The Cult of Kirkland Signature
by Rudy Sanchez on 11/09/2023 | 6 Minute Read
It might seem weird that a warehouse club selling items in bulk would garner a global cadre of enthusiastic fans. But Costco has managed to do just that, creating near-sycophants ginned-up over shopping trips to the cavernous warehouses filled to the rafters with everything from TVs, diapers, giant jars of fish oil supplements, and even gold bars.
Costco runs are unlike any other shopping experience. The supply run starts by following the incoming stream of members—cards out—and you’re immediately in the one place that quite possibly has everything you could ever want. Traversing the empire of bulk seems like a grueling odyssey, but you'll find free samples galore across the warehouse aisles, providing some respite.
And if toothpick'd goodies weren’t enough to keep spirits high, there’s the famous food court awaiting you with cheap hot dogs, massive chicken bakes, and $10 pizzas the size of custom rims.
Other warehouse clubs exist, like Walmart’s Sam’s Club. But Costco stands out for its loyal customer base that sings the club's praises, especially online (and the quiet backbone of Middle Class Fancy). The Costco subreddit, for example, is very active and has over 480,000 subscribers discussing deals, finds, sharing images of overseas food courts they visited while on vacation, and pet peeves.
But one thing that brings consumers back to the warehouses and renewing memberships is its private label, Kirkland Signature. Now synonymous with Costco, Kirkland Signature serves as the brand’s standard bearer that loyal customers follow.
So how did a retailer’s private label create such a devoted following, how is it a part of Costco’s overall strategy, and why does it thrill customers in ways few other stores’ house brands do?
In 1995, membership warehouse chain Costco, then known as PriceCostco after the 1993 merger with Price Club, consolidated all its private labels under one brand, Kirkland Signature. The inspiration for unifying all the white label offerings under a single brand came to Costco co-founder and then-CEO Jim Sinegal while reading a Forbes article on the emerging trend of private labels. The move would prove highly lucrative; today, Kirkland Signature is indistinguishable from Costco and its value proposition of offering quality products at a competitive price.
Before moving to its current headquarters in nearby Issaquah, Washington, Costco was based in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland. While “Seattle Signature” was initially considered, Costco could not trademark it, so the warehouse club chose to represent its hometown instead. According to CNN, when Costco moved its HQ, Sinegal had considered renaming the house brand to “Issaquah Signature” but ultimately decided it's easier to spell and say “Kirkland.”
Much like the $1.50 hot dog and soda combo, free samples, rotisserie chickens, and generous return policies, the Kirkland Signature brand is one of the ways Costco retains members and has them returning to shop.
And many of the products under the Signature umbrella aren't some generic filler created in a dank basement. Unlike other retailers, the company is as open as it can be about who manufactures its Kirkland Signature products. Some packaging is co-branded with the national brand or disclosed somewhere on the pack. Major brands like Starbucks, Duracell, Ito En, Kimberly Clark, Bumblebee Tuna, Niagara Bottling, Reynolds Aluminum, Ocean Spray, and Diamond Naturals are among those selling their wares under the Kirkland Signature brand.
Despite what you may have heard, Grey Goose is not behind the award-winning Kirkland Signature vodka. However, the fact many consumers would make an association is a testament to the quality of Costco’s private label spirit.
“The Kirkland Signature brand stands for quality and value,” says Claudine Adamo, Merchandising EVP for Costco. “We launched our private-label brand so that we could take a more active role in setting and ensuring even better value for our members—the highest quality standards at the lowest possible prices. The Kirkland Signature brand allows us to control every aspect of product freshness, ingredients, production, packaging, and more.”
A store brand rarely creates excited and enthusiastic customers as Kirkland does. Besides cheaper batteries, laundry detergent, vodka, and coffee beans, Costco also offers sweatshirts and other loungewear attire emblazoned with the Kirkland Signature logo. Yes, it's immensely kitschy and has taken social media by storm, with Costco members and others posting pictures of themselves living their best Kirkland Signature-themed life.
Regardless, it's beloved—and perhaps just a bit ironic. The logo isn’t distinctive for being clever or pretty. That square-shaped calling card is simple and straight to the point, and the red, white, and black color palette is practical. ITC Franklin Pro Black gets utilized for “KIRKLAND” contrasted with a script font underneath for “Signature,” and just like those cheap frankfurters, that cursive is undoubtedly not going away. The logo has a bit of red flare in the form of a stylized tittle over the “i” that also becomes the crossbar for the “A” above.
And maybe all of that comes down to Costco's philosophy of form following function. The warehouses are laid out for employees to move pallets of merchandise in when restocking and minimally prepare for display with ease, rather than breaking down the pallet in the back and stacking each individual item on shelves. In a way, the simplicity of the Kirkland Signature logo keeps it from being considered a “great” logo in terms of design. Still, given the sheer amount of items and different types of packaging it’s put on makes its lack of artistic flourish a positive asset.
According to a Costco representative, the original Kirkland Signature was designed with the help of an outside agency, but unfortunately, no one currently at the company can confirm which one. Somewhere, a designer annoyingly tells their friends and family they made the Kirkland Signature logo, which, given how large the product range, probably happens a lot. And as much as I’d like to provide them with an article referencing their god-like skills so they can send it to their eye-rolling children to prove they aren’t telling tall tales, their name is lost to the sands of time (but seriously, get at me if this is you).
The Kirkland Signature’s basic design also has other advantages. Costco uses it globally for all its private-label products, reinforcing the strength of the Costco brand. The logo hasn’t changed much since the 90s. As Costco has grown as a brand since Kirkland's introduction in 1995—and by leaving the logo unchanged for decades—it’s allowed the private label to continue building uninterrupted equity and recognition among consumers. Today, from Toledo to Tokyo, you can find the familiar logo on packaging in home pantries, mop closets, and in the bathroom.
But great quality and value alone can’t completely account for the Cult of Kirkland Signature. Kids don’t dress up as Walmart greeters for Halloween, and customers aren’t looking for Great Value (Wally’s private label) branded merch. If people throw Target-themed birthday parties, I don’t want to meet them.
Maybe part of the strength of Kirkland Signature as a brand is that Costco doesn’t divide all their private label products into various sub-brands, usually based on quality or category. Costco doesn’t stratify their private label goods, instead finding the best quality white label product they can sell at a much smaller margin than traditional retailers. Kirkland Signature reinforces Costco’s promise to provide quality products to its members. Cheap sells, especially in bulk.
Another reason might be how representative Costco, and by extension, Kirkland Signature is of American consumerism. If consumerism is religion, Costco warehouses are monumental cathedrals. Massive quantities and good deals are tenets of American consumerism, and Kirkland Signature is a bulwark of both.
Or maybe I’m just overthinking the whole thing, and Costco customers simply like the warehouse chain better than its competitors, that bigger really is better, and it brings them unfettered joy?
Still, Kirkland is king, and it's part of Costco’s overall strategy for retaining members, just like discounted tires, slightly cheaper gas, membership kickbacks, and oil drums full of mixed nuts.
And the ironic-friendly Kirkland Signature loungewear, of course.