The Man Who Took On Chips Ahoy… And Won


Recently, Canada lost a giant in marketing: Dave Nichol.

Strangely, for twelve hours following his death, only one media outlet reported it. And the tributes and official obituaries were particularly slow to trickle in. It’s as if no one quite knew what to make of the man. The Globe and Mail has now published a full obituary weeks after Nichols’ death.

How big an impact did Nichols have on the average consumer? Talk to any Canadian, especially one over a certain age, and they will share with you the experience of:

  • Having eaten a Decadent chocolate-chip cookie (or maybe the whole bag). And remember those Oreo knock-offs with more filling? Seems like the Oreo folks had to run to catch up with that one. I don’t go down that aisle anymore, and the big-ass Oreo knock-offs are one big reason why.
  • Having stuffed their fridge with “Memories Of…” exotic-at-the-time sauces. Nichol introduced things like Szechuan flavoring to the average consumer.
  • Having shopped on price for No Name(TM) products.
  • Switching to President’s Choice peanut butter, because for many years, it was the only credible way for most people to get unadulterated peanut butter in a decent size at a good price. And maybe, especially…
  • Witnessing your usually-immune-to-marketing Mom waiting excitedly for Nichols’ Insider Report, a folksy, old-school 18+ page “newsletter” about recipes, food, new discoveries, etc. — information all delivered to you by pitchman Nichols. For the rest of us, who hadn’t just traveled to Italy or Turkey to check out all the culinary delights, Nichols’ publication was like a brief winter vacation. And in 1980’s Canada — before retail choice exploded and before most ordinary folks were routinely slapping such holidays on their credit cards — those mini-vacations livened up the place just a little bit, evoking sights, sounds, and smells just slightly more exotic than Zamboni fumes.

Someone has finally come out and compared Nichols to Steve Jobs, in a sense. And that’s accurate. He was impatient, detail-oriented, and visionary. He was said to eschew focus groups as pandering to the “lowest common denominator.” Although he never owned or controlled a large company, Nichols did transform an industry and how the average consumer looked at and purchased familiar products.

The Decadent Chocolate Chip phenomenon alone was transformative. “All” Nichol did was oversee the engineering of a much superior private-label cookie to the one that dominated store shelves at the time. Everyone “got” what Nichol had done, because it was everyone’s dream cookie — the one you’d draw up on the whiteboard if you were an immature 6-year-old being asked what you wanted. It would seem to be mostly just chocolate chips — real ones. The dough would be better, too. And you’d jam a few walnut pieces in there wherever there was room. You’d make sure the bag had big close-ups of the cookie all over it. You’d give it an audacious name. And finally you’d sell it for 50 cents less than the dominant brand.

Chips Ahoy didn’t know what hit it. During the Decadent’s heyday, if you’d have dropped in randomly on those Canadian homes with a “need” for a bag of cookies or two, you’d be more than likely to see a bag of The Decadent in the cupboard.

That represented so much of what was to come in the grocery business. Not in every field, but enough to change consumers’ perceptions (and thus, demands) permanently. Brands were in retreat. The grocery retailer could not only wipe what they wanted off the shelves and replace them directly with their private-label creations, their pitchman could speak directly to consumers in those same channels. The success of these products improved the profit picture at the retail level. Those profits meant that the retailer could increase share of voice for their “non brand” brands by outspending the brands themselves.

This accelerated the recognition that television advertising for products like cookies, toilet paper, and soft drinks was becoming increasingly wasteful. Television advertising for these products was based on the idea that costly exercises in “brand lift” would somehow cause consumers to search high and low for one brand over another. Sometimes, they still do. But the proportions have changed. The advertising seems ever more wasteful. And people only want to trust brands in certain areas.

Ironically, those who have cut into the appeal of brands by releasing private-label products — and now, in our era, creating information revolutions and means of helping consumers find out about products — have become the brands themselves.

Nichols as the brand never sat well with his corporate masters. And he never felt adequately recognized. While paid handsomely, Nichol wanted to graduate to the owner class. Imagine a Steve Jobs who was just kept on as a consultant, with his chum Steve Wozniak working anonymously down the hall, both earning $1 million salaries, but ultimately having to bow to the superior class of people who “gave them the opportunity.” It was a great opportunity for Nichols, but it could have become even more. He was right to strike out on his own.

Today, the trim, 40-year-old corporate scion Galen Weston Jr. has taken over the TV pitchman role at Loblaw — a role that had gone dormant after Nichols left many years ago. The role is still a powerful one, and the creation of innovative private label successes continues apace. But of course, Weston is no Nichol. He’s unconvincing as a foodie, and looks even more uncomfortable pretending to enjoy a barbecue with regular folks or holding a piece of fruit handed to him by a well-scrubbed farmer.

But his family and shareholders are big and strong — the strongest in the land. While the Sobey’s folks may have just merged with Safeway Canada, that has been eclipsed by Loblaw acquiring the nearly-as-large-as-itself drugstore empire Shopper’s Drug Mart. Although the corporate structure of all Weston and Loblaw related holdings may be too complicated to convey with a single valuation, all put together it’s above $30bn, far ahead of the competition. That effort to scale up may not have been a choice, but rather a perceived imperative. Various retailers compete with Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, and more. Loblaw makes money not only from groceries, but its pharmacy, the Joe Fresh clothing line, and the various other departments in its Superstores.

Corporate strategy has eclipsed personality and innovation, at least for now. We won’t see another Dave Nichol for a long time to come.

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