Design First

Retailer brings CPG-style management to its own brands

By Jennifer Acevedo,
Try your best to forget everything you know about “private label” brands. Safeway has. In fact, Safeway is well on its way to reinventing how retailers view their proprietary brands. And James White, senior vice president, Corporate Brands, is leading the effort with the O Organics line, which has been designed and is being managed as a consumer packaged goods style brand within a major retailer.
“We’re trying to build brand propositions that are exclusive or proprietary to Safeway and are unique in solving critical consumer need states,” says White. “I refer to our portfolio as our own consumer brands, so I’m going to bring the same kind of passion, research and rigor to the Safeway set of brands that any of the folks bring to their CPG offerings.”
Along with this strong vision, White also brings to the initiative a resume that includes more than 20 years with a combination of blue-chip retailers and CPG companies. He began his career with Coca-Cola Foods (now Coke’s Minute Maid division), then spent about 15 years at Ralston Purina, leaving about six months after the Nestle acquisition. Next, White spent about three years at Gillette, which he calls “arguably one of the premiere CPG marketing companies,” and has been on-board at Safeway for the past nine months.
O Organics is Safeway’s most comprehensive effort to bring the same type of marketing discipline that one might find at Coke, Nestle or Gillette to a retailer’s proprietary brand. The brand, which cuts across some 30 categories, was created to make organic products broadly available to consumers at a great value. As with all Safeway branding efforts, design (including packaging) was at the forefront of the process.
“If I think about how that initiative came to be, it was certainly with design at the front end of the process—the design and positioning work were inextricably linked up front. What I’ve learned across a lot of great CPG companies is that the best design work is insight-driven, but you’ve got to connect the insights to both the positioning and the design work. If you can do that in an integrated fashion, you build brands that become very meaningful to consumers.”
It’s clear in speaking to White that Safeway has done more than mimic the infrastructure of the typical CPG company. Instead, the retailer has incorporated best practices similar to those found at the most innovative national brands. As part of this effort, multifunctional teams comprised of key stakeholders from a wide variety of job functions are assembled and charged with bringing a complete and fully integrated proposition to the brand—with exciting results.
“Cross-functional teams that are involved up front do better work than work that happens either linearly or in silos,” says White. “That’s my fundamental belief of how you build great brands. The combination of viewpoints and the ability to look at opportunities and challenges from different perspectives and experiences always leads you to a better solution.”
White thanks design partner Philippe Becker Design and Doug Palmer, Safeway vice president of marketing and merchandising, for lending their expertise and creativity to the O Organics project. “We’re very passionate about building our brands, and we take the work that we do very seriously,” he says. BP
Name: James White
Age: 45
Title: Senior vice president, Corporate Brands, Safeway
Years in current job:Nine months
Where or when do your best ideas come to you? 
“Either observing our shoppers in their homes and how they use our products or in our stores or the stores of others. The other place would be observing our shoppers in focus group settings where they’re discussing things they wish we’d bring to propositions.”
What do you consider the ultimate branded package?
“I absolutely love what we’ve done with O Organics, so that would be my clear-cut favorite. Today there are many, many brands that I admire, but I think the work that we’ve done on O Organics is some of the best work that I’ve seen across many of the brands. It’s because the design work has the capacity to span so many categories—that’s very uncommon.”