Trader Joe’s logo (web)

Introduction

The Trader Joe’s grocery store brand is a quintessential example of successful branding. What is remarkable is that it has garnered a cult-like following without relying on mass media advertising or jumping on the social media bandwagon that so many companies have joined in order to stay relevant in our mediatized society (Silverstein). Its popularity can be attributed not only to the concurrent producer and consumer generated meanings that circulate around it, but also to two ideas it embodies (which are a part of its meanings): authenticity and cheapness.

A familiar critique of the contemporary U.S. consumer culture is that the authentic, everyday culture has transformed into a brand culture where the aloofness of profit-driven consumerism has replaced “‘authentic’ humanity” – the self, experiences, genuine values, and relationships – with branded authenticity (Banet-Weiser 3, 5, 10). Specifically in the realm of food shopping, grocery stores that brand themselves as authentic do so by offering alternative (to mass market) products which includes original, fresh, local, organic, ‘pure’, healthy, and ethnic items (Zukin 725, 738). Within this context of a brand culture, Trader Joe’s weaves authenticity into the fabric of its existence through its branding which involves: establishing an authentic space of consumption, building real, genuine relationships with its customers, and offering alternative products.

Another significant value that defines Trader Joe’s is cheapness. As society is becoming cheap, consumers are demanding lower prices and value, and cheap is replaced with positive meanings like affordability, quality, and simplicity (Bosshart 2, 31). This “Age of Cheap” has heralded a consumer democracy in which consumer goods can be accessed by all consumers from different social classes (5). The Trader Joe’s brand’s success can be attributed to its “cheap chic” ethos, which involves the adoption of the three key qualities of a consumer democracy: accessibility, or making the products easily accessible; affordability, or offering the products at affordable prices; and amenity, or delivering products that are interesting, tasteful, and good quality (7). The Trader Joe’s brand exemplifies a consumer democracy in its offering of quality alternate (specialty) and everyday products at affordable prices that all consumers can access. The immense popularity of Trader Joe’s warrants a critical examination of its branding and brand culture in relation to a consumer culture discourse. In this paper, I will analyze these aspects of the Trader Joe’s brand, which includes a look at the meanings attached to it by the producers and consumers, and argue that its values and meanings, especially authenticity and cheapness, give it a wide, non-exclusionary appeal that attracts all types of consumers.

Research Context

In our consumer culture, brands inundate the material environment (web)

In the U.S. consumer culture that we live in, brands inundate the material environment and through this immersion, they seamlessly integrate into our being (Banet-Weiser, 3). Brands, which are created through the convergence of products, marketing, and consumers, undergo branding which is not just an economic tool but also a technique of attaching meanings to products to make them more valuable (4). Thus, brands exist not only in their object and material forms (i.e. the actual physical products), but also through their metaphysical meanings – the feelings, affects, personalities, and values that are created by the producers and consumers (7). Successful branding, realized through the alignment of producers’ and consumers’ meanings around brands, gives rise to brand cultures in which brands “. . . become cultural contexts for everyday living, individual identity, and affective relationships” (4). Essentially, branding is inextricably tied to and takes part in the creation of culture, both which are actively constructed through meanings (9).

One thing that unifies humanity is our indispensable need to consume food (even the most minimal amount) for sustenance, which makes grocery shopping a typical activity that a majority of consumers partake in (Miller 69). These ideas, coupled with an interest in brands/branding, prompted me to focus my research on the well known Trader Joe’s specialty grocery store brand. My connection to this brand is that I have grown up with it in my household and have been a loyal customer at the Trader Joe’s in Union Square for the past three years while living in New York City (where I buy most of my groceries). In this paper, I draw not only from published sources but also from observations and evidence I gathered on multiple visits to the Union Square Trader Joe’s (which includes photographs of the consumer space), as well as my experiences shopping at Trader Joe’s stores.

To provide a brief history of the brand, Trader Joe’s is a privately held chain of specialty grocery stores that currently has over 365 locations around the U.S. (February). In 1958, founder Joe Coulombe opened a chain of convenience stores in Los Angeles called Pronto Market (Gardetta). But shortly after, when its funder was acquired by competitor 7-Eleven, Coulombe decided to go a different route (“Joe’s Joe”). After reading an article in Scientific American, “. . . he learned that a new class of overeducated, underpaid adults was being produced by the burgeoning college system” (Gardetta). With the intuition that this emerging, educated, sophisticated, and worldly but economically constrained consumer base had an interest in unique and specialty foods, Coulombe opened the first Trader Joe’s (named after Coulombe himself) in Pasadena, California in 1967 (“Company History”). The Pronto chain was converted into Trader Joe’s stores soon thereafter, and the brand has branched out across the nation from its southern California base since (“Company History”; Mallinger and Rossy). In 1979, Trader Joe’s was bought by Theo Albrecht, a highly successful German entrepreneur, who owns Aldi Nord, a European discount supermarket chain (“American Way”).

