Top 10 Food Brands of 2005

Our picks for those trademarks that have withstood the test of time and forged an emotional connection with consumers.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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"Simply put, a brand is a promise," according to one of the advertising greats, Walter Landor. "By identifying and authenticating a product or service, it delivers a pledge of satisfaction and quality." If successful, a brand becomes part of the most valuable real estate in the world: a corner of the consumer's mind, says Landor. But building on that corner is more difficult than ever before. It's a brand new day for iconic brands; they can no longer rest on their laurels. They must have focus, be carefully nurtured and have relevance today. Those are the attributes we used to judge our Top 10 Brands.

What a brand is can be confusing, especially to consumers. "In the consumer's mind, there's no difference between a company or product name and a brand name," warns marketing strategist Al Reis of Ries & Ries Consulting, Roswell, Ga.

For example, the brand can be the company - General Mills - manufacturer of the product. Or it can be Betty Crocker, an umbrella brand and a symbol, personality or image of the brand. These days, food marketers drill branding down to the granular level: Betty Crocker SuperMoist Cake Mix is its own General Mills brand.

Whatever the method, the objective is to "brand," or burn, the brand image into the consumer's mind, to associate the image with the product's quality and promise, and to distinguish the brand's point of difference among its competition.

"Any brand in its truest sense is aspirational and never reaches a destination," says Robbie Vorhaus, founder of Vorhaus & Co., Sag Harbor, N.Y. "A successful brand is dynamic and to its core must seek perfection, knowing it's an unattainable goal, and yet believing that with the help of all stakeholders, one day paradise will unfold." And he adds, "This, of course, sounds mystical, somewhat surreal, and yet every great brand is magical and indefinable. Every great brand seems so real, so tangible, and yet when left with the task of defining Coke, McDonald's, Domino's Pizza, Heinz or Lipton, it becomes an impossible task because of that incredible, indescribable quality that leaves us using empty clichés like, ‘wonderful,' ‘special,' and ‘world-class.'"

Brand managers nurture a specific product, product line or brand, and if they are world-class, they increase the brand franchise or brand equity (which measures the brands value and investment) for the company. "A brand manager understands his or her job is to nurture the light, not the bulb," says Vorhaus. "The uninspired describe their brand as who they are; versus the conquering brand leader, who in true Zen fashion, camouflages the details and simply sells the benefits their brand fulfills."

When Coca-Cola, which has incredible brand recognition and brand equity, uses its own name for a specific product - a bottle of Coca-Cola - that's corporate branding. When it launches products under the Coca-Cola moniker - Diet Coke - it's described as family branding. When it uses its brand equity to launch a new line - Coca-Cola Zero - the intangible attributes and promise of the Coca-Cola brand, which to consumers means great soft drinks, leverages the brand.

"Vibrant brands experience a kind of intimate relationship with their consumers," says Harvey Hartman, founder, chairman and CEO of The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash. "But like any relationship, this partnership takes time, effort and patience. Just as nurtured relationships blossom and grow, ones that are ignored can fade and die."

Keeping in mind that brands want a lifelong relationship with consumers, we've chosen our Top 10 for their branding expertise and nurturing - brands that have withstood the test of time and continue to be relevant. Many others deserve to be on the list, so for all the inspired brand managers out there, we salute you.

Betty Crocker: America's first lady of food

A survey published in The New York Times earlier this year to determine which person has the most effect on the buying decisions of the American public found it was Betty Crocker, America's first lady of food. The fact that she's not a real person doesn't seem to matter, nor did it when desperate housewives sent her more than 4,000 letters a day at the height of her popularity. Today, Betty Crocker, the first lady of brands, who resides at Minneapolis-based General Mills, provides recipes, cookbooks and easy mixes for today's busy on-the-go families. Betty's secret: She has connected with generations of American women.

"For almost 85 years, Betty Crocker brands have earned consumers' trust through consistent quality in our products and publications to help them manage their food preparation dilemmas," explains Pam Becker, senior manager of brand public relations. "To do this, Betty Crocker must identify with the consumer and really understand what her key needs are. Then, Betty Crocker must take that need and, using superior technical skill, develop products that work every time under all circumstances to solve that need. In addition to products, the connection is also made by communicating exciting ideas on package, in advertising, publications, and through various other vehicles to our consumers."

Ironically, the first Betty Crocker was Samuel Gale, an advertising executive, who invented the handle in 1921 so he wouldn't have to sign his own name on letters to women seeking baking advice, according to "Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America's First Lady of Food," by Susan Marks. He chose "Betty" because it sounded cheery, wholesome and folksy, and "Crocker" in honor of William G. Crocker, a retired and much loved director of Washburn Crosby (now General Mills). It wasn't long before Betty grew into a full-blown persona: "a woman who could field questions about a marriage that had gone flat or a bread that refused to rise." Most consumers believed she existed (some still do today); she has even received marriage proposals from male fans looking for the perfect homemaker.

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