A Breakout Success
BY Pauline Tingas

Shunning a me-too strategy, Publix has made its brand its own.
Tim Cox knows how to recognize a trend. And, more importantly, he knows just when to tap it. In 2001, the director of Publix’s in-house creative-services department looked at the growing number of retailers—Gap, Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma—that were exclusively selling their own brands, and he had an insight: increasing consumer acceptance of these private labels would more than likely cross over to store brands in the grocery sector as well.
“We started thinking that if other retailers are doing it successfully, then let’s capitalize on the equity we have in the Publix brand,” Cox recalls.
At the time, Publix had a line of store brand products that, like most grocery private labels, simply mimicked the packaging of their national counterparts. However, Cox and his team knew that, to capitalize on the insight, they would have to raise the profile and develop a unique ownable identity for the Publix store brand.
But first, they had to make the case internally. To do so, Cox worked with a team of four designers (Karen Biondo, Kim Cook, Mark Nielsen and Matt Barber) to develop concepts that would demonstrate how a new packaging system could increase shopper awareness and, in fact, improve sales of Publix’s store brand. They also impressed the idea that a new packaging system would better reflect the Publix private label positioning: that its goods are equal to or better than national brands.
“The [concept] we recommended, which is the one we have today, wasn’t necessarily the most popular option we showed,” says Cox. “But we really believed it was the one that would be most distinct, the one that had the ability to meet our objectives, to stand out on the shelf against other products. It was a system that could be applied across all of our products.”
Their due diligence and the simplicity of the design won over the few skeptics at the company who were most comfortable staying with a strategy to emulate the national brands.
And, indeed, it’s the simplicity of the system that gives Publix its share-winning presence on the shelf. With lots of white space, crisp typography and unadorned imagery, the Publix private label brand looks dramatically different than the majority of other packaging out there.
Cox and his team got the go-ahead for the rebranding in late 2002, and began the rollout in 2003. They were given three years to execute the packaging strategy across the Publix portfolio, and to fulfill their objectives.
“We knew that the strength of the system was really in numbers and, among other things, in having more of it out there,” says Cox. “When we started hearing customers say that we’ve added all these new products, when we really hadn’t, we knew that we were meeting our objective [of] improving awareness.”
And it wasn’t just in the retail environment. Customer feedback gave Cox a greater appreciation of the role packaging plays in maximizing the second moment of truth—the point where consumers use products in their homes.
“We would get letters and emails from customers saying that they were buying products in part because they liked the way they looked on their counter or in their pantry,” he says.
The rebranding has been an incredible opportunity, Cox explains, to leverage the role of packaging and to use it to get close with consumers. It’s a long way from his first interaction with shoppers, which was limited to in-store signage when he started in 1980 as a screen printer in the retailer’s sign shop.
Year by year, though, Cox began taking on more responsibility, until 1989, when he established and took on the lead role for an in-house creative group designed to really take ownership of Publix creative.
Cox now leads a team of about 50, including the original members who started with him in ‘89, with responsibilities that span print communications, corporate identity, brand development, a shared role in the design of retail environments, and, of course, package design.
By having a hand in it all, Cox says he’s able to make strong connections between all the elements of the Publix brand.
Packaging, for instance, ties in with the brand in that it’s simple, honest and “clean.” “That’s consistent with what people see in our stores, what they experience with our brand,” he says.
Now, with the conversion of all Publix SKUs into the new packaging system complete, Cox might sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labors. But he says the team is constantly tinkering with the brand to keep the packaging relevant and to tap into another trend—one of stronger consumer engagement.
By continually reworking and integrating clever copy and whimsical imagery into the line (Publix’s aluminum foil packaging, for instance, features images of animals shaped out of foil), Cox has created a personality for the Publix store brand that takes it well beyond what a “generic” ever did.
“Our packaging works hard,” he says. “Once [shoppers] pick it up, they look at the image and then read a line of copy with slight bit of humor, and we engage them on a different level.”
Name: Tim Cox
Age: 48
Title: Director of creative services
Years in current job: Eighteen years in the role, under various titles
Ultimate branded package: I am a big fan of Apple products; they do a great job with their branding. But the ultimate would be a Coke bottle, for obvious reasons.
What’s on your nightstand? I read a lot of magazines: Communication Arts, HOW, ID, Print. The book I’m reading right now has nothing to do with design: Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.