Vintage Trader Joe’s photos (web)

I find Trader Joe’s to be an interesting brand for several reasons. The first is because of its huge popularity. From my experiences shopping at Trader Joe’s stores in Los Angeles and New York City, I have observed that it attracts many different types of consumers. As a specialty grocery store that also sells everyday items, it seems to have something for everyone. Also, it seems for the most part that Trader Joe’s shoppers only have good things to say about the brand and its products. The various unofficial Trader Joe’s brand communities that exist via print, online, and social media platforms are a testament to the favorability of the brand. And impressively, Trader Joe’s has gained this wide following without participating in mass media advertising or social media (Silverstein). The second thing I find interesting is how it operates in order to uphold its mission of offering specialty and basic items at everyday low prices (“Our Story”). Unlike many stores, Trader Joe’s does not hold promotions and discounts or use coupons and membership cards (February). In order to give its customers the best values, it almost always bargains with and buys large quantities directly from its suppliers, discontinues unpopular items, does not charge its suppliers for shelving (thus, no fee which trickles down to the customers), and repackages most of its products under the Trader Joe’s private label (January; “Our Story”). Thirdly, Trader Joe’s is unique in that it is a nautical/tiki themed grocery store. There are no other grocery stores I can think of that play on a nationally consistent, quirky, storewide theme. Lastly, unlike typical grocery store brands, Trader Joe’s expresses itself as a fun, neighborhood and community oriented grocery store and values warm and friendly customer service (which I have experienced) (Mallinger and Rossy).

Trader Joe’s Addressing Consumers 

In this section, I analyze how Trader Joe’s addresses its consumers. First, I determine how the brand tries to reach potential consumers. Then I frame its ideal consumer using the consumer culture concepts of social class, habitus, taste, cultural repertoire, and lifestyle. This leads to an examination of the representational and media strategies it uses to reach its consumers. These strategies reflect the Trader Joe’s brand’s values as well as the images of authenticity and cheapness it attempts to project.

How Trader Joe’s attempts to reach potential consumers

Trader Joe’s is a unique brand in that it does not enlist help from ad agencies or PR firms for its branding (Gardiner). It does not heavily advertise in the conventional ways that most brands do, through T.V. and print advertisements and social media (Hagen; “Most Social”). Although it has a small voice through the radio and direct mails its Fearless Flyer product newsletters in certain areas, its investment in mass media is a very minor one compared to other brand’s efforts (O’Daniel). Instead, the Trader Joe’s brand’s “. . . primary promotional platform is word-of-mouth brand advocacy” (Aaronson). It heavily relies on its customers to induce potential customers into becoming Trader Joe’s customers. Thus, its success can be attributed to its high word of mouth capital (Cowie). It cultivates this asset by offering great products at great prices alongside excellent customer service, thereby converting consumers into loyal customers, fans, and even fanatics who will be inclined to share their experience with others (Cowie).

Defining social class, habitus, taste, cultural repertoire, lifestyle

Trader Joe’s offers a variety of specialty and everyday products that appeal to consumers across different social classes with various habitus, lifestyles, and tastes. Class position or social class is defined by sociologist Max Weber as “. . . groupings based not only on economic position, but also on noneconomic criteria such as morals, culture, and lifestyle . . .” – how people live and what they consume (Holt 2). Social class is linked to habitus, which sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defines as our dispositions or natural inclinations; it is the set of tastes, knowledges, and habits we possess (Lury 91-92). Even though our tastes are our own preferences and partialities, they are socially (not individually) patterned and reproduce social class (Lury 90). Habitus structures and influences our actions and consumption practices and though it seems to come from within us, it is in fact shaped during childhood by external factors such as the family and education (Holt 4; Lury 91). Although Bourdieu would argue that habitus operates unconsciously, a more updated line of thought suggests that it is consciously shaped through consumption (Featherstone 55; Lury 92). Another term for habitus is cultural repertoire, which is defined as a set of knowledges, values, habits, tastes, routines, and traditions that continuously influences our decisions and actions (Johnston, Szabo, and Rodney 298). The habitus, or cultural repertoire, is like an acquired life compass that contributes to the formation of a lifestyle, which is “. . . a distinctive set of consumption patterns. . . ” or choices we make to establish cultural identity (Featherstone 59; Holt 4)

The ideal consumer Trader Joe’s would like to reach

Trader Joe’s has a target consumer which is evidenced by the three factors it takes into account when choosing store locations: population density, distribution efficiencies, and consumer education level (Mallinger and Rossy). Focusing on the last factor, market research has shown that higher educated consumers travel more and have a taste for unique foods, and Trader Joe’s, being a specialty grocery store, tries to reach these consumers (Mallinger and Rossy).  From the beginning, founder Joe Coulombe decided that Trader Joe’s stores should be located in educated areas and opened the first Trader Joe’s in 1967 in Pasadena, California “. . . because Pasadena is the epitome of a well-educated town” (“Company History”; qtd. in “Joe’s Joe”). He further expressed, “Trader Joe’s is for overeducated and underpaid people, for all the classical musicians, museum curators, [and] journalists . . .” (qtd. in “Joe’s Joe”). Coulombe believed this “yuppie” group, whose “. . . influence [was] disproportionate to its salaries . . .” was a good target because the members like to exchange their discoveries socially (Morton). A Trader Joe’s manager echoes the same sentiment: “Our favorite customers are out-of-work college professors . . . Well-read, well-traveled, [and] appreciates a good value” (qtd. in Mcnamara). Put another way, the ideal Trader Joe’s customer is an HCC consumer who is educated, worldly and has a sophisticated taste but does not have a substantial amount of wealth. This consumer regularly shops for groceries and likes buying specialty items (which includes unique, hard to find, imported, local, organic, non-GMO, seasonal, health, gourmet, fair trade, and ethnic items) at a value price.

