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Column: Ralphs supermarkets don’t just want your business. They want your love

Businesses apparently can’t just tell customers they offer good products at a fair price. Instead, they cook up “brand identities” intended to convey their deep, sincere feelings about everything but their interest in making money.

The latest corporate heavyweight to head down this well-traveled road is supermarket giant Kroger, parent of SoCal mainstay Ralphs, which this week unveiled a new-look logo and a new slogan, “Fresh for Everyone.”

If the rebranding ended there, fine. The business world is awash in new logos and slogans.

But Kroger took things up a level with language that, for a supermarket, is surprisingly touchy-feely.

The company is “celebrating its Love of all customers and associates,” Kroger said in making its announcement.

“Kroger’s new brand celebrates our love of people and our love of food, cutting through the sea of sameness that has beset grocery retail advertising for far too long,” said Mandy Rassi, Kroger’s vice president of marketing.

“We wanted to bring some joy and fun to what we’re doing,” she told me.

To share that joy with customers, Kroger is introducing animated characters called “Kroji” — as in “Kroger” and “emoji” — that, the company says, are “lovable” and “represent Kroger customers, associates and communities in an inclusive, relatable, optimistic and fun way.”

It’s not just a supermarket. It’s a way of life.

Along with its namesake stores and Ralphs, Kroger owns Dillons, Food 4 Less, Pay Less Super Markets and other chains. The “Fresh for Everyone” theme will be shared by all.

“I think what you’re hitting on here is the question of authenticity,” said Mark Forehand, a marketing professor at the University of Washington. “You’re questioning whether this we-are-the-world message is inauthentic.”

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.

Forehand said the Kroger rebranding campaign “seems a little heavy-handed,” but “presumably they felt this language of inclusion is an important one in reconnecting with consumer groups.”

Which is to say, their marketing research led them to believe current and potential Kroger customers are cool with a chorus of “Kumbaya.”

Kroger hired the advertising agency DDB New York to come up with the new campaign. According to the announcement, the two set out to create “a refreshed, stronger brand identity — both internally among associates and externally among customers and other valuable stakeholders — that breaks through the grocery retail industry’s ‘sea of sameness.’ ”

I get it. Cutting through the clutter of a crowded marketplace is a challenge for any company. You need a message that’s catchy and resonates.

Trader Joe’s has its “island” thing going on, like shopping there is as laid-back as a Jimmy Buffett song. Whole Foods is pitching a more upscale experience. Costco is basically saying, “What do you care about the crowds; look at these prices!”

Heck, I grew up amid brand awareness. In the 1960s and ‘70s, my grandfather, Morris Mamorsky, was one of the top jingle writers in New York. You know the old commercial that sang “Easy-Off makes oven cleaning easier”? That was my grandpa.

I have no problem with Kroger unifying its thousands of stores under the banner “Fresh for Everyone.” The new slogan communicates a commitment to food quality and a sense of welcome.

Where I balk is this glossy layer of feeling and emotion being applied to arguably the most mundane of consumer experiences, a trip to the supermarket.

“Advertising in the grocery space was universally a sea of sameness: generic aisles of groceries and close-ups of people cutting carrots,” said Lisa Topol, co-chief creative officer at DDB New York.

“Yet Kroger is anything but generic. So we wanted to take their inclusive and uplifting promise to their customers and find an effective and creative way to share it with the world.”

Rassi, the marketing veep, also used that phrase “sea of sameness.” So did the news release. You kind of get the idea it tested well with focus groups.

Rassi told me there’s nothing over the top about Kroger’s rebranding. “We really love our customers and we have a passion for food,” she said.

But does Kroger really think it enjoys a cherished place in the hearts of shoppers? It says its redesigned logo “reflects the company’s strong, food-rich heritage by retaining the shape and movement of the iconic ‘K’ and ‘G’ loved by generations of Kroger customers.”

Loved by generations of Kroger customers? That may be spreading the mayonnaise a little thick.

The company also says its logo will remain blue because “blue represents the Kroger brand heritage of food savvy, and signals safety and trust to customers.”

So don’t go thinking it’s just, you know, blue.

Kevin Lane Keller, a marketing professor at Dartmouth College, said Kroger can’t be faulted for wanting to communicate an emphasis on freshness.

“The idea of fresh is that you’re always at your best,” he said. “That’s not a bad thing for a supermarket.”

Keller acknowledged, though, that Kroger might be stretching things when it seeks to expand customer loyalty to something more akin to a passionate embrace.

“Any brand wants strong loyalty,” he said. “Taking that all the way to love is certainly dialing it up to the top.”

Kroger is by no means the first large company to discover the power of love. A decade ago, the Japanese carmaker Subaru built a whole campaign around the idea that love is “what makes a Subaru a Subaru.”

Similarly romantic notes have been struck by the likes of McDonald’s (“I’m lovin’ it”), LensCrafters (“See what you love, love what you see”) and Payless shoes (“I [heart] shoes”).

What’s different about Kroger’s rebranding is that love isn’t a core component of the campaign — that is, it’s not part of the new slogan or the overall messaging.

Rather, all that ooey-gooey stuff is largely confined to the explanatory news release, as if the company wants journalists in particular to know that Kroger isn’t afraid to get in touch with its feelings.

All I know is I like Ralphs. I shop there.

And I’d rather just be friends, if it’s all the same to you.

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