Remembering the Loblaws executive who made it safe to like store brands.
Before Dave Nichol, store brands lacked cachet. You tossed them in your shopping cart if your budget was tight, or if they were the only product available. They didn’t inspire visions of culinary creativity. Packaging design was often an afterthought.
Nichol made Loblaws’ store brands fashionable, marketing them with a combination of sophistication and folksy pitching. Reminiscing about his advertising presence in 2007, Canadian Business observed that he “looked like a guy who loved to eat—someone who might as well have had ‘foodie’ tattooed on his forehead, who you might actually believe spent his time scouring the globe for exotic foods.” You might not be able to afford a dinner at a five-star restaurant, but Nichol created the impression that you could, with the right “Memories of” sauce or other accompaniments, elevate your meal to similar heights. Clever branding raised the profile of everyday items, so that packaged chocolate-chip cookies became “decadent” and outsold competitors. Though competing Canadian chains launched their own higher-quality private labels, few earned the respect of Loblaws’ lines.
It began when Galen Weston Sr. became Loblaws’ CEO in 1972. He assembled a team, including Nichol, executive Richard Currie, and designer Don Watt. Together, they transformed the dowdy grocer into an industry innovator. Soon after becoming president of the chain’s Ontario and Quebec operations in 1976, Nichol replaced William Shatner as Loblaws’ pitchman, portraying himself as an executive passionate about product quality and affordable prices. (You can see some clips of his TV work embedded in this post, and also in this memorial video released by Loblaws earlier today.)
Nichol had a knack for building on ideas introduced elsewhere. Noticing French grocer Carrefour had a successful generic product line, he introduced the No Name brand during a March 1978 price war. The line’s bright, simple, yellow-and-black packaging stood out on store shelves. He touted No Name as an alternative to the ad noise generated by name-brand items, and consumers responded. Within three weeks of launching, the line sold as much as Loblaws expected to sell in a year. The generic concept was expanded in July 1978 when the first No Frills store opened at St. Clair and Victoria Park.
In the early 1980s, Nichol noticed an irreverent grocery flyer used by Trader Joe’s in California. Figuring its mix of product pitches, silly cartoons, and enthusiasm about food would work in Canada, he launched the Insider’s Report in November 1983. Written by Toronto Star food writer and Loblaws product developer Jim White, the Insider’s Report generated enough buzz to empty store shelves and excite foodies whenever a new edition appeared. It helped launch lines like President’s Choice, Too Good to be True, and G.R.E.E.N., using a light-hearted tone its current incarnation lacks.
Nichol became the embodiment of President’s Choice, touting products ranging from beer to the oddly-named Oreo imitation “Lucullan Delights.”
“People could relate to me,” he told the Globe and Mail in 2007. “They really trusted me.” Behind the genial demeanour was a perfectionist whose demanding nature earned him a spot on the Report on Business list of Canada’s toughest bosses in 1987. This manifested in his deep involvement in testing new products in a kitchen built next to his office. “Dave would work his way down the counter with a steely intensity—sniffing, licking, sipping, swallowing, appraising, critiquing,” noted Nichol biographer Anne Kingston. “On the rare times a product met Nichol’s approval, the tension in the kitchen would break. ‘This is fantastic,’ he would roar. Occasionally, after he ingested something that gave him pleasure, a look of rapture would flicker across his face. ‘I can hear the angels singing,’ he would say.”
After Nichol left Loblaws in 1993, he worked as an industry consultant. The public continued to associate him with Loblaws, as both No Name and President’s Choice remained the grocer’s backbone. Those lines allowed people to serve store brand products to others without shame.
Additional material from The Edible Man by Anne Kingston (Toronto: Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1994), the July 1993 and October 22, 2007 editions of Canadian Business, the December 1987 edition of Report on Business Magazine, the June 23, 2007 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the March 21, 1978 edition of the Toronto Star.