This is the next in a series of interviews Christopher Durham, founder of My Private Brand, will conduct with private brand leaders around the world. Today, he discusses retail-owned brands with Velocity speaker Carrie Mesing, Director of Private Brands for online fresh food grocer and Vertex Award winner, FreshDirect. Mesing was instrumental in developing FreshDirect’s private brand programs and is passionate about source identification in both branded and private branded goods. Prior to joining FreshDirect, Mesing worked at private brand brokerage firm Daymon Worldwide. Mesing serves as a mentor to startup food brands through the food accelerator Accel Foods.

CD: What is your first memory/experience with Private Brand?
CM: Coming from a small, middle-class household in Pennsylvania, my first experience with ‘private brand’ wasn’t a positive one. I recall the sense of embarrassment that came with bringing the “knock-off” brand of potato chips to the school lunch table. I’m proud to see how much the industry – and the customer perception – has changed since then.

CD: How did you get into the private brand business?
CM: I became interested in the private brand business because I saw the incredible potential to create and build brands that add meaning to customers’ lives. Leading the strategy for FreshDirect’s private brand program has been a rewarding experience because our core brand, Just FreshDirect, is focused on source identification and clean ingredients – a truly unique value proposition for a private brand. It highlights the importance of knowing what’s in the food you’re eating and where it comes from, which is a mission I feel personally connected to.

CD: Retail and the shopper has dramatically changed over the last few years (mobile, online, social media, Amazon, Google) how have your private brands responded to these changes?
CM: As an e-commerce company, we have played a key role in that dramatic change! Our in-depth understanding of food logistics and sourcing, combined with data-driven and real-time knowledge of the customer, allows us to provide food shopping solutions that go beyond traditional retail.

Our private brand program has the unique advantage of leveraging FreshDirect’s supply chain capabilities, sophisticated logistics and wide network of relationships to build a world-class program.

CD: What private brand accomplishments are you the proudest of?CM: I’ve had the unique opportunity to be involved in the creation of our private brand program from ideation to launch. I am most proud that we’ve successfully built a private brand that is hyper-focused on transparency, in response to our customers’ demands and expectations. We know they expect ingredients they can pronounce and they want to know where their food comes from. Products under our core private brand label, Just FreshDirect, fulfill this expectation. We’ve made it easy for customers to trust the ingredients by refusing to produce products with artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. And, we believe illuminating the farmers, artisan, and fisherman behind our products reinforces their trust.

CD: What keeps you up at night?
CM: As transparency becomes more mainstream, it’s possible that retailers will resort to wrapping a marketing campaign around their products without truly authenticating the product’s source or ingredients. My fear is that this could result in losing the consumer’s trust in more authentic private brands – such as ours.

Also of concern are the inherent risks that come with sourcing from a single supplier – be it a farmer, artisan or fisherman. While strategically important, this sourcing program does make us vulnerable to disruptions in the supply chain. We work to mitigate this risk by taking extra measures to vet our suppliers, and also identifying secondary suppliers we could work with if issues do arise.

CD: Is private brand a strategic priority for your organization?
CM: Absolutely. Our private brand program is the single best way to communicate who we are and what we value to customers in a way they intimately experience. Given the overwhelming positive response to the program, we expect to continue to invest in the category’s growth.

CD: How important is strategy to the success of private brands?
CM: A well-articulated strategy is critical to the success of a private brand program. Understanding the brand architecture of the portfolio and consumer-centric brand positioning enables strong execution.

CD: What role should design play in solving private brand/retailer problems?

CM: Strong brand design can help retailers shake the old perception that private brands are lower quality goods. Investing in the look and feel of the product demonstrates to the customer that the retailer cares about the product being sold.

CD: How have your private brands evolved over the last few years?
CM: As our program is still in its infancy, it’s continually evolving. The most meaningful adjustment we’ve made has been the refinement of our sourcing strategy, taking a more vigorous stance on sourcing specifics – for example, providing the actual name of the fisherman who provides us with our private brand canned tuna. This level of radical transparency creates stickiness with our customers, especially as we share those sourcing stories with them across multiple touchpoints – the website, social media channels, packaging, and beyond.