Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Tips from goodDog on when and how to level-up from a product to a brand

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

No matter how fast entrepreneurs hustle or how good their products are, all companies inevitably hit plateaus that threaten to stall or even kill their businesses, and how quickly they can push through depends in large part on the strength of their branding.

Unfortunately, when most companies launch, all they have is the product, and they don’t have the resources yet to create slick branding that will protect them from the competition and other threats. On the bright side, they might not need a powerful brand right away, according to the co-founders of the brand strategy and marketing firm goodDog.

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts Podcast, Lisa Hyman, who is the head of strategy and ideas at goodDog, and her partner Max Kabat, who is head of relationships, explain the difference between a product and a brand, why – and when – companies should invest in branding, and how to successfully make the leap.

Focus on the product first

When companies that are just starting out face the unenviable question of whether to refine their product or their branding first, Hyman and Kabat say they should focus first on the product – because without it there is no need for branding.

“When you first start your company, you really should be focused on the thing you make”​ because it has to be “unimpeachable,”​ easy to find, delicious and replicable at scale, Kabat said. “If you can’t do that well, it doesn’t matter what kind of brand you have because if the consumer opens your bag of something and it is gross or it is good and they try it once and then they can’t find it again,”​ you won’t get a repeat sale.

At this point, the only brand elements companies should focus on is knowing who their consumer is, how much consumers will pay and what they want to see on the pack in order to put it in their cart, she added.

When to expect plateaus and what to do when you hit one

But eventually, Hyman and Kabat said, just having a product – no matter how great it is – is not enough to overcome the escalating challenges and plateaus that threaten a growing business.

As they explain, these plateaus can run the gamut from lack of funds to increased competition to shifting consumer preferences to changing cultural circumstances.

For example, a company may create a new category, but eventually the me-too items will pile on and that is when branding gives consumers a reason to choose one option over another, Hyman said.

Other times companies will hit a plateau because culture changed, such as when consumers suddenly demanded protein and added benefits in their snacks, rather than simply something salty or sweet.

“These are moments when someone might come to us and say, oh my god, this is who we thought we were, but all these forces have come to play – or one of those forces has come to play, and we really to figure out given who we are, what we stand for, what the competitive set looks like, what the circumstances look like, we need to figure out a way forward so we can continue to win,”​ Hyman said.

Do a reality check before branding

When this happens, the best defense against all of these challenges is to have standout branding that inspires consumer loyalty. But recognizing that building a brand is resource intensive, Hyman and Kabat recommend that before companies go all in, they do a quick reality check to see if they are ready.

This includes determining if a category really is competitive, who the consumer is, and whether or not the leadership team is willing to do the work of building a brand versus remaining a commodity.

Find your compass

If a company decides it is ready to level up with branding and ready to do the work, Hyman and Kabat say the first step is to find your own compass – which can be easier said than done if in the process of growing the business things went off course.

“Sometimes in the midst of growth, maybe you innovated in places you shouldn’t have, you made a couple of mistakes hiring or you’ve done a package redesign that doesn’t look so good and people aren’t responding to it and you are trying to sort out why your plateau has happened. That is often the moment where it is almost like a weepy moment for a lot of leadership teams that are like, how did this happen! We knew all of this and forgot,”​ Hyman said of the process of finding a company’s compass.

Even if a company can’t afford outside help, it can still take steps to find its compass by having someone trusted inside the company sit down with the founders and leadership, ask the tough questions, and literally write out their answers to define the company’s purpose and mission, Hyman said.

Find an enemy

Another way to define your brand is by clearly stating what it is not in a way that will rally consumers behind it, Hyman said.

The enemy might be a competitor or it might be a cultural element, such as when Dove rebranded as beauty products for every body type and not just those that are perfectly shaped with clear skin, she said.

Hyman added that while creating an enemy may sound mean, it actually gives consumers something else to grab on to and engage around with a brand.

Know what the invisible hand is doing

Another factor to consider when crafting a brand is what Hyman and Kabat call the invisible hand.

“The invisible hand is what we call these sort of forces at work that maybe you don’t see or you aren’t even aware of that drive purchase,”​ such as consumers’ belief systems or the conversations they had earlier in the day or the media they consumed, Hyman said.

“If you are a company making something that is part of a cultural moment, you better know what the invisible hands are that are pushing on your consumer because if you don’t address them or speak to them somebody else is going to,”​ she added.

Be ready to work

Kabat recognized that all of this is a lot to navigate, but companies should avoid the temptation to cut corners because the ‘homeruns’ are rare and most success only comes from hard work.

He also reiterated that once a company puts in the hard work and won, it still isn’t over. Rather, Hyman added, companies need to be prepared to be consistent and stay true to their brand once they’ve created it.

Brands also should celebrate their brand loudly, she said, so that consumers know what they stand for and buy their product and give companies the velocity they need to break through upcoming plateaus, because there is always going to be another one.

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