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Notes from the Western Michigan University Food Marketing Conference
KALAMAZOO, Mich. – There was a moment yesterday during a workshop at the 40th annual Western Michigan University (WMU) Food Marketing Conference that one of the problems food retailers became incredibly clear.

The session, which was looking at generational differences and how the industry needs to adapt to them, included three panelists who were WMU graduating seniors. None planned to go into retailing, though two of them will be working with retailers (one working on a manufacturer team on-site at Wal-Mart, the other at Daymon Worldwide). The third senior, a young woman, said despite the fact that she likes food and loves to cook, she will not be getting into retailing because she’s interested in brand management – and that’s not something that retailers do.

Which stopped us in our tracks. (Michael Sansolo, senior vice president at the Food Marketing Institute and also a panelist, had the same did a number of audience members that we chatted with afterwards.)

While a retailer may not manage brands in the same way that a manufacturer does, the fact is that a retailer is a brand – and many of them probably could use young, ambitious and aggressive people who might be capable of energizing and defining the retail brands.

But many, and maybe most, chains probably aren’t in the market for such young people. And certainly aren’t communicating this sort of need to graduating students coming into the marketplace.

Rather, retailing is seen as a place where a graduating college senior thinks he or she will have to stack apples at four in the morning…and, in the words of one of the panelists, “just isn’t as glamorous” as other jobs.

That’s a problem. Maybe the problem.

Food retailing is still seen as a venue in which other people’s brands are sold, and a central reason that many retailers are unable to compete in a tough marketplace is that they have not created for themselves a formidable, definable, differentiated brand identity.

We think that you can attribute Winn-Dixie’s problems to this tendency. Maybe even Safeway’s…though that company says it is trying to rectify the situation.

And there are plenty of exceptions: Ukrops. Dorothy Lane Market. HEB. Publix. Stew Leonard’s. Jungle Jim’s. Andronico’s. And others. (Including, by the way, Wal-Mart.)

But if there is a central problem that plagues the food retailing business, it is this lack of brand identity among some of its biggest players. They may have brand names, but not brand identities. They have, in a sense, lost their way.
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