Four secret ingredients of all successful brands.

PLEASE refer to the updated version of this post. Thanks.


(What you can learn from a healthy bowl of cereal and a four-buck burrito.)

Branding is a popular topic in the business press these days. Unfortunately, coverage of Coca-Cola, Nike and Virgin, make it sound as if Branding is a discipline reserved for the Fortune 500 companies and globe-trotting billionaires.

Let me set the record straight on that: It’s entirely possible to build a successful brand without a million-dollar marketing budget or a cadre of high-paid consultants. Many small-business owners do it intuitively. They build a successful business, step by step, and over time a great brand develops.

It does not happen the other way around.

You can’t just come up with a nice name a great logo and expect the brand to suddenly succeed. Without a good, solid business operation, you can’t have a great brand.

If you look, you can find plenty of inspiring brands in everyday places. Like the breakfast table and the local Mexican restaurant. Because the fact is, branding is not exclusive to big business.

In addition to the multi-national brands that have become household names, there are successful regional brands and millions of small but prosperous local brands. Conversely, many big, international companies don’t adhere to any principles of Branding. It can go both ways.

This isn’t the Harvard Business Review, but if you deconstruct it, you’ll see that all successful brands share four important things:





Forget about Proctor & Gamble for a minute and consider the small businesses in your town that have a loyal following. What makes them successful? What have the owners done that turned their typical small business into a successful local brand?

In Bend, Oregon there’s a tremendously popular restaurant named, simply, “Taco Stand.”It’s the best Mexican food in town, and it costs next to nothing. It’s so cheap it’s almost embarrassing. Taco Stand’s in a terrible location next to a laundry mat. It’s not open for dinner. They have no web presence or advertising budget. And yet, it’s a successful little brand, doing much better than many high-end restaurants downtown.

Taco Stand has all four ingredients of a tasty brand, with a bit of Tabasco thrown in for good measure. It has always been relevant to young people living the ski bum life who can’t afford fifteen bucks for lunch. It appeals to the masses.

For Taco Stand, differentiation and credibility stem from the genuine quality of the food and the loyal, locals-only reputation.If there were an insider’s guide to Bend dining, Taco Stand would be top of the list. And consistency… you’re never going to walk into Taco Stand and find they’ve changed the menu on you. They do simple Mexican fare, and that’s that.

But, you say, “my business is a lot more complex than that. We have a sales force and a supply chain to deal with.”

It doesn’t matter. You still need the same four ingredients. Leave one out and you can have a successful business, but not an enduring brand.

Differentiation and credibility used to be easy for big corporations. They could launch a new brand with a massive tv campaign, effectively differentiating their product on nothing but advertising creativity and pretty packaging. And the television presence alone equaled credibility.

Smart Start brand case study on brandingKellog’s tried this with a new brand of cereal called Smart Start. Great name. Great-tasting product. And an old-school, Fortune-500 style marketing effort. Lots of full page, full color ads in smart magazines like Shape and Parenting.

My kids like Smart Start, but they’re not the target market. It’s an adult cereal, promoted on its nutritional virtues. Too bad. As it turns out, Smart Start isn’t as nutritious as it’s cracked up to be.It’s loaded with sugar… 14 grams of high fructose corn syrup. That’s more than Fruit Loops, Cocoa Puffs or Cap’n Crunch.

I’ll bet Smart Start doesn’t have the staying power of Cap’nCrunch — my childhood favorite. Because in this day and age, consumers are too smart for Smart Start. When the word gets out, the brand’s going to have a substantial credibility issue on their hands.

Kellog’s will probably fight it with the old line-extension strategy trick. Rather than addressing the underlying weakness of the product, they’ll just keep launching new flavors of Smart Start and new spin-offs. (They already have several variations.) But in the process, the brand will lose another key ingredient… consistency.

So Smart Start’s credibility is questionable. The brand’s consistency is debatable with all the line extensions. And relevance is dwindling as more people find out about its nutritional shortcomings.

I predict the brand will eventually die out because it doesn’t live up to the promises of its marketing. But even if it dies, Kellogs might consider Smart Start a branding success. Maybe it’s done well enough. Maybe Kellogs can chalk up a good profit with new brands that have short life cycles. It’s a big company, with big resources. They can just move on and do it all again.