Bourdieu posits that consumers draw from three resources to reproduce social class: “. . . economic capital (financial resources) . . . social capital (relationships, organizational affiliations, networks), [and] cultural capital [which is] a set of socially rare and distinctive tastes, skills, knowledge, and practices” (Holt 3). Departing from cultural capital, Holt divides consumers into HCC consumers (consumers with high cultural capital resources) and LCC consumers (consumers with low cultural capital resources). HCC consumers are materially frugal and spend carefully, have racially inclusive tastes, enjoy experiencing ethnic, eclectic (i.e. interesting), exotic, and artisan foods, and favor casual atmospheres, which describes the ideal Trader Joe’s consumer (11,13). They practice combinatorial inventiveness, which is the practice of consuming goods by mixing and matching them in eclectic and unique ways (16). On the other hand, LCC consumers do not consume eclectically but rather conform to “. . . mass culture or normative local tastes” (16). Both HCC and LCC consumers place an importance on value (i.e. getting goods at reasonable prices), but LCC consumers do so because they come from a materially constrained background (8,10). HCC consumers, whose baseline needs have already been met, like to experience the world through a creative and abstract lens (11). A sign in the Union Square Trader Joe’s with the words “You don’t have to be a five star chef to eat like one!” (see Figure 1 below) further defines the Trader Joe’s customer as an HCC consumer who likes to experience unique and novel flavors.

Figure 1 – The ideal Trader Joe’s customer is an HCC consumer who likes to experience novel flavors (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe’s – photo taken by author)

Building authenticity and cheapness through the representational strategies and media formats used to reach consumers

Trader Joe’s implements many representational strategies in-store to reflect its values (producer created meanings) and establish a brand culture of authenticity and cheapness. Its utilization of media formats (which are limited, since it does not make use of traditional mass media and social media) accomplishes the same ends. 

One of the Trader Joe’s brand’s values is being a fun grocery store. Grocery stores are traditionally not themed, but the brand’s departure from this convention and its adoption of a nationally consistent, storewide tiki/nautical theme that is fun, original, and one-of-a-kind gives authenticity to the Trader Joe’s consumption space and brand. This theme pervades company jargon and employee attire. For example, the managers are referred to as “captains” and the “captain’s bell” (see Figure 2 below) is rung by cashiers to make announcements or call other employees’ attentions to fulfill customer requests. Also, the managers wear Hawaiian shirts and regular employees wear company clothing stamped with a Hawaiian flower and the Trader Joe’s logo, and fake flower leis are not uncommon accents. The seemingly lax employee dress code allows employees to bring in their quirky personalities and add more fun, life, and positivity to the Trader Joe’s consumption space. For example, employees are always dressed comfortably in jeans, sneakers, and company T-shirts and sweaters, they do not have to cover up tattoos, and they can express their quirky styles through piercings, unconventionally dyed hair, and funky jewelry. By not having to adhere to a strict, corporatized cookie-cutter employee image, the Trader Joe’s employees inject a part of their individual, real-life, genuine selves into the Trader Joe’s consumption space, and this adds to the brand’s authenticity.

Figure 2 – The “captain’s bell” (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe’s – photo taken by author)

The value of fun is also manifested through playful and colorful signs (which are also a media format) and store decor. All of the products in Trader Joe’s are accompanied by vibrant, “handwritten-like” price signs (see Figure 3 below). Trader Joe’s also displays hand illustrated chalkboards throughout its stores, which showcase a product and its value (see Figure 4 below). The seasonal decor, like the colored tinsel adorning the cash registers for different seasons, also exudes festiveness and fun. In the Union Square Trader Joe’s, various signs play on words (e.g. “lettuce” for “let us”) and New York City landmarks and articles. For example, the food sample corner follows a train station theme and is named Grand Sample Station for Grand Central Station on East 42nd Street. The sample corner is even equipped with a chalkboard time board that announces when samples “arrive” (are given out). Also, the store’s bread section signs nod to Broadway theater marquees and tickets while its bottled water section signs mimic city traffic and street signs (see Figure 5 below). These artifacts have a human touch to them and radiate the effort, care, and labor that was put into presenting them. They add a sense of liveliness, joy, and whimsicality to the Trader Joe’s consumption space and hint that Trader Joe’s is a brand that likes to have fun and does not take itself too seriously. By differentiating itself from typical grocery stores and supermarkets which are often stoic, austere, spartan, and utilitarian in nature, Trader Joe’s gives authenticity to its consumption space and brand. Additionally, the Union Square Trader Joe’s has chalkboard signs that inform customers when it and the original Trader Joe’s store were established.  This historical narration and rooting of the brand suggests to customers that Trader Joe’s prides itself on its legitimate heritage. This tactic conveys that Trader Joe’s has an established reputation, and is not an flash in the pan brand without substance, which adds to its authenticity.

