In a dramatic break with tradition, I am about to embark on an exploration of concepts tenuously connected to marketing. I apologize in advance for this transgression.
I’ve been thinking about Piggly Wiggly lately and the limits of positive branding. I loved The Pig. Didn’t everyone? I love my Piggly Wiggly shirt and my Pig tumbler, from which I drink my favorite libations (primarily chocolate milk.) (No, really.) I love my purple Piggly Wiggly winter hat, which features my favorite local mascot, The Pig. I’m big on him.
I like to show visitors Buzzy Newton’s house on The Battery, the one guarded by a pair of stone-carved pig sentinels. David Schools, the last Pig CEO (and provider of all my Pig swag) is a funny and humble guy. When people would ask him his vocation, the CEO of a beloved supermarket chain would say, “I work at The Pig.” I wish him and his family nothing but the best.
I loved Piggly Wiggly’s advertising campaigns too. They were local since forever. That struck a chord, even though I’m not local since forever. The campaign reminded us that The Pig is authentic South. The Pig was there for us – or you, anyway – long before Charleston was fashionable, winning awards and all la-de-da about itself. Back then Piggly Wiggly was providing your blocks of ice, your collard greens, your sweet tea and your lard-encrusted bacon fat sandwiches lathered in pork grease. The advertising campaign almost made us feel obligated to buy groceries there.
That so many Charlestonians feel warmly towards the Pig is a testament to their exquisite branding. Companies spend billions of dollars attempting to coax from consumers a sliver of the affection that Piggly Wiggly generated, mostly by not taking themselves too seriously.
But here’s the thing: my family rarely shopped at Piggly Wiggly.
There wasn’t a Pig near where I lived or worked, but more importantly, Piggly Wiggly stores were too lowbrow for my family. We eat tofu and hummus and free range turkeys in my house. We drink almond milk and munch on carrots that first had to be cut and scraped by someone else, who then rounds the edges to prevent any unfortunate carrot stabbing incidents. That’s not lowbrow. (It is pathetic, but that’s another story.)
Evidently, we weren’t alone, because Piggly Wiggly was forced to sell off most of its properties. It was too small to compete on price with Walmart and just when it tried to pivot to higher ground in the supermarket hierarchy the mortgage brokers and financial services companies generously provided us all with the worst economic crash of our lifetimes.
When Piggly Wiggly Carolina Company began to contract, I could have switched my purchases their way in an effort to help rescue our beloved stores. But I did not, and neither did you.
Because the truth about the marketplace is that it’s all about us, the consumer, not them, the vendor. We buy where it’s convenient and inexpensive, and the experience is positive; how we feel about the company is largely irrelevant. Dan Cathy’s narrow-minded views about my gay friends don’t exactly split my infinitives, but I like the way he Fil-A’s his Chik’n, so that boycott will have to wait until after lunch. Conversely, though I admire Publix’s spectacular culture of philanthropy, there’s a Harris Teeter around the corner from my house. Walking distance, one; admiration, nothing.
So we all respected and esteemed Piggly Wiggly, and sighed with melancholy when it disassembled. But when it came right down to it, price, service and proximity meant a lot more to us than brand love.