When COVID-19 drove consumers into the digital shopping space and struck fear in the less tech-savvy ones, curbside pickup and third-party home delivery became a no-brainer for grocery stores nationwide.
While Whole Foods and Walmart hustle to dominate the digital playground for internet shoppers way before the pandemic, one grocer chose to leave the fighting to the big boys.
An earlier B.R.A.N.D. Freeze moment of the late Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe's revealed that this grocery store is all about being different. But is her refusal to sell products online, offer curbside pickup, or home delivery just a rebellious act to go against the current?
D: The Store as the Brand
Any business leader will tell you that making goods available online is an obvious solution to boost sales volume and grow your reach. However, shopping at a physical store is a non-compromising component of the brand experience for Trader Joe's customers.
"The store is our brand" is one of this grocer's values, which is one of the driving forces (ie. the 'D' as defined in the B.R.A.N.D. System) behind how Trader Joe's does things every day.
One would think that coronavirus would have forced the hand of this grocery store to sell online. She did not budge. The store took all the necessary precautions, kept her customers informed of store hours and traffic limitations, and customers continued coming.
A: DESIGNING THE EXPERIENCE
Businesses with multiple retail spaces are likely to receive professionally printed signs, posters, and banners from their corporate office for display on site. It's more cost-effective anyway. However, when you step into a Trader Joe's, it's hard not to see the hand-drawn and hand-written signs from shelf tags to large wall displays.
Each store has her group of artists who produce these unique visible elements daily. They are part of the team; stocking the shelves, working the cash registers, and also doodling in the back room. Trader Joe's invests in and values individuals with such skills because it is part of her brand.
This national chain takes pride in being your neighborhood grocery store. Murals and images reflective of the community she is in is just another way Trader Joe's seeks to connect with her customers. More importantly, you can always count on an engaging conversation with a crew member or two during a visit. And a face mask will not get in the way.
How did Trader Joe's respond during COVID-19? Learn more here.
One might wonder why a grocery store has a nautical theme even though seafood is not her primary product. Between the ringing of ship bells and employees known as crew members, mates, and captains, Trader Joe's seafaring culture can be traced back to her founder Joe Coulombe (1939 - 2020).
While Trader Joe's has always been tight-lipped about her business model, you can easily find wave upon wave of information from her school of avid fans in the digital ocean.
In this B.R.A.N.D. Freeze moment, I would like to first tap into the personal brand of Joe Coulombe to gain insights into the making of a memorable brand.
You don’t have to be a celebrity
The goal of defining one's personal brand is not always about creating a celebrity-persona like that of Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Elon Musk (Tesla), Ellen DeGeneres, or Martha Stewart.
As a founder/owner, you don't have to be the face of your company, but you have to be the spirit behind its culture. Your physical presence is limited by time and space, but a brand-centric culture will last for generations.
Tracing his career back to 1958 when Coulombe was tasked by his then-employer Rexall Drugs to launch a chain of convenience stores to compete with 7-Eleven, we saw the maiden voyage of this trader on the culinary seas.
A: SWEAT IT & READ IT
Coulombe was said to have worked without pay at Pronto Markets, the new chain he helped started, so that he can learn the business. When 7-Eleven became too big to compete against, Rexall’s decision to liquidate the stores opened the door for Coulombe to buy out the business which he renamed Trader Joe’s in 1967.
If you have an end in sight, there is no other way around hard work to get there. It doesn't matter if your goal is short- or long-term, big or small; have a goal. Coulombe did not want to compete with the bigger giants in the convenience store business and knew he had to be different.
From his interview with Perfect Business, it was also clear that Coulombe’s business savviness came from a lot of reading.
He read about the anticipated launch of Boeing 747 and figured that cheaper international air travel will wet the appetite of people for food from different parts of the world. Trader Joe's, to this day, is known for her selection of food from all over the globe.
Inspired by an article on Biosphere in the Scientific American along with subscription to multiple whole food related publications, Coulombe also steered Trader Joe's towards the natural and organic food route.
After Coulombe's retirement in 1989, he remained the voice of Trader Joe's in a LA radio show "Food and Wine Minute''. Listeners would join him on his visits to the world's wine regions with interesting insights into food. Subscribe or pick up a copy of the Fearless Flyer and you will get a taste of his legacy.
As for the maritime theme, Joe drew his inspiration for Trader Joe’s unique look-&-feel from Frederick O'Brien's White Shadows in the South Seas and the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland.
As a founder and leader of your business, you are ultimately responsible for weaving the fabric of the human organization you are establishing. How are you achieving that? How tightly woven is your personal B.R.A.N.D. to the business B.R.A.N.D.?