Figure 3 - “Handwritten-like” price signs (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe's - photo taken by author)

Figure 3 – “Handwritten-like” price signs (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe’s – photo taken by author)

Figure 4 - Hand illustrated chalkboards are displayed throughout the store (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe's - photo taken by author)

Figure 4 – Hand illustrated chalkboards are displayed throughout the store (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe’s – photo taken by author)

Figure 5 - The signs in the bottled water section mimic city traffic and street signs (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe's - photo taken by author)

Figure 5 – The signs in the bottled water section mimic city traffic and street signs (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe’s – photo taken by author)

Trader Joe’s also expands its fun outlook by doling out seasonal items and creating new, holiday themed brown shopping bags every November-December. These representational strategies likely conjure up feelings of warmth and memories in both HCC and LCC consumers, and the customer affect that they elicit contributes to the authenticity of the Trader Joe’s consumption space and brand. The Union Square Trader Joe’s also devotes a shelf for new items which arrive daily, and this continuous delivery of novel goods makes Trader Joe’s fresh and spontaneous, which bolsters its authenticity. The fun value is even extended into the naming of many of the brand’s private label products, which are quirky (and often ethnic) spin-offs of the Trader Joe’s moniker (e.g. “. . . Trader Jose’s (Mexican food) (see Figure 6 below), Trader Ming’s (Asian food), Baker Josef’s (bagels), Trader Giotto’s (Italian food), Trader Joe-San (Japanese food), Arabian Joe’s (Middle Eastern food), Pilgrim Joe’s (Seafood), JosephBrau (beer), Trader Johann’s (lip balm), Trader Jacques’ (imported French soaps), Joe’s Diner (certain frozen entrées), Joe’s Kids (children’s food), and Trader Darwin’s (vitamins)”) (January). This special naming stamps an ethnic or cultural legitimacy onto the products, making it seem as if they were specially sourced or carefully selected from abroad. In effect, these labels connote the delivery of an authentic, quality, experience. For example, customers may believe that any of the Trader Giotto’s products will taste like their real, Italian counterparts. If the Trader Joe’s private label tags the brand’s products as “uniquely Trader Joe’s”,  the culturally and ethnically specific labels add even more authenticity to the products.

Figure 6 - Trader Joe's uses the Trader Jose's label for its Mexican food items (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe's - photo taken by author)

Figure 6 – Trader Joe’s uses the Trader Jose’s label for its Mexican food items (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe’s – photo taken by author)

Another value of Trader Joe’s is being a neighborhood and community oriented grocery store. Its hand painted murals (also a media format) unique to each neighborhood seamlessly integrate the brand with the surrounding neighborhood. For example, in the La Cañada, CA Trader Joe’s, the murals depict various La Cañada landmarks such as the Rose Bowl stadium, horse trails, and local high school; in the Union Square Trader Joe’s, the murals depict New Yorkers and Trader Joe’s employees walking around in the neighborhood, New York City buildings including the Empire State building, street performers, Union Square Park, and Trader Joe’s employees in Union Square Park (see Figures 7, 8 below). By literally depicting the community in the store, the brand communicates to customers its oneness with and belonging in the neighborhood. In a looping pattern, the customers (who are usually from the community) identify with the familiar references and connect with the brand, strengthening the authenticity of the Trader Joe’s consumption space and brand. This value is further extended through a page on the store website (another media format) describing its commitment to feeding the hungry and donating to the community. The Trader Joe’s brand’s charitable outreach in its immediate communities and its openness to donation and neighborhood involvement requests show that it cares about others and not just its own success, which adds to its authenticity.

Figure 7 - A mural depicting New York City buildings, including the Empire State building (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe's - photo taken by author)

Figure 7 – A mural depicting New York City buildings, including the Empire State building (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe’s – photo taken by author)

Figure 8 - A mural depicting Union Square Park (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe's - photo taken by author)

Figure 8 – A mural depicting Union Square Park (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe’s – photo taken by author)

A third value of Trader Joe’s is offering friendly and helpful customer service and making customers feel welcomed. This is evident in the upbeat manner of the employees who are unpretentious and always willing to help customers. For example, employees directly lead customers to or bring them items they are looking for or other available options they have. And when customers are looking for an item that is not on the shelf, employees often take an extra step and check in the back. At the Union Square Trader Joe’s where the lines are usually long, the employees come around and ask waiting customers if they need anything else. The Trader Joe’s employees also do not hesitate to strike up conversations with customers (especially at the check-out registers). For example, I have conversed with employees at check-out on multiple occasions and they always seemed to honestly care about the conversation which was often on how my day was going. Sometimes the conversations continued even after I was finished checking-out regardless of there being long lines behind. It is evident that the Trader Joe’s brand encourages employees to genuinely care about its customers and the real, down-to-earth employee-customer relationships that are established (whether briefly in the moment or long-term) give authenticity to the Trader Joe’s consumption space and brand. The brand’s value of offering friendly and helpful customer service and making customers feel welcomed is also revealed through its no hassle return policy (in the Union Square Trader Joe’s, this is boldly proclaimed high on a wall in the checkout area as well as throughout the store – see Figure 9 below) and its food sample corner where customers can try out new foods, grab mini cups of coffee, and make their wait in line a little less boring (see Figure 10 below). Trader Joe’s cares about giving its customers a great shopping experience and this sincerity adds to its authenticity. Also, the Union Square Trader Joe’s has a mural of the employees with the words “We’ll see you soon!” that bids farewell to exiting customers. This encourages them to view Trader Joe’s as a neighbor and feel like they belong in the consumption space, and this furthers the brand’s authenticity.

