Moving a Brand from Price to Promise

The Challenge - Part 1

The Defense Commissary Agency is the branch of the Department of Defense that runs Commissaries, the on-base grocery stores that serve military families, retirees, and select eligible patrons. The Commissary benefit is subsidized by tax-payer dollars and sells groceries at cost, with an average savings of 30% over public grocery stores. Additionally, the on-base store location offers patrons serving at bases overseas a safe environment and familiar products they might not find locally.

The Commissary’s business model presents a special challenge because, while the Commissary competes with for-profit grocery stores, it is staffed and run by government (union) employees, and serves the military community’s unique culture.

The Challenge - Part 2

In recent years, the Commissary has felt pressure from internal and external sources. First, as the Pentagon looks for ways to cut costs, many in Congress have questioned the Commissary’s value and the need for the $1.3 billion in tax subsidies they require for operations. Second, more military families now live off the base and have found shopping at grocery stores near their homes more convenient. Third, the Commissary is, by law, prohibited from advertising or selling loss leader products, which undermines the Commissary’s lowest price brand position. These factors, combined with softening sales, convinced Commissary leadership it was time to develop an authentic and compelling brand.

The Approach

Ideas in Focus and design and branding partners Wall-to-Wall Studios and Quicksilver Foundry were engaged to take on the task of helping the Commissary understand the core aspects of their brand and recommend and develop a brand that embodies the relevant, emotional, and unassailable aspects of the organization.

We quickly realized we had the opportunity to help the Commissary become a place that was about more than inexpensive groceries, but was instead an important part of the military community, culture, and family. A place staffed by people who understand, respect, and proudly serve the needs of the modern soldier, retiree, and their family.

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No matter if it’s done in-person, on the phone, or via a web-cam, our interviewers are experts at building rapport, getting past superficial responses, and revealing the underlying issues.




We know how to ask the right questions in the right order and with the right answer choices. The result is to maximize what is learned, while minimizing response bias and error.




It can be difficult to reach certain audiences online or on the phone. “Intercepting” people where they work, shop, live, or play is often one of the most effective ways to reach your customer.




By “walking and talking” with a person while they shop we can uncover hidden patterns, identify unspoken consumer interests, and draw unique conclusions about the how’s and why’s of shopper behaviors.

talking bubble



Our turnkey approach manages the entire process from start to finish, including identifying participants, markets and facilities, managing the recruiting process, providing moderators, transcripts, and writing the report.




We visit the stores and use our expertise as marketing professionals to examine the various facets of our clients’ and/or their competitor’s business.




We provide an in-depth review and analysis of the competitive set to understand best practices, opportunities, and threats.




We provide our clients with the data, insights, scenarios, and recommendations to clearly lay out the pros and cons needed for making an informed decision.

Insights Informing Design

Ideas in Focus’ work provided Wall-to-Wall Studios, Quicksilver Foundry, and the Commissary with the insights about their patrons needed to confidently develop a new brand platform and brand ambassador program. Based on insights uncovered about the unique challenges, wants, and needs of the modern soldier and how the Commissary plays an important role in their lives, we were able to identify unique, ownable, and unassailable brand attributes that align with the unique needs of the military community, the modern grocery shopper, and the 150 year Commissary tradition. Through a series of workshops, we helped teach and train Commissary staff and stakeholders about their brand, why it was important, and how to deliver on the promise every day.