Lessons From a Publix Brand Innovator

He was an early Private Brand disruptor who proactively led Publix Super Markets into an era of innovative brand design. Later, he spearheaded successful refreshes of Publix’s iconic logo, and helped drive differentiation for in-store design.

However, Tim Cox, Publix’s Director of Creative Services, gives much of the credit to his team – rather than himself – for success in enhancing the Publix brand.

“It’s a lesson that has served me very well over the years,” he said during a keynote session at Velocity: The My Private Brand Conference, held recently in Charlotte, N.C.

“I always tried to surround myself with people who are better than me, and always hired people who were better than me.”

The Publix executive was interviewed on stage by Christopher Durham, President, My Private Brand.

Cox’s tenure at Publix has spanned different eras of Private Brand development in the industry, from an earlier period when food retailers primarily emulated national brands, to the increased innovation of today.

Importance of Boosting Innovation
He spoke candidly about Publix’s transition through those periods, and the role he and his team played in helping to drive the retailer towards greater innovation, beginning about 15 years ago.

“Grocery retailers were leaning on the equity of national brands,” he said, noting that he and his team were looking for an opportunity to help Publix break out of that mold.

They took it upon themselves to initiate research and develop new concepts.

“It’s not typical for the creative team to initiate projects,” he said. “But in our minds, we felt there was equity in the Publix brand, so we developed concepts to leverage that.”  Those ideas focused on simple and clean designs to differentiate from all the brands whose messages were “shouting” and “screaming” on shelves.

Durham responded by observing, “Today you would be called a disruptor, because you went in a different direction.”

Nevertheless, Cox acknowledged that initially, it was difficult to sell the new concepts internally, because it represented such a new direction. The first redesigned package – a macaroni and cheese product – appeared on shelves around 2003, at first meeting with some customer resistance. However, shoppers changed their attitudes as more items were rolled out.

“Customers noticed all the products looked like they went together,” he said.

Jump ahead about 15 years, and today those basic design concepts are still the focal point for the roughly 3,000 SKUs in the main line.

Meanwhile, Cox observed that today the relationship between the creative team and the rest of the organization is highly collaborative.

“Today you need to be more agile and get to market as quickly as possible, so you need to get advocacy up front,” he said.

Evolving Design for New Eras
Over the years, Cox and his team have gradually updated the Publix logo and how it is used across categories. At first, this involved relatively minor tweaks, like adjusting the letter spacing. By the time digital marketing became more important, the team realized the logo needed to work better in the digital space, including as a homepage icon. That led to the creation of a “brand mark” that better integrated with sub-brands in deli, bakery, pharmacy, Aprons, and Publix Premium. Those brands were then able to leverage the equity of the Publix Circle “P,” the brand mark.

Even more recently, Publix made further updates to the logo for its main line, transitioning from the black circle that contained the logotype, to making the black dot the actual Publix brand mark. That move is fostering even more synergies for the entire brand experience, across products, packaging and store.

In making updates, Cox said he was always aware that logo redesigns were not about “fixing something.”

“My team was able to work on a brand that had so many fans,” he said. “So I never had to work on a broken brand, and I recognize that’s a great benefit. We had a lot of equity in the logotype and brand mark, so strategically we were trying to leverage the equity and incorporate it into other brands and the store environment.”

Cox said that today GreenWise is “our fastest growing line.” It’s “both a product brand and a brick and mortar store brand.”

A recently opened GreenWise store in Tallahassee, Florida, underscores the latest in-store design directions. The store focuses on natural, organic and specialty items.

“We did something fresh and unexpected,” he said. “Clever use of typography and illustration create a touch of playfulness in an environment that is otherwise clean and simple. The store is easy to navigate, with open sightlines.”

In reviewing his Publix career, Cox said he values the “people-focused” culture of the retailer, and also the expertise of the designers he’s worked with over the years. On that latter point, he cited another key lesson he’s learned.

“Trust seasoned designers, because they think more like customers than anyone else I know.”


RETAILER INVITATION

I would like to personally invite retail private brand executives from around the world to take the Velocity Stage. Velocity is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate thought leadership, tell your story, build your brand or push the industry forward.

There are two opportunities:

Email Christopher Durham and speak at Velocity.


 

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