Breaking Through the “Store Brand Stigma”

Our switch to buying almost everything we could in store brand form wasn’t an immediate one, nor was it a particularly easy one.

The reason for making the switch was really clear — almost all store brand products are significantly cheaper than the name brand item that they’re nearly identical to — but actually making that switch wasn’t always easy, and the “store brand stigma” was a big part of that reason.

What do I mean by the “store brand stigma?” In short, it’s the sense that a store brand product is inherently worse in quality than the equivalent name brand product, even if they are literally identical in terms of the contents of the package.

When you’re looking at two boxes of, say, instant rice, and one of them is store brand and the other one is Minute Rice, and you know that the contents are almost exactly the same based on the nutrition facts and ingredients but the store brand box is cheaper, yet you still feel that the name brand item is better, you’re feeling that store brand stigma.

When you look at an item in your home (or someone else’s home), you notice it’s a store brand item, and you inherently doubt that it’s as good as the name brand version, you’re feeling that store brand stigma.

It’s a real feeling, but it’s a foolish feeling.

The “store brand stigma” is the result of a lot of clever marketing.

If you’re observant, you’ll probably notice that there’s no real marketing out there indicating that store brand products are inherently bad. There’s no real marketing out there indicating that they’re inherently good, either, because there’s basically no real marketing for store brand products.

On the other hand, name brand products are carefully marketed to make you think that they’re good. Almost every name brand item you can think of has had extensive marketing dollars and careful plans utilized to make you think positively about that product and the brand that makes it. You see ads. You see product placements in television shows. You see news reports about the latest products. You see brighter and more attractive packaging in the store (the product of a well paid and very skilled graphic design team). In short, tons of effort is put into name brands to make you think that they’re good.

So, when you look at a name brand item and a store brand item, you usually feel at least a little bit of the “good” feeling from that name brand product. If nothing else, the packaging is usually more sophisticated and it’s likely that you’ve at least heard of the brand in some non-negative way. That adds up to a sense that the name brand is somehow good.

The store brand doesn’t have the colorful packaging or the name brand recognition going for it. Thus, when you hold the name brand and the store brand side by side, the store brand isn’t bad, it just gives a sense of being not as good as the name brand. There hasn’t been effort put into marketing the store brand to you, so it doesn’t have that added sense of “good” that the name brand has.

Now, repeat that a bunch of times. Repeat that with product after product after product. You never feel that the store brand is bad, per se, but you constantly feel less about it than you do about the name brand.

Over time, the result of that is that you gain a sense that the store brand is somehow inferior, even though there’s nothing about the actual store brand product that is actually inferior.

In fact, much of the time, store brands are virtually identical to the name brands and are sometimes produced identically, just with different outer packaging. There are many store brands that are produced at the exact same facilities with the exact same recipe as a name brand version, and even when that’s not the case, the store brand is made to be extremely similar to a name brand product with only minor changes.

Yet, knowing all that, knowing that many store brands are identical to name brands, many others are functionally identical, and many others are perfectly functional, and that store brands are less expensive, we still see store shelves jam packed with name brands. The innate preference for name brands over store brands persists, quite strongly, even though it costs customers money.

So, how do you break through that stigma?

Here’s how to break free.

The answer is simple: intentionally buy lots of store brands. Do it purposefully. Go to the store and for every product you have on your list, intentionally buy the store brand version instead of the name brand version. Take those products home and use them.

Here’s what will happen, and I’m speaking from experience here: as you start using the store brand products, and you see that package and that store brand logo over and over again, and the product just works for your needs, you begin to feel better about that store brand. You actually see all of these store brand products working, and thus you begin to build up a positive sense about the store brand because of the success you’re witnessing. The more store brands you buy, the more effective this is.

Now, you may find that a specific store brand product doesn’t meet your needs. That’s to be expected. There will be some products that don’t meet your needs and, in those cases, switch back to the name brand for that specific product.

As for all of the other store brand products that meet your needs, stick with them. Not only will you save money over the name brand on every single purchase, but you’ll gradually break that store brand stigma. You’ll no longer feel that store brands are lesser products just because of their packaging and lack of a brand name, and that’s a big financial win for so many of your household and food staples.

When I look at the items I purchase on a typical weekly grocery store visit, a very large portion of the items are store brands. If I’m purchasing 20 store brand items on a typical visit and they’re saving me $0.50 a piece, that’s a savings of $10. If I do that every week, that’s $520 saved over the course of a year. That’s quite a lot of savings.

Furthermore, I no longer feel any sort of negative feeling about store brands; in fact, I think of the store brands at my main grocery store in a very positive light. Simply put, they work. They do what I ask of them quite well. The store brand, to me, means “we get the job done at a great price,” and that’s the kind of value I’m always looking for. I see the store brand label as a sign of very good value for the dollar rather than as a lesser product, and that ends up translating into hundreds of dollars in savings per year.

Good luck with breaking your own store brand stigma!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.