Trader Joe’s: How their story got lost + how you can find your own.

story 300x249 Trader Joes: How their story got lost + how you can find your own.

Trader Joe’s.

When I hear this name, the brain associations start flowing: Hawaiian shirts, a ship’s bell, a fearless flyer cartoon character, chalkboard signage, and the most sinful peppermint Oreos that thankfully are only available during the holidays.

These hodge-podge associations don’t ladder up to anything bigger. That’s why I was floored when I read the following story from Joe Coulombe, Trader Joe’s founder, about the company’s origin:

“When I met my wife, Alice, in 1951, her father, Bill Steere, was at Stanford on a professor’s salary — the same as a grocer at the time (about $8,000). Bill introduced me to Ruby Hill Winery, in Pleasanton, where you could get gallon jugs of Chardonnay for just $1. I had always been a beer drinker, but drinking jug wine with my in-laws was a culinary awakening. I realized that wine in a gallon jug could be how a professor could drink nice wine.

TJ’s was conceived for people who were overeducated and underpaid, so they could have a certain richness on the table they otherwise could not — like brie, olive oil, French mustard, wild rice, and wine. The customers I had in mind were the Fulbright scholar who returns with no money; schoolteachers, above all; plus young lawyers, museum curators, and classical musicians. Many years later, I attributed Trader Joe’s basic objective — making good food affordable for schoolteachers — to my in-laws.”

Wow. That’s a great story, filled with a sense of time, place and purpose. The closing thought — “making good food affordable for schoolteachers” — elevates Trader Joe’s from a bargain market to a mission-driven gourmet purveyor.

What stories are hidden in your brand’s history? Find them, share them, celebrate them. They are the single most potent differentiator in a crowded marketplace. Stories are “the coat pegs of the mind.”

So important is brand history and story-telling to good marketing that it’s part of the creative brief we use here at Maternal Instinct before kicking off a project. Inspired by a brilliant post from marketing guru Heidi Cohen, we added her list of questions to our creative brief and adapt it for each new client.

Go through the list now and — who knows — you might discover your own marketing gold mine.


1. How did your company start? Think in terms of your firm’s “once upon a time”.
2. What adversities did the company overcome, either in its early days or at some other critical point?
3. What’s a day in the life of your company like?
4. How did your company do something positive to make life better for its community or customers?
5. What did your company do to pitch in for a local problem? Think of Walmart’s effectiveness during Katrina.
6. Does your firm have a special association with a particular holiday? This doesn’t mean a sales promotion.


1. How did your products come into being? Is there lore around their creation?
2. How did the company founders start making the products and why? Are there special details that the public doesn’t know?
3. Are there historical events related to your product that are special for your firm?
4. Are there special myths or legends related to your products that can be adapted for your company?
5. Are there any famous people who are associated with your product? Can you embellish the story?
6. What’s unique about your product that sets it apart from the competition?


1. What is your brand’s history? Why is it important?
2. Is your brand associated with any special national or regional events? What are they and why?
3. Has your brand changed over time? Is there a story related to these changes?
4. What is the story behind of your brand’s logo?
5. Does your brand have an official spokesperson? If so, what is the reason for this relationship and what stories are associated with it?
6. Does your brand appear in any other cultural context? Think of Campbell’s Soup and Andy Warhol.
7. Is there any lore or traditional stories associated with your brand? Why are they important?
8. Is your brand associated with a cause? If so, what is the story behind this relationship?
9. Does your brand have a mascot? If so, what is the story behind this association? Think of Geico’s gecko or Corning’s use of the Pink Panther.
10. How do your most loyal customers describe your brand?


1. What did your company founders do? What inspired them? Can your employees or customers relate to this history?
2. Have any of your employees done something special for the community?
3. What are your employees like? Can you do a series of employee profiles?
4. What do your employees do to produce your products? Does this give a human face to your organization?
5. What is the personal story of your senior management? Have they done anything that provides lessons for your customers?
6. Has anyone in your organization done anything heroic? Think Scully landing his US Airways airplane in the Hudson River.
7. Are any of your employees members of the military, volunteer firemen or other first responders?
8. Are any of your employees members associated with a special cause? If so, what is it and why is it important?

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