Loblaw marketing genius Dave Nichol dies at 73

The man who brought balsamic vinegar to the supermarket
Dave Nichol (courtesy: Loblaws)

Dave Nichol, the marketing genius who brought extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar to the Canadian mass market, died  this week at age 73. The head of product development for Loblaw Companies for 22 years, until 1993, Nichol was an unlikely tastemaker to a nation: a middle-aged, Ivy League-educated businessman with a nasal Southern Ontario intonation. In today’s food-obsessed climate—24/7 Food Network, celebrity chefs, five-year-olds knowing what pesto is—it’s difficult to comprehend the extent to which Nichol was a trailblazer. Loblaw’s success spawned a private-label revolution. More miraculously, Nichol made the supermarket a destination by imparting his passion for food—and showing that quality shouldn’t be reserved for the rich.

He was a small-town boy, born in Chatham Ont., in 1940. His father’s job as a railway station agent meant the family moved frequently; Nichol was raised along the Ontario spur line. In the 1960s, he studied business at the University of Western Ontario, where he roomed with Galen Weston, then heir to the George Weston food empire. He obtained a law degree from UBC and a masters of law from Harvard before going to work for management consultant McKinsey & Company. In 1972, Weston hired him away to help him on an ambitious project: to revive Loblaw Companies, a then-moribund supermarket chain.

What followed was one of the great success stories—and adventures—in Canadian business. Weston, flanked by Nichol and Richard Currie, transformed Loblaw into a colossus and industry leader. Nichol lead marketing and product development. In the late ’70s, amid economic downturn, he launched the low-priced store brand products known as “No Name” in graphic yellow and black packaging. In 1979, he became  pitchman for the chain—appearing in TV and print spots with his beloved French bulldog Georgie Girl. The upscale President’s Choice line arrived in the 1980s, inspired by similar store-brand programs in Europe. In a business built on wafer-thin margins, Nichol boldly took on national brands, blasting their high overhead and low quality. He systematically targeted the in the category “killers”— bringing out PC versions of Tide, Chip’s Ahoy and Coca-Cola. Nichol had an unflagging ability to tap into consumer anxiety and aspiration. The marketplace was becoming  increasingly food and luxury-brand aware. He introduced “gourmet” pet food, the “Memories of” line of sauces and responded to mounting health concerns and eco-worry with a “Too Good to be True” line of nutritional, low-cal packaged food and a contentious “Green” line.

Galen Weston (right) at his wedding with his best man, Dave Nichol, on July 23, 1966. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Nichol understood the lure of story-telling. “Marketing is the art of meaningful, sustainable differentiation,” he liked to say.  He had no compunction about appropriating others’ ideas. In 1983, he launched The Insiders’ Report, a madcap comic-book-styled flyer inspired by one seen at Trader Joe’s in California. Sent to millions of homes in Canada and the U.S., the report showcased new products inspired by Nichol’s travels to fashionable restaurants and food emporiums. His quest for the best, the new, the next was insatiable. He was obsessed with transcending the ordinary—and influenced by an international taste cognescenti: restaurateurs critics, chefs, designers. He eschewed brand names publicly, but spent his private life consuming the world’s most exclusive labels.

He presided over a taste factory located on the eighth floor of Weston Tower, which churned out packaged products calibrated to Nichol’s exacting standards. Nichol, who had two stepchildren, referred to these products as his “children.” He surrounded himself with talent. If people failed to live up to expectation, he could be brutal. Within the business, Nichol’s ego and aggressive personality were legendary.  He also didn’t hesitate to use the clout of Loblaw’s buying power, or the fact it owned the shelve, to put the squeeze on small producers. Yet he resonated with an adoring public, which saw him as one of them; and with them he was unflaggingly polite and respectful.

By the early 1990s, Nichol was ready to for more. There was a Dave Nichol cookbook, a line of PC-branded private label clothing for Weston-owned Holt Renfrew. He’d put his name on wine and beer. Loblaw was the consultant to Wal-Mart’s corporate brand program. He saw bigger vistas. He’d bought primo property in the Napa Valley. In 1993, Nichol broke with Loblaw, and Galen Weston, to form his own brand consultancy, Dave Nichol & Associates. He teamed up with his friend Gerry Pencer, then CEO of private label bottler Cott Corp. to take the Dave Nichol brand global. It would prove ill-fated. They didn’t own the shelves.

Nichol kept a low public profile in his last years, which were punctuated by poor health. His relationship with Galen Weston Sr., fractured when he left Loblaw, had mended. In 2005, he was selected by the American Marketing Association as one of its first inductees into the Hall of Canadian Marketing Legends. When Galen Weston Jr., now Loblaw Companies’ CEO and public face, took the reins in 2006, Nichol provided backstage coaching.

I fell into the Nichol orbit for a time when I wrote The Edible Man: Dave Nichol, President’s Choice, and the Making of Popular Choice, published in 1994 by Macfarlane Walter & Ross. In late 1992, I met with Nichol and his wife, Terri, for lunch, to ask if he’d provide access. I was a young journalist who’d never written a book. After cross-examining me, he was generous—inviting me to his home, into the Loblaw test kitchen, spending hours submitting to interviews and paving the way for others to do so.

Nichol never had any say over the book’s content—nor did he ask for any. Days after it was released, he called me to inform me that he hadn’t read it—then went on to take issue with a few points of interpretation, though not about any critical remarks about him. Shortly after that, he showed up at the book launch with gift: a heavy, rectangular Lucite slab. Encased within was a blow up  of the Toronto Star’s bestseller list from the previous week, with the book’s No. 1 position highlighted in yellow. (I realized later that it’s top spot probably reflected Nichol buying the book in quantity so he could hand it out.) The gift is quintessential Dave Nichol—a big, stylish gesture that pays homage to the importance of leading the pack. Looking back on it now I see that it also marked his never-ending impulse to seize success, that fleeting second of being on top.

Anne Kingston is the author of The Edible Man: Dave Nichol, President’s Choice, and the Making of Popular Taste, winner of the 1994 National Business Book Award.