The Ayn Rand of Food Storage

I find Heinz tins to be incredibly haughty. Beans, soups, even the interesting concoction known as Macaroni Cheese. Every time I try putting one in to my cupboard, it feels as if it’s sneering at me.

Many tins have a bevelled base, which allows them to be stacked. They build a strong community of like-minded produce; unshakable, locked in place, and unlikely to topple over and make the jars of olives fall over. But not Heinz. Heinz’ tins are too good to stack. They have a flat base, which wobbles about, then shakes, and then falls over when you stand one tin on top of another. Destructive tins.

It’s as if all of this “leading brand” nonsense has gone to their heads, and means that they can only ever stand alone, as if on a pedestal. They view themselves as being simply better than other tins; a class apart. They view themselves as part of a culinary aristocracy, along with Kellogg’s and Coke.

Then again, they may be rejecting the collectivism of other, socially supportive tins, and strutting out on their own Individualistic, Egoistic, Objectivist missions of conversion. A tin can as its own hero: a rejection of collective consciousness and social responsibility. They are the Ayn Rand of food storage.

I prefer own brands. It’s not that I’m parsimonious: I am, but I will dispense with that to buy food I genuinely prefer. I try the options, and make my choice based on the ensuing personal preference, not some sheep-like herding in to expected shopping norms. I genuinely like own brand products.

There is a rebellious frisson which comes with resolutely avoiding the leading brand, it’s true. But I do tend to prefer own brands: not all, but generally. One of the things I like about own brand food is the light and shade which they seem to throw on their leading branded competitors: “While you’re here buying that, look how cheap it would really be, without the colossal marketing budget.”

Then again, our association between that which is more expensive and that which is better is used by aspiring brands to show themselves off as morally superior. And we accept it. In that sense, the own branded food product feels like it’s saying “I’m this cheap because I’m processed crap, unlike that sandal wearing, tofu knitting stuff over there, which goes mouldy an hour after you open it.”

We can’t win, really. Regardless of the brand we’re buying, it’s the supermarkets who will win.

Why do I never question the fact that the vast majority of our supermarket chains manufacture their own food? It feels slightly odd to me that they would do so. On one hand, it feels unnecessary, in the same way that “You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble, making 20,000 lasagne, just in case”.

On the other hand it feels monopolistic, as in “Your brand loyalty is to us, not to the manufacturers; you wouldn’t have access to them without us.” Either interpretation feels creepy. We would hardly accept it from a person in our lives, but we’re happy to from our most convenient/cheapest grocer.

I find it equally monopolistic when the supermarkets try to diversify in to other spheres. Like Tesco becoming a mobile phone company and a bank, or Sainsbury’s becoming Argos. It’s more than likely a ploy to get you to conduct all of your out-of-the house business with them alone. Amazon have the world of virtual shopping sewn up; the battle for our ever-decreasing demand for shops and services in the physical world is only going to get bloodier. If a supermarket can give you all of the services you demand, condensed in to one trip, they will have won. That is not to say that we will have lost.

I’m a contrary fool. The problem is that there is a core to what I have said here that I cannot let go of: our relationship with brands is poisonous. Too many of us devote our hard-earned cash to the altar of the leading brands – often simply the brands our parents, their parents, their grandparents favoured – without question. Too many of us look upon own brand food as cheap, nasty surrogates.

Too many of us equate the cost of a product with its innate quality, as if spending more is guarantee. This is a trick also used by up-and-coming brands, trying to secure our patronage. The implication is that the higher price is due to the higher price of the supposedly better ingredients. It is also a trick used by own brands, with “Signature”, “Taste the Difference” or “Finest” ranges denoting quality.

When such ‘superior’ brands are on special offer, how tempting is the switch? Even the special offer has inbuilt room for profit. For new brands, this is a perfect way to get you to try new things: they know you have no interest in breaking from the shackles of your self-imposed monopolies, so they sell themselves for a pound. And we all suck it up, with the gratitude of a newly released prisoner.

Maybe I’m taking this a little seriously. I know what Heinz tins are like because I have some in my cupboard. The idea for this post came as I was putting away the weekly shopping. I even had to stop what I was doing, so that I could write much of this down on my phone. My partner was so pleased.

The time it took me to try all of the own brand beans on the market, just because I had decided that I no longer appreciated the leadingest of the leading brands, was huge. It ultimately transpired that my favourite brand was sold by a supermarket in which I do not shop. Hence, I found myself buying the beans of a well-known brand, solely because it was available in the supermarket I do use. Great.

The fact of the matter is that I am torn when it comes to own brand products, and not just food. I also have slew of Amazon products at home – slipmats, USB cables, HDMI cables – I’m even looking at the whiteboards they sell, not that I need such a thing. Own brand products are cheaper, and dependable, yet I do suspect that they are inferior to the more expensive products. And that just makes me mad at myself. If they’re no worse than their branded equivalents, why choose branded?