“The periphery is where private label has an advantage,” Sharoff says. “Retailers can adapt their products to local tastes.” That may mean more Latin-flavored items in one region and barbecue offerings in another. And for each new product, retailers can screen hundreds of store-brand manufacturers to find the best-in-class partner that can fill their needs. “That flexible sourcing is a key benefit,” Durham says. “National brands are limited to their own manufacturing facilities and channels, but retailers don’t have those restrictions.”

Once those new products arrive — typically, after a six-month development process — retailers can’t just let them idle on the shelves. “Private label doesn’t sell itself,” Welge says. “You have to do a thorough job of packaging and promoting it.” The Food Lion supermarket chain offered $100,000 in prizes to its employees as an incentive to become familiar with the store-brand products and therefore help boost sales. ­Raley’s went the prize route too. It offered $5,000 in gift cards to the customer who could make the best 30-second commercial praising the virtues of the chain’s store-brand products. The finalists’ ads were posted on YouTube.

NOW YOU KNOW: Like national brands, private-brand items are tested for safety and quality prior to landing on store shelves.

And then there’s Publix, which attracted industrywide attention for its ­revamped store-brand labels. “Previously, our ­private-label items blended with their ­national ­counterparts on the shelves; every product line started to look similar,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix. “We made the decision to separate ourselves from the pack.”

The new labels offer a wink and a nod to the old generics: There’s plenty of white space and clean, spare lettering. But there’s also a sense of playfulness in the labels’ clear windows: Black-and-white sandwich cookies form the stripes of a tiger; gummy bears make up a clown’s rainbow wig. “In the beginning, some customers thought we’d increased our overall offerings of private-label products when we had not,” Brous says. “However, our customers were more aware of our products; it may have been the first time they had noticed.”

Thanks to that Publix Brand Challenge, it likely won’t be the last. 

KRISTIN BAIRD RATTINI is a St. Louis–based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to American Way. She falls in the 50 percent of shoppers who buy both national brands (Heinz Tomato Ketchup) and store brands (Trader Joe’s dark-chocolate-covered caramels).