Figure 9 - Trader Joe's boldly proclaims its no hassle return policy (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe's - photo taken by author)

Figure 9 – Trader Joe’s boldly proclaims its no hassle return policy (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe’s – photo taken by author)

Figure 10 - The Grand Sample Station food sample corner - photo taken by author)

Figure 10 – The Grand Sample Station food sample corner – photo taken by author)

Lastly, it is Trader Joe’s mission to offer its customers quality specialty and basic items at everyday, low prices  (“Our Story”). Many of the Trader Joe’s brand’s product signs note the product’s quality (e.g. freshness, use of natural ingredients, artisanal characteristics) and value (see Figure 11 below) and its hand illustrated chalkboards exclaim the store’s emphasis on value or a particular product’s value. The Union Square Trader Joe’s has a price scanner with a sign that reads “Prepare to be astounded at how low [the price] is!” (see Figure 36) and encourages customers to bring their own grocery bags to enter the “bring your own bag” raffle system for a chance to win a $25 store gift card (see Figure 1). According to a Trader Joe’s employee, ten winners are chosen every three weeks (Amankwaah). The Trader Joe’s brand’s “no-nonsense” approach to offering quality products at consistent and low prices without the frills of spontaneous pricing (having simple pricing) makes it a “cheap chic” brand. Customers can trust Trader Joe’s for having good deals all the time and feel good about the value they get, and this customer trust adds to the brand’s authenticity.

Figure 11 - Many of the Trader Joe’s brand’s product signs note the product’s value (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe's - photo taken by author)

Figure 11 – Many of the Trader Joe’s brand’s product signs note the product’s value (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe’s – photo taken by author)

There are several other media formats that Trader Joe’s uses. One is the local radio in certain areas. These announcements involve “. . . ‘ real Trader Joe’s crew members telling real stories about Trader Joe’s products’ with honestly [sic] and authenticity” (Heiligman). These stories, held up by truth and genuine affect, diminish the ultimate profit-driven goals of Trader Joe’s, and instead add to its authenticity. Another media format is the Fearless Flyer product newsletters, which come in print form (see Figure 12) (Amankwaah). These quarterly newsletters are available in-store and also direct mailed. Inside, one can find product descriptions for new, seasonal, and regular items and Trader Joe’s recipes alongside Victorian style illustrations. These “vintage-style” newsletters likely appeal to HCC consumers, who have connoisseurship, or detailed information on certain categories of their consumption. For example, an HCC consumer who is a Trader Joe’s connoisseur would not just consume Trader Joe’s products eclectically, but want to know their story, which the Fearless Flyer newsletters provide. The narrative product “back stories” found within these old fashioned newsletters give the Trader Joe’s products individual character (Zukin 736). The distinguishable quality of the Trader Joe’s brand’s “one-of-a-kind” products stand in contrast to the hackneyed and banal mass market food products, furthering the brand’s authenticity. Trader Joe’s does not blatantly sell itself because it passes on large scale advertising and instead opts for locally disseminated radio messages and newsletters. Thus, it comes across as an intimate store, somewhat like a trusted “mom and pop” business, and this gives it authenticity.

Figure 12 - A Trader Joe's Fearless Flyer newsletter (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe's - photo taken by author)

Figure 12 – A Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer newsletter (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe’s – photo taken by author)

Through its representative strategies and media formats, Trader Joe’s communicates its values (producer created meanings) to consumers which are: being a fun, neighborhood and community oriented grocery store, giving its customers quality specialty and everyday products at consistently low prices, offering friendly and helpful customer service, and making customers feel welcomed. Put another way, its branding informs consumers within the Trader Joe’s authentic space of consumption that the brand offers alternative (specialty) and basic products that are good quality, tasteful, and accessible through their affordability, and that it cares about establishing genuine relationships with its consumers and the community. Thus, it establishes a brand culture of authenticity and “cheap chic”.

The Trader Joe’s Brand Community

In this section, I examine various aspects of the Trader Joe’s brand community. I explicate what kinds of consumers form attachments to the Trader Joe’s brand, the meanings they ascribe to it, and how they engage with the brand. In addition, I analyze how the Trader Joe’s brand serves as a basis for communication and community among consumers and how that creates authenticity and cheapness around the brand.

An all-inclusive brand: the consumers who form attachments to Trader Joe’s and the meanings that are created, which include cheapness and authenticity

As a brand that delivers to the fundamental, human biological need for food in its most basic essence, Trader Joe’s would like to reach any consumer. Though its ideal customer is an HCC consumer, Trader Joe’s does not leave out the LCC consumer. It includes all consumers by offering a wide selection of specialty items for HCC consumers, and an array of everyday and typical items that appeal to both HCC and LCC consumers. For example, specialty products such as its Purple Wild Rice, Dried Kimchi, Coconut Cashews, Kale Chips, Stroopwafel Caramel Bites, Chia Seeds, and Jojoba Oil have a higher appeal to HCC consumers while more everyday, mass culture, and typical American products such as its Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, Ground Black Pepper, Whole Milk, bananas, pretzels, and Bath Tissue (tissue paper) are purchased by both HCC and LCC consumers. The Trader Joe’s brand’s products include not only food items, but also household, beauty, pet, and health supplement products, which appeal to customers with habitus, tastes, and lifestyles relevant to those products. For example, HCC dog owners who have a taste for organic products may buy the Organic Chicken and Brown Rice Recipe Sticks for their loyal companions. Put simply, the consumers who form attachments to the Trader Joe’s brand are LCC and HCC consumers from different social classes (e.g. age, race, academic capital, economic capital, etc.) with various lifestyles (e.g. diet, physical activity level, occupation, family/living situation, etc.) and habitus/cultural repertoires and tastes (e.g. cooking from scratch or with frozen foods; consuming typical, American foods or eclectically; etc.).

