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THE 7 PILLARS OF SUCCESSFUL BRANDING: Pillar #7 How to Identify Your Brand Essence

How to Identify Your Brand Essence

Think of your Brands Essence as the heart and soul of your product or service.

Your Brand Essence is that potent intangible that separates you from your competitors in the eyes of your target audience[s]. Everything emanates from it. It’s the guiding light for all product features, benefits and the way you want your audience to feel in engaging with you and your offerings.

Here’s a great example:

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to work with Pillsbury on their Totino’s Pizza Roll marketing. This was such an exciting project because the marketing team gave me full reign to do what I do well. I got to use all my most sophisticated techniques to research their customers and prospects and uncover the insights that helped them create a powerful brand that exceeded expectations in profits for many years.

Initially, marketing imagined the consumer would be the typical Adult Male watching the Super Bowl and other Sports on TV. But our research proved that they were not the best prospect. Most adult Sports Fans want something very readily hand to mouth, like chips and dip or crackers.

In the initial research, we spoke to a number of potential segments in a series of focus groups: men, teens and preteens [guys and gals] and Moms. It became apparent that the biggest opportunity for usage were guys aged 11-16 who were hungry and growing and needed fuel, especially when they got home from school. They were starved and wanted something which tasted good and felt substantial enough to tide them over til dinner.

Their preferred ‘snack’ also had to be …

- Mom approved,

- Easy and fast to prepare

- With little to no clean up

The Pizza Roll was perfect for them.

Boys loved that it was tasty, warm and filling. It was easy to consume in bite size pieces. They could just pop it in the microwave themselves and it was ready in minutes. Mom loved it because she could do what she needed to do, knowing her kid was covered.

We discovered that Totino’s Pizza rolls brand essence was the INDEPENDENCE it represented for both Kid and Mom.

Totino’s optimized the offering to be sure everything resonated with its newly identified Brand Essence.

Every element of Totino’s Pizza Rolls was in line with the theme of Independence, from the product itself, to the packaging and ease of preparation to presentation and advertising.

For example, to further the ease of use and convenience aspect, the product package was actually redesigned to be in a microwavable container that also became a disposable serving tray. Totino’s went from freezer to microwave to table to mouth to trash with nothing to clean up.

The resulting commercial showed a kid sitting at the kitchen table with his homework. He’s sitting on a rolling chair – his first set of wheels? He pushes off from the table and rides to the freezer, then to the microwave where he throws in a carton of Totino’s Pizza Rolls. He never has to leave his “vehicle” to fix himself a quick bite. We see Mom in the background with her car keys looking on approvingly as she leaves him on his own.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with the Marketing Research Director back then:

Sharon: What were the specific insights that facilitated change for pizza rolls?

Steve: Focusing on the whole kid independence insight. We realized it was more than just game day food. It was a match of what the independent thing brought for the kid and how the kid felt about it as well as how the mom felt about it because mom…remember when we did the mom group?

They’d say, Oh, they love your product. I wish they wouldn’t eat quite so much pizza, but it just … it gets them out of my hair when I’m trying to get dinner on the table and I remember you asking, ‘Well, aren’t you concerned their eating 15 pizza rolls right before dinner?’

No. These are growing teenage boys; they make those pizza rolls and still eat dinner and mom just let it be. It was no issue with mom, which had been my big concern too. Why would moms let their kids eat 15 pizza rolls an hour before dinner?

Sharon: What was the end benefit to mom?

Steve: The end benefit to mom was…on the rational end of it was it got the kid out of her hair in the kitchen because the kid could make it himself right in the microwave. The more emotional benefit to mom was she was raising an independent kid, a kid that could fend for himself.

At the same time, it freed her up. It was her independence too. It freed her up so she could work on her other tasks. And, there was an added benefit …if Johnny had pizza rolls that’s where the kids would all come and congregate. Mom supplies them so she makes Johnny look good to his friends. Which is something mom wants.

Sharon: Why does mom want that?

Steve: Mom wants to know where her kid is, she wants to know what her kid is doing. I think every mom would rather have the kids all at her house. And as kids, after school you’d seek out whichever mom had the best food.

Based on what we heard, we defined a copy strategy on this whole independence thing and as you know since you did the groups, we actually went out and tested product platforms turned into concepts until we got them right qualitatively.

And then tested quantitatively to be sure we had the selling points and emotional take-aways.

You start with the product as a hot snack then you work your way to what it means? It tastes good and it’s small and it’s microwaveable and then you work your way up to a product benefit. The kids can have a spur-of-the-moment snack that they like, and then up to what they call an extended benefit or emotional end benefit. It makes mom feel fulfilled as a good nurturer as BOTH achieve independence.

