The shelves of Lidl and Aldi are filled with insidious imposters. At least that's how the big brands view things: fat little cuckoo chicks aggressively feasting on everyone's lunch.
The budget chains' own brands have gained notoriety by aping the ‘big names' – those global names familiar to every shopper. It's perfectly possible – like the hapless parent bird whose nest is invaded by the perfidious cuckoo – to realise only some hours after shopping that the cheese being contentedly munched around your dinner table is not in fact President but ‘l'Argent'. Sacre bleu!
As I recently spent hours listlessly browsing the aisles of my local Germanic minimart, it struck me that these imposters are not just cheeky or audacious - they're works of semiotic genius.
Perfectly judged imposture
Everything is cleverly calibrated to give the fleeting browser an instant impression of indistinction. The waters are muddied so that shoppers begin to lose grasp of what sets the ‘real' brands apart. The colour schemes, their ratios, the imagery used and the names - they all call to mind specific brand concepts, but stop just short of IP theft.
The mimicry is sharp and well judged. Sarson's Malt Vinegar becomes Samson Vinegar. Lurpak becomes Norpak. Cathedral City becomes Valley Spire. But is the visual mimesis helpful or deceitful? It could be argued that an own brand should look distinctive, and that if it feels too similar to recognisable brands the consumer's likelihood of making the wrong choice is higher. On the other hand having own brands looking similar aids shoppers with navigation in-store. It's all a matter of perspective.
For me it's Lidl's winking, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour that swings good will in their favour. Their version of Pimm's – Jeeves – is a particular treat. And it doesn't take a genius to realise where ‘You'd Butter Believe It' is coming from (incidentally, a client who likes a good pun = the dream).
But the semiotic mimicry doesn't stop on the shelves. Last week the budget chain opened the first of up to 50 new stores designed to push the brand upmarket. The shiny new branch in Rushden, Northamptonshire introduces self-service tills, wider aisles and customer toilets for the first time, as well as toning down their brash, bargain bucket colour scheme in favour of muted, sophisticated tones. The retailer is investing £1.5bn over the next three years to roll out the changes as standard across their stores, with a greater emphasis on catering for a discerning clientele. It's no coincidence that the new store concepts – with their increased ranges of luxury products – begin to feel suspiciously similar to the latest target in Lidl's crosshairs: Waitrose.
But as Lidl expands further into the world of fine cuisine, it will have to adapt to the subtler nuances and quality cues of luxury food. As it does so it needs to keep an eye firmly on the things that make Lidl Lidl. The budget chain could lose some of its hard-won identity and recognition. When a discounter moves upmarket it also risks alienating its existing customer base. A delicate approach will need to be taken, with margins kept favourable for discounts.
They are cheeky, they are smart and they're tongue-in-cheek – but can they continue to be challengers as they look to the future?
In this case, a Lidl may well prove to go a long way.
Ferdie Simon is a Junior Writer at The Clearing.