The meanings that these consumers attach to the brand indicate the type of consumer they are and why they shop at Trader Joe’s. Both LCC and HCC consumers attach the same meanings to the Trader Joe’s brand such as: value, cheap, affordable, reasonable prices, organic, natural, quality, fresh, good food, variety, healthy, nutritious, fun, friendly, and convenient. However, unlike LCC consumers who like Trader Joe’s first and foremost for its value, HCC consumers place equal importance on Trader Joe’s for its value and its essence as a specialty grocery store that offers alternate products (specialty/eclectic foods). The image that Trader Joe’s attempts to project (through its values/producer created meanings) is a fun, welcoming, neighborhood and community oriented grocery store that delivers quality specialty and basic products at everyday, low prices with friendly and helpful customer service. And the meanings that both HCC and LCC consumers attach to Trader Joe’s align with the authentic and “cheap chic” image that it cultivates. But the attached meanings and brand image align more truly for HCC consumers since they are looking for specialty items, unlike LCC consumers. And as customers interact with the Trader Joe’s brand through their consumption, these meanings are reproduced in a cyclical manner.

How customers engage with the Trader Joe’s brand

It is in the arenas of what is bought and what is cooked (how the customers engage with the Trader Joe’s brand) where the mark between HCC and LCC consumers becomes clear. Value aside, since both types of consumers find value at Trader Joe’s, LCC consumers buy familiar, typical, and “safe” (American) food items. They do not do not like trying unique foods (i.e. non-American foods) and therefore do not (or rarely) consume any specialty items or use their food purchases in an eclectic way, by combining them with other groceries to cook unconventional, ethnic, or “new” recipes, in a secondary production. Here, secondary production is defined as something that is produced in the act of consumption (which can be physical or abstract) (de Certeau xiii). For example, LCC consumers may put their Trader Joe’s purchases through a secondary consumption by making typical American meals. In contrast, HCC consumers are omnivorous and buy a mix of familiar, typical, and “safe” (American) food items and specialty items. Having an omnivorous taste means having an eclectic collection of tastes drawn from all social classes (Peterson and Kern 901). Opposite from LCC consumers, the omnivorous HCC consumers like trying unique foods and buy the Trader Joe’s brand’s specialty items or consume their food purchases in an eclectic way. Thus, HCC consumers are also mestizo consumers because they have an eclectic collection of tastes and consume from different cultural categories (Canclini 93). HCC consumers put their purchases through a combinatorially inventive secondary production, which involves appropriating Trader Joe’s products to produce their own original, unique, fusion, and/or ethnic dishes. For example, an HCC consumer may appropriate, in a combinatorially inventive secondary consumption, the Trader Joe’s brand’s fresh produce, meats, rice varieties, and sauces by combining them with items from Indian markets to cook different American-Indian fusion dishes. Here, appropriation refers to the practice of adopting products to fit one’s interests through one’s own rules (versus assimilation which is the practice of adapting to the existing meanings of the products and using them in their “intended” ways) (de Certeau xiv). In sum, the ideal Trader Joe’s customer is an HCC consumer who belongs to any social class that has an omnivorous and mesticized taste for quality specialty and typical products at a value price. Regularly shopping for groceries is a part of his lifestyle, which leads him to Trader Joe’s where he shops for any combination of its specialty and everyday items. And his habitus, or cultural repertoire, makes him consume his purchases in an eclectic way. In a more general sense, the common ways in which HCC and LCC consumers engage with the Trader Joe’s brand are through shopping and purchasing items at the store (a primary and direct consumption) and then using the items in a secondary consumption. Through a secondary consumption, both types of consumers reproduce (largely unconsciously) the Trader Joe’s brand’s meanings of authenticity and cheapness for themselves, which attaches them to the brand and makes them frequent customers.

Authenticity and cheapness created through the Trader Joe’s brand’s own brand community and unofficial Trader Joe’s brand communities

Trader Joe’s has garnered a cult-like following all due to its loyal customer base and the word of mouth buzz it generates (Scott). By offering great products, value, and excellent customer service – by simply “. . . just [being] an incredible brand” – Trader Joe’s maintains its high word of mouth capital. This in turn ties Trader Joe’s consumers across the nation, who share a love for Trader Joe’s and its products, into a Trader Joe’s imagined community (Scott). Imagined communities, a term coined by Benedict Anderson, are large communities (e.g. nations) where their vast size makes it impossible to know everyone, yet, members within these groups, whether they are strangers, acquaintances, friends, or related, feel connected (Muniz and O’Guinn 419). And brand communities, which are most often imagined communities, are “. . . specialized, non-geographically bound [communities], based on a structured set of social relations among admirers of a brand” (412). They are communities where people convene through their common consumption of a brand. By spreading how great the Trader Joe’s brand’s products, prices, and customer service are with other consumers inside and outside the store (which several surveyed customers practiced), the customers participate in and strengthen the Trader Joe’s brand community while spreading its values, namely authenticity and cheapness.

