(What you can learn from a healthy bowl of cereal and a two-buck burrito.)
Branding is a popular topic in the business press these days. Unfortunately, case studies about Coca-Cola, Nike and Virgin, make is sound like 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. And since our building boom crashed, a cheap lunch at Taco Stand has become cool to a lot more people. Like Walmart… hard times equal increased relevance.
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.
Kellog’s tried this recently 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.