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Examining the curious role of brand in the product life cycle

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

A new report debunks the notion that brand defines a product in consumers’ eyes across its entire life cycle.

Contemporary marketing thinking suggests that a brand somehow defines the product. The modern discipline of brand management encourages this view by organizing firms into brand teams designed to manage strongly branded portfolio.

The larger the revenue is, and/or the more market share dominant the brand is, the more that brand begins to overshadow product in the culture of decision making. Elaborate brand architectures get built on top of the product portfolio, especially if it is operating in a heavily commoditized category. And in planning meetings, for virtually every business decision contemplated, someone raises their hand and asks: How would it affect the brand?

The privileging of brand talk over product talk continues to encourage a grand forgetting in the modern packaged foods industry, a forgetting of what actually caused most of today’s market share leading legacy brands to get where they are today. While marketing and branding play an important role in the growth of any consumer facing business, it is very easy, in retrospect, to ascribe an unfair share of credit for a food product’s eventual success to its brand. After all, how many successful yet formerly niche lines of business in the food world have ever had lousy branding? Chobani, Kashi, Stacy’s, vitaminwater…all killer works of branding.

In Hartman Strategy’s new report, The Curious Role of Brand in the Food Product Life Cycle, we upend the notion that brand defines a product in consumers’ eyes across its entire life cycle. The power of a brand to drive trial or growth, by itself, is exaggerated mostly by those who specialize in branding and advertising (whose billings are weighted mostly toward the marketing needs of what we call late stage, legacy brands with high awareness.) The reality, we know from consumer research and the marketing science literature, is quite the opposite. The persuasive role of brand and brand symbolism varies greatly over the life cycle of a food business, depending especially on how the broader food culture interacts with it.

Today, brand is a taken-for-granted component of everyday food culture. The notion of it is no longer interesting. Nevertheless, a core asset of today’s food brands remains their ability to create/sustain trust in a set of products among a specific consumer audience. How brands actually attain this level of cultural power, however, is a taken-for-granted reality within which most line managers operate their businesses. In a ‘mature’ market like the United States, the vast majority of total market share in the average category is controlled by old, established big brands that generally do not need to build awareness/trust from scratch. This is their biggest asset when trying to drive trial for new products.

The most significant, disruptive growth in the market today is actually occurring mostly among younger, emerging brands, most of which flow from channels and retail banners catering to the upmarket end of the population, a group we have written repeatedly about. By definition, these are products that have very low brand awareness, aided or unaided, in the general population. (Figure 1)

How do these emerging food brands develop consumer trust, in the absence of any apparent brand recognition or meaningful resources to promote themselves aggressively? The short answer is they actually can do it very quickly…but not through marketing a brand.

Our research into how today’s consumers identify, try and repeatedly purchase emerging brands supports the view that early in the food and beverage product life cycle (regardless of marketing positioning), trust is built mostly on the basis of a truly differentiated product.


Obtain a free copy of The Curious Role of Brand in the Food Product Life Cycle.

James F. Richardson, Ph.D., senior vice president of Hartman Strategy, The Hartman Group’s growth strategy arm, works exclusively with the largest and most-respected global food and beverage companies to identify, create, and seize white space opportunities that align with constantly evolving food culture. Email James at: [email protected]