Trader Joe’s directly contributes to the building of its brand community by maintaining a friendly and welcoming space of consumption through its neighborhood murals and friendly employees. It also accomplishes this through its philanthropy in the neighborhood. On its website it affirms:

We don’t call ourselves ‘Your Neighborhood Store’ just because it sounds catchy. We are committed to being good neighbors, and to us that means taking part in and giving back to our local communities . . . we handle all requests for donations and involvement in community events in our stores. Whether it’s a silent auction to benefit a local elementary school or a health fair sponsored by a community hospital, your neighborhood Trader Joe’s is the place to go (“Neighborhood”).

By being open to consumers, considering all their donation and neighborhood involvement requests, and coming across as a caring and reliable supporter, Trader Joe’s simultaneously strengthens its authenticity and brand community.

Trader Joe’s also indirectly serves as a basis for communication and community among consumers. Although its only official online presence is its website, there are many unofficial, online Trader Joe’s imagined brand communities that exist. And “100% of [its] presence on social media channels is initiated and maintained by fans of the brand”, which compensates for its lack of direct social media involvement (Spector). These unofficial online and social media brand communities are fan created, and a Google search found them to exist in the form of and within: websites (e.g. traderjoesfan.com which offers product reviews and recipes); blogs (e.g. eatingatjoes.com which gives product reviews); Facebook pages (a search yields over 1,000 pages with the largest page having over 80,000 Likes) for Trader Joe’s in general, specific Trader Joe’s products, and calls for bringing the store to certain locations; Twitter handles (e.g. @WhatsGoodatTJs which reviews Trader Joe’s food items); Pinterest pins of products; Youtube videos (which include store hauls and product reviews); Foursquare pages (e.g. for the Union Square, NYC Trader Joe’s); and Yelp reviews (e.g. for the La Cañada, CA Trader Joe’s). In addition, many unofficial Trader Joe’s cookbooks exist in print (e.g. Cooking With All Things Trader Joe’s Cookbook), which are accompanied by online reviews (such as those on amazon.com). Through their involvement in these online and print platforms, Trader Joe’s consumers can share their enthusiasm for the Trader Joe’s brand and its products, learn information (such as finding out about new products and recipes), make recommendations, voice opinions, and ask questions. Through the Trader Joe’s own brand community and the consumer created brand communities, Trader Joe’s consumers and employees are brought together into a conversation. Because interaction takes place with real people and emotions, feelings, and opinions are exchanged, the meanings surrounding Trader Joe’s, especially authenticity and cheapness, are further established.

Conclusion

The Trader Joe’s brand’s success can be attributed to its high, customer word of mouth capital. As a grocery store that offers alternate (specialty) products, its ideal customer is an HCC consumer who is educated, sophisticated, and worldly, but economically constrained. However, it appeals to both HCC and LCC consumers across different social classes with various habitus/cultural repertoires, lifestyles, and tastes. The HCC consumer has an omnivorous and eclectic taste, is a mestizo consumer, and appropriates Trader Joe’s specialty and everyday products in a combinatorially inventive way, unlike the LCC consumer, who has a “safe” taste and assimilates to the brand’s ordinary products in typical ways. Through its representative strategies and media formats, Trader Joe’s communicates its brand culture values (producer created meanings), namely authenticity and cheapness, to consumers. Both HCC and LCC consumers reproduce these meanings through a secondary consumption of the products. Though Trader Joe’s actively builds its brand community, it exists in larger part through the unofficial Trader Joe’s brand communities that are created and maintained by current and potential customers. The involvement of the consumers in these unofficial Trader Joe’s online and print community platforms creates an exchange of affect that further contributes to the brand’s authenticity and “cheap chic” image. Essentially, the Trader Joe’s brand’s successful branding involves an adherence to the values of a consumer democracy, establishment of an authentic space of consumption, possession of a strong, authentic brand community, and maintenance of coinciding producer and consumer meanings. Through a coalescence of these tactics, Trader Joe’s stands as an all-inclusive brand that attracts all types of consumers.

 

The authentic and "cheap chic" Trader is a space for all types of consumers (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe's - photo taken by author)

The authentic and “cheap chic” Trader is a space for all types of consumers (Union Square, NYC Trader Joe’s – photo taken by author)

~

 

_____________________________________________________________________________

Works Cited

Aaronson, Stan. “Re: A Study on Brand Loyalty: What We Can Learn From Trader Joe’s.” Web log comment. MarketingProfs Daily Fix Blog. MarketingProfs, 08 May 2012. Web. 09 Nov. 2013.

Amankwaah, Phillip. “Trader Joe’s Research.” E-mail interview. 08 Nov. 2013.

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. “Introduction: Branding the Authentic.” Introduction. Authentic : The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2012. 1-14. Print.

Bosshart, David. “The Age of Cheap: Why (Almost) Everything Is Getting Cheaper.” Cheap: The Real Cost of the Global Trend for Bargains, Discounts & Consumer Choice. London: Kogan Page Business Books, 2006. 1-38. Print.

