chapter of the American Marketing Association, which runs the Hall of Legends awards. “Dave definitely understood and saw the value in that.”

Paul Uys, a grocery consultant and former Loblaw executive, remembers the detail that Mr. Nichol put into products such as the PC chocolate chip cookie. The Decadent added real butter, dark chocolate chips and offered the package for $1.99, rather than the going rate of $2.49. “David didn’t expect 100 per cent. David expected 1,000 per cent.”

It became one of the most prominent products in the PC family. With the launch of the Decadent cookie, he also transformed the way food packages were designed, said Mr. Uys, who was hired by Mr. Nichol in 1987 to work in product development.

“Food became the hero on the package, rather than a secondary feature,” he said, which was a groundbreaking concept at the time.

Storytelling was central to the advertising of all those products. The Insider’s Report that Mr. Nichol launched was more than a flyer – it was designed to look like a magazine that people might actually want to read. Just before he left Loblaw, he promoted the 10th anniversary of the PC cookbook, celebrating the products, but also offering recipes as well as lush design and photography. Through that marketing he created a brand that universally recognized among Canadian consumers.

“He made President’s Choice more of a brand than the big brands,” Mr. Padulo said. “That turned everything on its head.”

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