Our brand is frill
how No Frills found its voice and lost its way...and threatened to sue me
In 2017, I decided to make some fun t-shirts. Like all the merch I had made I was going to sell a few hundred, donate the money to the Parkdale Community Food Bank, and that was it, a silly side project.
I love the No Frills in Parkdale, and if you live in Parkdale, I’m sure I don’t need to explain to you what an important part of the community it is. It’s a discount grocer that serves a diverse neighbourhood, so when it closed for repairs it left a huge gap for the people of Parkdale. The shirts were made to celebrate the reopening.
Out of love for my local No Frills, not the mega brand as it was, I decided to take No Frills’ old logo with the old “lower food prices” tag line and make a Parkdale Life shirt. My best friend, capable in Photoshop but not a designer, made it in a day. We took some pictures and decided to sell them from a cardboard box on a lawn on Tyndall Ave. Then I got an email from Loblaws.
In the call with their branding team, I was told that their lawyers wanted to sue me (this was scary) but that the magnanimous branding people have assured the evil lawyers that this grassroots love for the brand was actually good! I wouldn’t be sued and would I like to work with them? I was taken aback by the mention of litigation and said yes, didn’t ask for anything from them, and just asked that they commit to a donation to the food bank. They asked to purchase some shirts for the office, donated $5k to the food bank and we left it at that.
The next day the shirts sold out in 30 minutes and every major Toronto outlet was on the scene running stories (slow news day I guess). Now, unbeknownst to me, that day was actually the launch of a multi-year, likely multi-million dollar No Frills branding campaign.
Their branding campaign didn’t generate any buzz then, but my shirts did, and they latched on.
I had inadvertently been used as the corporate tool helping to birth this monster. I didn’t even get a grocery gift card for it. Boo you Loblaws. But please don’t sue me.
A few months later, Loblaws revved up the campaign again, launching their own line of “streetwear” called Hauler. There was a TV ad, a social campaign, influencer marketing, the works. Reporters still remembered the success of my shirts and asked how I felt about this. I said,
“The branding is sleek and obviously creative agency-ey but to me it feels that if you are identically imitating hypebeast streetwear tropes (the graphics, the video, the ‘drops’ — jesus, the drops!) you’re not in the spirit of no frills. It’s ... a frill, one might say.”
and uh… yeah I stand by that. I think Hauler was a bit of a flop. Besides its aesthetic limits, the fact that a discount grocer was selling “swag” is just off-putting.
I’m curious about who this swag appeals to? If the brand is peddling its image as one of austerity, yet selling fairly expensive hoodies, is it not then selling “thriftiness” as merely a trend? And isn’t that… kinda icky?
Next iteration of the brand, sleekly designed by the agency John St., is the deadpan No Frills ad campaign that has recently taken over Twitter and the city. It plays up the image of no frills - basic ingredients, no fancy graphics or pictures - to a comically absurd degree.
The executives in charge of the campaign spoke plainly if not cryptically:
“We were looking for a way to talk to Canadians in a no name way,”
Here is where the basic if not entirely obvious failure of the brand campaign lies. The fact is that the No Frills brand was strong, not because but IN SPITE of its branding. Not to get too metaphysical, but the No Frills brand was that it had no brand at all. Now that the retailer has gained brand consciousness, even speaking from the first person, it’s lost the somewhat pure naivety that it had.
I can’t find the tweet in question, but someone had made a clever observation that the No Frills campaign is like a cute kid, who finally realizes they are cute and thus becomes insufferable.
Now, darker considerations loom as well. As almost everyone knows, No Frills is owned by Loblaws, a massive multi-billion dollar company, owned by our very own oligarchs, the Westons. If you remember in 2017 (the same year the No Frills campaign was launched) Loblaws admitted to fixing the price of bread for 14 years! So simultaneously as Loblaws was fixing the price of a working class staple - bread that was no doubt essential for low-income families - it decided to launch a branding feedback loop of the aesthetics of thriftiness. And while shopping at a discount grocer is smart (if not absolutely essential) if you’re on a budget, there is nothing inherently valorous about it.
Most people shopping at No Frills to get better deals on groceries are not doing so out of brand loyalty, they are doing so out of necessity!
So please forgive me if I don’t jump on the bandwagon of No Name and worship at the altar of frugality as brand while the Weston family amasses its net worth of $8.7 BILLION, fixing the price of bread and rejecting a living wage for its workers. No thanks No Frills.