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Don't Fall for Consumer Branding; Shop for Product Specs Instead

Updated: Apr 17

This post is about home furnishings and building materials; however of course it applies to all consumer products out there!




My first job out of college was as a Product Management Specialist for the Staples Brands Group -- the 'white label' or 'own brand' division within Staples, Inc. We were responsible for sourcing products to be sold under the Staples brand name (or another private label sub-brand of our creation) that would compete directly against the 'national brands' on store shelve and online. Our directive was to offer comparable (or better) quality products at a lower cost to the consumer, and a higher profit margin to the company; a win-win for Staples and its customers.


As part of the Product Management team, I was responsible for assessing the Staples brand product assortment, understanding key sales and margin metrics of both our products and the comparable 'national brands', and determining where the best opportunities lay for bringing to market a lower-priced and comparably-designed item. Our product specs, manufacturing oversights, and quality testing were rigorous -- and the rest of the company held us to high standards, as a poor quality product with the Staples brand name printed right on it was bad for business.


During my time in the Staples Brands Group, I was part of many fun projects that went far beyond a simple cost-savings strategy -- we led innovation projects resulting in the development of patented, premium product features that beat national brands in performance tests by a long shot. Having been entrenched in this role for 4 years; I'm proud of what we accomplished and feel fortunate to have learned the 'behind the scenes' of consumer product development and merchandising strategies.


Coming from this background and mindset; I've forever approached consumer branding with a skeptical lens.


I very much understand branding and marketing from a business standpoint, and the psychology that goes into it... and have utmost respect for premium brands that have been carefully crafted over many years such as LL Bean, Patagonia, Benjamin Moore Paints, Pottery Barn, and West Elm. These companies certainly have quality standards, and when you're purchasing from them you're getting a certain level of peace-of-mind that they've put their stamp of approval on the products they're selling.


However, keep in mind that just because these popular brands offer quality products, it doesn't mean that no-name or store brands don't offer the same level of quality... or in some cases, better.





I love the example above. This sideboard is solid wood and really beautiful... however it's about half the price from Birch Lane compared to Pottery Barn.





Here's another great example; this nightstand is $100 less from Amazon than it is from Birch Lane. Having purchased this nightstand myself; I can say that although it's "solid wood" it's thin soft pine, not hardwood, and makes much more sense at a $160 price point than a $250 price point.



When it comes to paint, there are even more polarizing opinions.




Sherwin Williams, Benjamin Moore and Farrow & Ball have reputations of being very high-quality paints; so naturally they're the go-to choice by pretty much all interior designers and higher-end painters. I've always used Behr paint (Home Depot's store brand) and had a great experience with it. The premium 'Marquee' line of Behr paint is an extra thick formula that goes on in 1 coat and is way less drippy, which I usually prefer for wall painting... and it's about half the price of a comparable BM or SW paint. But only in recent years of working in the interior designer role have I started to wonder how to navigate these perceived brand values with my clients.


One thing to keep in mind with smaller hardware/paint stores (like ACE and Aubuchon) is that they're not big enough to have an incentive to create their own brand line of paints, so they only carry one (or more) of the national name brands. And they're incentivized further to align themselves with one partner in particular -- that's the way strategic partnerships work in the business world. National brands sign contracts with retailers, pay for the store shelf space, fund the in-store product displays, and put incentive programs in place involving rebates for the retailers to hit certain sales volumes.


The big box retailers like Home Depot and Lowes have the volume and reach to invest in their own in-house brands, the same way Staples was doing with office products. By offering their own brand of paints at half the price compared to the premium brands loved by the industry, they're earning a higher profit margin AND the consumer is saving a bunch. Win-win. But how does the quality compare?


According to Consumer Reports, Home Depot's Behr Marquee paint is the best interior paint on the mass market; it receives an 89/100 score on CR's rating system. Home Depot and Lowes store brand paints actually make up the top 4 on the list -- all coming in under $46/gallon. Benjamin Moore's Aura line of paint ranks #5 and is listed at $72/gallon.


If you google search "best paint brands" you'll get a ton of blog posts from big publishers like The Spruce, Real Simple, and Good Housekeeping that all say something slightly different, though definitely favor Ben Moore and Sherwin Williams... but don't forget, these are all companies working together to sell magazines, advertising, and products... so try to see past all the marketing going on.


My personal go-to choice is Behr Marquee for wall paints, and Behr Premium Plus ceiling paint (it's a true flat white, while the Marquee ceiling paint has an sheen to it that I don't like for ceilings). No, I'm not being paid by Home Depot, and no I'm not so loyal that I won't buy another paint brand if the project calls for it -- so if you have a BM color in-mind that you're obsessed with, I'm not opposed to it. But if we can find an awesome color from the Behr assortment, let's go for it!


My approach is similar to shopping for all building materials, furnishings, and décor; I rely heavily on product specs and customer ratings, rather than brand/retailer names, to get the best products for the project at the best prices. This doesn't always mean going straight to Amazon; there are good reasons to buy from Wayfair, Target, Crate & Barrel, a local furniture store, or even Facebook Marketplace or a thrift store -- depending on the project timeline, budget, intended uses, and long-term goals!


When clients hire me for interior design and decorating projects -- what you'll always get is a no-nonsense approach to choosing furnishings and materials that look amazing and have the quality and specs that match your project needs, without over-spending.

By: Hilary Lane, owner of WildeWoods Design

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