Smaller companies don’t have that luxury. You can’t afford to launch a new brand under false pretenses of any kind. Credibility too hard to come by, under the best of circumstances.

What do you suppose would happen to Taco Stand if they suddenly started marketing “healthy” burritos without changing the way they cook. It’d be a recipe for branding disaster. Relevance and credibility would be the first to go, followed shortly by consistency. After that, no amount of differentiation would help. It would end up like so many other restaurants that just come and go, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.


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Leave a Reply 15 comments

Miguel Reply

Great post! It is absolutely true that branding should be practiced by all businesses no matter what the size. You also point out a factor that is often overlooked by companies – the quality of the product. You can have all of the different “ingredients” – relevance, credibility, differentiation, and consistency – but without a product that meets expectations, the brand/product will struggle. Adding to your four, another important branding “ingredient” is the customer experience.

At Schawk, we have found that brand experience is becoming more important and — even critical — for a brand to succeed. Considering that over 30,000 SKUs are introduced each year, brands are under increasing pressure to outperform competitors. One way to outbrand competitors is by delivering a compelling and consistent experience across all touchpoints and geographic locations. Granted, for a small business like the Taco Stand, which has only one location, geography doesn’t matter much, but it will should the business ever expand. However, consistency throughout the existing restaurant — each and every time a customer visits — is incredibly important and influences the brand experience.

In order to help our clients provide a consistent and compelling brand experience, Schawk integrates strategic, creative and operational excellence so that a brand builds affinity each time a consumer interacts with it — either at home, on the shelf, or on the go.

If you are interested in learning more about brand point management practices, you may wish to review the following White Paper recently made available:

I’d love to hear your thoughts regarding the white paper. Thanks!

Peter Korchnak Reply

Thanks for the great post! As a fellow Oregonian I appreciate your highlighting small local businesses. Keep up the good work! Here’s to all the Taco Stands of the world.

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Jenny R. Reply

Nice blog site, I am a newer blogger and I was searching the web for ideas. I just thought I would leave a comment to say so.

Dr. Wright Reply

I think Relevance and differentiation tie in together. If you work them together, you can come up with something memorable and be on track with what the customer needs.

Dr. Wright
The Wright Place TV Show

johnfurg Reply

Absolutely. Sometimes just the act of differentiating your company can make it relevant. However, you can be different, but irrelevant to your target audience.

Thanks for reading.

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Ellen Sluder Reply

What a fun post to come across, as we use almost exactly the same four points to when we build or reposition brands – with the only difference being the last ingredient. We use “Sustainable” versus “Consistency”.

One can easily argue that Consistency is the main ingredient for Sustainability — if you send different messages into the marketplace, you get a fractured brand that no longer stands for something and, in most cases, will fail. However, there is a piece missing that brings true longevity for a brand – and that is CONTEXT and the ability to adapt. A solid brand foundation should always stick to it’s core strategy (consistency) however, it needs to be able to respond to marketplace dynamics and be refined to ensure it continues to resonate with target audiences. The foundation stays the same, but the expression must be able to change with the times.

The first example I can think of off the top of my head just happens to be a large brand – so please forgive the genre of example for the sake of demonstration (as I wholeheartedly agree with your initial comment that branding is for everyone, not just the F500). Pepsi’s brand foundation is built upon being differentiated from “classic/Americana” Coca-Cola by being future-oriented and “the taste of a new generation”. As target audience’s view of what a future-forward brand looks like changed over the past century, the company advanced their logo many time. Most recently, they took a flat two-toned logo and updated it to have a shine-mark in it… indicating a metallic, technologic, new millenium appeal. In fact, Pepsi has reinvented their visual and verbal expression many times – without fundamentally altering their underlying brand strategy.

Yes, Consistency is absolutely critical in building a strong brand. And Sustainability is critical in the long-term viability of a brand.

Great post!
Thanks for reminding us all of the basics – it’s so important!

Ellen G. Sluder

ps- I lived in Oregon for 5 years and head back often – I’ll be sure to hunt down Taco Stand next time I’m in town!

DrarareriCoxy Reply

Thanks, a very informative site here, i will definately be back.


johnny Reply

uHZeDZ Thanks for good post

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