Canclini, Néstor García. “Identities as a Multimedia Spectacle.” Consumers and Citizens: Globalization and Multicultural Conflicts. 1st ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2001. 89-96. Print.

Cowie, William. “Trader Joe’s Loss: Our Gain?” Staileycorp.com. Stailey Insurance Corporation, 11 Oct. 2013. Web. 09 Nov. 2013.

De Certeau, Michel. “General Introduction.” Introduction. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California, 1984. xi-xxiv. Print.

Featherstone, Mike. “Lifestyle and Consumer Culture.” Theory, Culture & Society 4.1 (1987): 55-70. Sage. Web. 23 Sept. 2013.

Gardetta, Dave. “Enchanted Aisles.” Lamag.com. Los Angeles Magazine, 1 Sept. 2011. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Gardiner, Mark. “Re: Trader Joe’s Marketing Secrets.” Web log comment. Social Media Marketing: Discussions. LinkedIn, 12 June 2012. Web. 09 Nov. 2013.

Gardiner, Mark. “Why the Most Social Brand in the World Isn’t Even ‘Social’.” Web log post. Blog. Brandwatch, 24 Jan. 2013. Web. 09 Nov. 2013.

Grocery Store Retailing – US – February 2013. Rep. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Mintel Oxygen. Web. 07 Dec. 2013. <ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2180/display/655002/>.

Grocery Store Retailing – US – January 2010. Rep. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Mintel Oxygen. Web. 07 Dec. 2013. <ezproxy.library.nyu.edu:2180/display/505086/>.

Hagen, Daniele. “A Study on Brand Loyalty: What We Can Learn From Trader Joe’s.” Web log post. MarketingProfs Daily Fix Blog. MarketingProfs, 08 May 2012. Web. 09 Nov. 2013.

Heiligman, Margot. “The Secret’s Out: Trader Joe’s Fans Take Business to the Next Level.” Web log post. Social Media Today: Social Customer. Social Media Today, 12 Sept. 2010. Web. 9 Nov. 2013.

Holt, Douglas B. “Does Cultural Capital Structure American Consumption?” The Journal of Consumer Research 25.1 (1998): 1-25. JSTOR. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.

“Joe’s Joe: Joe Coulombe.” Interview by Patt Morrison. Articles.latimes.com. Los Angeles Times, 07 May 2011. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. <http://articles.latimes.com/2011/may/07/opinion/la-oe-morrison-joe-coulombe-043011>

Johnston, Josee, Michelle Szabo, and Alexandra Rodney. “Good Food, Good People: Understanding the Cultural Repertoire of Ethical Eating.” Journal of Consumer Culture 11.3 (2011): 293-318. Sage. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

Lury, Celia. “Capital, Class and Consumer Culture.” Consumer Culture. 2nd ed. Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2011. 80-107. Print.

Mallinger, Mark, Ph.D., and Gerry Rossy, Ph.D. “The Trader Joe’s Experience.” Graziadio Business Review 10.2 (2007): n. pag. Web. 08 Dec. 2013.

Mcnamara, Mary. “In the Aisles of Trader Joe’s, a Culture All Its Own.” Articles.latimes.com. Los Angeles Times, 08 July 2003. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Miller, Daniel. “Why We Shop.” Consumption and Its Consequences. 1st ed. Cambridge: Polity, 2012. 64-89. Print.

Morton, Rosalie. “3 Marketing Tips from Trader Joe’s: A Brand Built on Booze.” Web log post. The Buzz Bin. PadillaCRT, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Muniz, Albert M., Jr., and Thomas C. O’Guinn. “Brand Community.” Journal of Consumer Research 27.4 (2001): 412-32. Print.

O’Daniel, Michael. “Re: A Study on Brand Loyalty: What We Can Learn From Trader Joe’s.” Web log comment. MarketingProfs Daily Fix Blog. MarketingProfs, 08 May 2012. Web. 09 Nov. 2013.

Peterson, Richard A., and Roger M. Kern. “Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore.” American Sociological Review 61.5 (1996): 900-07. Sage. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.

Scott, Arielle P. “How Trader Joe’s Uses Social Media by Doing Nothing.”  Sosemarketing.com. SOS EMarketing, 25 July 2010. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

Silverstein, Barry. “Trader Joe’s: Quirky Mart.” Brandchannel.com. Brand Channel, 19 Feb. 2007. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Spector, Nicole. “Giant Specialty Supermarket Chains Attract Similar Consumers on Different Marketing Levels.” Web log post. Direct Marketing News. Haymarket Media Inc., 01 July 2012. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

“The American Way of Aldi.” Dw.de. Deutsche Welle, 16 Jan. 2004. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

“Trader Joe’s Company History.” Fundinguniverse.com. Funding Universe, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

“Trader Joe’s Neighborhood Involvement.” Traderjoes.com. Trader Joe’s, n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2013.

“Trader Joe’s: Our Story.” Traderjoes.com. Trader Joe’s, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Zukin, Sharon. “Consuming Authenticity: From Outposts of Difference to Means of Exclusion.” Cultural Studies 22.5 (2008): 724-48. Taylor & Francis Online. Routledge, 15 Sept. 2008. Web. 06 Nov. 2013.

Advertisements