Pizza Rolls is a hot, delicious spur of the moment snack that builds kids independence because all they have to do is pop it into the microwave and Voila! As you move up the chain of benefits from feature to functional benefit to emotional benefit - the ladder that gets you to the core of product - you TALK about the features but you suggest or imply the emotional benefits by SHOWING vs. SAYING what they are.

So, the independence part, you’d show rather than say. You can’t really use an advertisement to say out loud that it will make you more independent. Instead, you demonstrate independence so people see that in the ad. The copy talks about the features and advantages that drive the sense of Independence which they see depicted in the graphics of an ad or in the video.

Sharon: Do you remember the initial ad?

Steve: There were two of them. One I loved and one was okay. There was the soccer mom one, which didn’t air a lot. It actually had one of the USA soccer team members I believe was the mom in the ad. So, there was the kid who was at home, came home from school I think, and was playing with his soccer ball in the kitchen while making pizza rolls.

Just bouncing it off his head and all that kind of stuff that soccer people do. Once legal got through with it, he probably didn’t bounce the ball too much. It was ok, but . . .

The great one, the other one was the kid…The one that tested better was the kid that was at home doing homework and needed a break and he goes zooming into the kitchen on a roller-type chair. It was a highly successful ad. Seeing the kid with his first set of wheels. It was like training wheels for becoming a guy. Maybe in later life you’d see him out on the deck tossing burgers on the grill!

Sharon: Right. And then where has it evolved?

Steve: Hmm. I’m trying to think what’s on the air right now. I’ve not seen the most recent campaign. But, they’re still on kid independence.

Sharon: How’s the brand doing, by the way?

Steve: Extremely well. When we did this work, we ended up actually putting our product on allocation because we couldn’t produce enough.

Sharon: Wow.

Steve: And if I recall right, we ended up building another line just to produce it, and it’s growing like a weed still.

Sharon: Do you think it’s being used by the target market that you selected?

Steve: Absolutely. I think we hit the bull’s eye on that. The work you did was great at delving into the mom’s and kids’ minds to identify the core values. The value of that is that in order to position your product right you need to understand…you need to get deep inside the head of your best consumers and if you understand what makes them tick you can apply that and explain that to other people through your advertising – with a combination of what you show and what you tell.

Sharon: I remember that one of the most exciting things to me was seeing the campaign airing over the years and seeing that it still maintained the integrity of what we discovered. That was really, really exciting.

Steve: There were a couple of interesting things that happened there. One was that. The other one that I thought was quite interesting was that a bunch of other manufacturers jumped on this bandwagon all at about the same time or shortly after it.

You saw a number of companies on this independent…kid independent kick for a while there. It was a good idea. It was a really good idea.

Sharon: That’s great. There are two important points to highlight here: First, the brand essence—like virtually all branding elements—is emotive and human. It is intangible and therefore felt by the audience.

Second, brevity matters. Distilling your brand’s “soul” into a word or two requires it to be authentic and succinct.

Here are some others which are among the most widely recognized examples of brand essence:

Volvo – Safety

Apple – Think Different

Nike – Athletic Performance

Harley Davidson – Rebel

Hallmark – Custom Caring

Walt Disney World – Magical Innocence

Companies with strong brands actually use their brand essence as a decision-making tool, not just in their marketing efforts but across the organization.

Take Volvo’s brand essence, which is simply “safety.” It’s not a tagline. It isn’t explicitly articulated to the public, but it is felt and experienced by consumers.

For Volvo, safety is their north star. It guides everything they do, from the way the company builds cars, to how they operate their business, to the copy and imagery it uses in advertising.

“Volvo Vision 2020 is one of the most ambitious safety visions in the automotive industry. It is rooted in our leadership in safety and the fact that everything we do starts with protecting the people inside and around our cars. Our aim is that no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo by 2020. While we are proud of what we have achieved so far, we are not satisfied yet.”

How do I determine what my brand essence is?

One interesting approach is the Benefit Chain/Laddering technique that Steve from Totino’s alluded to.

Talk to your fans and ask them in a one on one interview to tell you the single best thing about your product or service. Then invite them to “ladder up” to the emotional end benefit. That’s one of the techniques that helped Totino’s Pizza Roll identify the “Independence” theme.

After you do the research and really listen to your consumers and prospects, remember that all good branding feels intuitive. Paradoxically, branding is rarely a breezy, uncomplicated process: it requires a disciplined balance between creativity and logic. But as with any tough challenge, branding can be tackled one step at a time (starting, of course, with the brand essence).

Would you like help identifying your brand essence?

I’ll be conducting a podcast on unearthing your Brand Essence with several examples from real people like you.

If you’re interested in taking part, feel free to contact me directly at Or call 201 614 4439

And, to get a free copy of my Laddering methodology, email me and I’ll send it to you.

To your success,

Dr. Sharon Livingston

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