A while ago I was visiting Auckland in New Zealand and found myself in Ponsonby, a onetime working class inner-city suburb of unassuming, white weatherboard houses, which has since become an Auckland Greenwich Village or Notting Hill. You know: eye-watering real estate prices, power walkers, high end eateries and delis.
I came across the local branch of a market-style grocery chain called Nosh, which feels a little like a NZ take on Whole Foods. You’re seeing organic produce in baskets, chalk boards, lots of imported dairy, charcuterie and condiments.
This is not the kind of place I was going to find my local FMCG heroes (the fabled Kiwi ‘Chocolate Fish’, ‘Pineapple Lumps’ or ‘Burger Rings’). For one of the awkward pleasures often shared by people working in insight is heading to the supermarkets and ogling the local mass-market legends (see also: Maple Syrup Baked Beans; salty licorice, Bird’s Milk, Tim Tams, etc).
At Nosh, I met Planet Earth’s most ‘added-value’ Economy Strawberry Jam. They were stocking Essential Waitrose Strawberry Jam – several neat rows of it. This strawberry jam was being sold at over twice the price it is sold at in the UK, and confidently fraternising with a select few decidedly premium jams.
It felt like a micro-scandal, this. Surely, Ponsonby gourmets were being taken for fools? It also felt a little reckless (for wouldn’t the well-travelled, Anglophile Aucklander know all about Waitrose?). Here is a foodie nation that often does homely British-style ‘comfort food’ better than the British (I give you fish and chips). Here is a nation that invented the ‘flat white’. It seemed perverse to me that a bountiful land of vineyards and orchards (and, I’m guessing, strawberry fields) would fly a jar of economy strawberry jam 18,000 kilometres to its cupboards.
(For the non-UK reader, Essential is Waitrose’s ‘private label’ / value range, introduced early in the UK recession to help stem a defection of shoppers to discount stores. Given Waitrose’s strong aspirational, middle class associations, there’s often unintended humour when a food receives its ‘essential’ badge. It’s hard not to imagine crude mobile phone footage on CNN (to the wail of sirens and gunfire) – a breathless professional in a torn shirt, pleading to the Red Cross for Essential Guacamole and Essential Chorizo).
Seeing Essential Strawberry Jam posturing here, I instantly Instagram-ed it. This felt like shopper dynamite. I tweeted it to Nosh (okay, I had struck on some free wireless), glibly asking them if they thought Aucklanders wouldn’t realise that they were being sold ‘economy’ for premium.
They replied that they weren’t passing it off as premium, but they stocked it because their customers loved it. That is a tiny bit evasive (it’s an emphatically premium store, with premium food; they don’t sell my Burger Rings or Diet Coke).
But they have a perfectly solid point – customers want it.
This was a moment I should probably cherish. Besides finding the most added-value economy strawberry jam on the planet, here was my pristine reminder that value is in the eye of the beholder; that brands are built on consumer belief, not hard facts; that context is extremely powerful (there’s glamour, 18,000 km from drizzly England, rubbing shoulders with truffle oil and Fiji water). That sometimes just being novel and distinctive on shelf can be special enough. That provenance – e.g. Britishness, there in NZ – can hold huge sway.
It’s also a reminder about strong, single-minded design: the ‘Essential’ packaging is plain and utilitarian, but, actually, that same pared back, typography-led look-and-feel is just as likely to grace premium brands (BluePrint Juice; Vitamin Water, Voss, Aesop, Jo Malone), where they come across as desirably understated and in no hurry to flaunt themselves.
So, behold: that Waitrose Essential Strawberry Jam was positively dripping value. In fact I’m now kicking myself that I didn’t bring a few jars back to the UK.