Today, Checkout magazine publishes its annual Top 100 Brands report. Produced in association with Nielsen, the Top 100 Brands is the most accurate brometer of the biggest-selling products in the grocery marketplace, measuring the sales of some 6,500 products over the course of a year, across a myriad of store formats.
As you might expect, most of the top performers in this year's list are household names, with Coca-Cola topping the list for the eleventh year in a row, followed by Avonmore, Brennans bread, Cadbury Dairy Milk and Tayto. In fact, a cursory glance at the top ten would indicate that not all that much has changed when it comes to Ireland's go-to favourites; chewing gum brand Wrigley's Extra is the only new entry, rising one place to tenth.
However, as those at the top will testify, while achieving a place in the upper echelons of the list is challenging, remaining there is a day-to-day battle.
Consider the marketplace in which brands have to operate. While consumers now appear more willing to get out and spend - the surge in new restaurant openings in Dublin city centre is testament to that - Ireland’s grocery industry remains an environment in which value is still king. Shopping habits certainly changed during the downturn (witness the rise of the discounters), but now, despite improved circumstances, promotion culture is still alive and well.
This is evidenced by the most recent set of CSO retail sales figures, for June 2015, which indicate that while value of sales rose 3.1% compared to the same period last year, the volume of sales rose by almost twice that (5.8%), meaning we are getting a lot more bang for our buck. And with coupons offering ‘10% off your shopping’ appearing in national newspapers on a weekly basis, and retailer advertising focused on one key message - ‘we are cheaper than our rivals’ - it’s no wonder we are still conditioned to seek out value.
Allied to this is the rise of ‘private label’, supermarket own-brands, which have further muddied the waters when it comes to big brand development.
While the likes of Quinnsworth's 'Yellow Pack' and Superquinn's 'Thrift' paved the way, private label today is an increasingly slick, well-marketed phenomenon, which even extends to convenience store chains such as Spar or Centra, as well as the major multiples.
It's not all that long ago - fifteen years perhaps - that a shopper would wander into an Aldi or Lidl and find it hard to suppress a giggle at the Teutonic packaging on the shelves. Now, we can't get enough of them, and we're not ashamed to tell our friends and neighbours either.
And yet, while the going remains tough, big brands are more emboldened than at any stage over the past decade.
While it is true that retailers can easily ‘ape’ any major brand development in a matter of weeks, it is the brands themselves that still provide the spark, delivering the category-leading initiatives that help drive the industry forward.
This year’s Top 100 Brands report is a roadmap of how successful they have been in accomplishing this. A total of 20 brands - including international powerhouses such as Müller (16th) and Maltesers (31st) as well as Irish stalwarts Flahavan’s (52nd) and MiWadi (59th) - have achieved their highest ever position in the this year’s list.
In addition, 24 brands, almost a quarter of the list, have seen their position rise by five places or more since last year, with some, such as Keelings (up nine places to 45th), Brady Family (up 7 places to 61st) and Cully & Sully (up 11 places to 69th) relative newcomers.
In each case, these are brands that understand the need to ramp up the level of new product development, marketing and in-store presence required to engage with shoppers. When the going gets tough, the tough start spending - and the brands in this year’s Top 100 are evidence of the importance of well-managed, targeted brand investment.
According to Matt Clark, commercial director, Nielsen Ireland, brands have a big part to play in terms of "driving differentiation in traditional retailers and driving choice in convenience, and they can only do that by bringing innovation to the marketplace, both in terms of pack formats and new products, as well as how they are marketed in-store."
Wander down the aisles of your local Tesco, or SuperValu, and you can see this writ large; giant archways encouraging you to venture down the cereal aisle, or creative floor graphics reminding you that the back to school season is once again upon us, and it's time to stock up on some sliced meats.
This competitive streak is also extending to individual categories. Right across the grocery spectrum, brands are going head to head, in a bid to make it into consumers’ weekly shopping baskets.
In the Fruit Juice category, the leading brand in the market, Tropicana, placed 34th in this year's Top 100, just ahead of its rival, Innocent, in 35th. The same is true in the Breakfast Cereals category, where top brand Weetabix (51st) narrowly outperfomed its rival Flahavan's (52nd). And in what could be considered a 'distinctly Irish' battle for supremacy, Lyons Tea took 24th place in this year's list, just ahead of Barry's, which placed 25th (five years ago there were some 13 places between the brands; plenty for the Cork-based teamaker to be optimistic about).
Even those at the top understand the need to innovate and keep their brand fresh - arguably two of the biggest new product launches of the past year were Coca-Cola Life, which prompted a re-imagining of Coke's strategy under a united, one-brand strategy, and Avonmore's Protein Milk, developed in association with the GAA/GPA.
The fact that these brands currently hold the number one and two positions in the market indicate just how much of a battleground it is out there.