Upon moving into our very first apartment, my roommate and I, both poor college students, spent entire afternoons at the grocery store searching for bargains. We quickly reached an epiphany: The cheapest option, in almost every case, was the store-brand knockoff, and we certainly didnt mind sacrificing a bit of style to save a buck.
Soon we had become aficionados of generic-product design and ardent champions of its undersung charm. Our pantry was dominated by stark white boxes with clunky lettering paying homage to the good old days when no-name paper towels and beer came in two-tone packages that simply read paper towels and beer. The kitschy, unabashedly straightforward photography, I decided, was an art unto itself. And the names! Why would anyone buy Grape-Nuts when they could eat Crunchy Nuggets? Or Triscuits when there were Woven Wheats?
Rather than being anti-design, generic packaging is refreshingly anti-consumerist, providing one of the only instances in which shoppers are given an immediate, side-by-side choice about whether to pay for fancy packaging or simply for whats inside. After all, the labels dont lie, and generic ingredients are usually identical to the name brands, particularly when it comes to over-the-counter drugs. Packaging designers may not like the sound of that, but as a business editor, I find myself unable to ignore the bottom line. Hardly concerned with flaunting status symbols for medicine-cabinet snoopers, I cannot bring myself to buy Alka-Seltzer instead of the cheaperstay with me hereEckerd Fast Relief Effervescent Pain Relief Antacid and Pain Reliever.
Generic drugs are a no-brainer, but so are other staples: My favorite laundry detergent is the aptly named For Maximum Value, or FMV, as my friends call it. Knockoff Kleenex, in my experience, is consistently reliable (and I have really bad allergies), while generic plastic wrap clings just as well as Reynolds or Saran.
Many chains are starting to take store-brand productsand their designupscale. Albertsons Essensia foods are just as gourmet as their packages are clean. And when it comes to Targets bulls-eye-branded goods, it almost seems criminal to keep them hidden away in a cabinet.
But even the products with the quirkiest copywriting and most confused graphic design can be delightful. Albertsons irresistible Simply Clean powder, with its retro rainbow motif, doesnt appear to have been redesigned since the 1970s. Then there are the rambling, oddly conversational marketing pleas: Safeway English muffins are the perfect choice for a hundred meal options. Put on the thinking cap and come up with your own breakfast, lunch, or anytime snacking list. (Really? A hundred?) Safeways peanut-butter cookies are more direct, but less certain: Sit back and enjoy our version of what a peanut butter cookie is all about. Even when the literal labels arent so amusingwhen youre buying personal hygiene products, for instanceits worth ditching the euphemistic comforts of Preparation H, Midol, and Dulcolax for the decidedly humbling Hemorrhoidal Ointment, Menstrual Relief, and, ahem, Stool Softener.
Of course, every budget-minded dabbler will discover certain store-brand products they just cant tolerate. But in the happy world of generics, theres no such thing as an expensive mistake.
Nancy Einhart is a senior editor at Business 2.0 magazine.