Case Study: How Special K moved from indifferent to beloved

Posted on Posted in How to Guide for Marketers

Special K is a great case study of a brand who has gone from a one-dimensional boring cereal into something beyond what the brand could imagine. Cereal is one of those categories filled with a touch of magic, many of the beloved brands coming out of the “Mad Men” days of TV advertising. Brands like Corn Flakes, Cheerios, Rick Krispies and Froot Loops all have a certain wholesome charm. But while those brands have ‘historical equity’ it’s not really an equity that can drive sales. I’d say these brands are in a bit of a time warp, a throwback to simpler times when Cartoons were only on Saturday mornings.

Special K

Special K was an indifferent brand

I worked in the cereal business back in the 1990’s and we never thought anything about Special K. It just sat there with a very small and dying share. Basically, it was just the one flavor of cereal. Zero innovation. Just Rice Krispies crushed differently. Trust me, I was on the General Mills side and no competitors were worried about Special K.

The brand idea for Special K has been connected with weight loss since the mid 80s. The ads were focused on 110 calories–which is just a feature, not a benefit for the consumer. And honestly, if you look at most cereals, they’ll say 120-140 calories on the box.

This is a classic example that no one cares what you do until you care what they want. No one at Special K was putting themselves in the shoes of the consumer and asking “so what do I get?” or “how does this make me feel?” It was implied, but it was buried in the woman looking at herself in the mirror.

Our brand love curve

In the consumer’s mind, brands sit on a Brand Love Curve, with brands going from Indifferent to Like It to Love It and finally becoming a Beloved Brand for Life. At the Beloved stage, demand becomes desire, needs become cravings, thinking is replaced with feelings. Consumers become outspoken fans.

Special K was clearly an Indifferent Brand. There was very little consumer opinion, and for those who did buy Special K, they weren’t exactly the most ardent fans of the brand. Not only was the original flavor fairly bland, but everything about the brand was bland. Special K needed to stand for something. It needed an idea. They were dancing around the idea of weight loss but not really bringing the benefit to life.

A brand starts with an idea

The most beloved brands are based on an idea that is worth loving. It is the idea that connects the Brand with consumers. And under the Brand Idea are 5 Sources of Connectivity that help connect the brand with consumers and drive Brand Love, including 1) the brand promise 2) the strategic choices you make 3) the brand’s ability to tell their story 4) the freshness of the product or service and 5) the overall experience and impressions it leaves with you. Everyone wants to debate what makes a great brand–whether it’s the product, the advertising, the experience or through consumers. It is not just one or the other–it’s the collective connection of all these things that make a brand beloved.


Around 2000, Special K made a dramatic turn in the market. With all the diet-crazed consumers looking for new solutions, Special K had a stroke of brilliance when someone figured out that if you ate Special K twice a day for just two weeks, you could lose up to 6 pounds in 2 weeks. While all the other diet options felt daunting, this felt pretty easy to do.

While Special K had spent decades dancing around the weight loss idea, now they had a Brand Promise that was benefit focused and empowering: With Special K, just twice a day for 2 weeks, you can lose 6 pounds or better yet, drop a jean size. They stopped talking about the product and starting talking in the voice of the consumer.

The brilliant strategy is around the usage occasion of the second meal each day. Cereal had been a category that grew +3% for years, steady only with population growth and some demographics around boomers and echo generations. But now, there was finally a reason to eat cereal twice in one day.

Empowering Women

The communication of the Brand Story become about empowering women to take control using the Two Week Challenge. Here’s a very empowering ad around the “Drop a Jean Size” idea.

With a Brand Idea bigger than just a cereal, Special K’s innovation rivalled that of Apple. It started with the launch of Berry Special K that thrust the brand into a good tasting cereal, and has since added bars, shakes and water. Most recently, they’ve now launched potato chips (only 80 calories for 20 chips) and a Breakfast Sandwich option. it just goes to show you that it’s not about ‘out of the box’ ideas, but rather how you define the box. All these product launches are aligned to the idea of empowering women to maintain their weight. The diversified line up beyond cereal helps off-set any sales softness on cereal. This year, they’ve just announced they are re-looking Special K’s original recipe to keep the cereal share strong.

And rounding out the consumer experience is to take the challenge on-line, gives women a community of encouragement to help achieve their personal weight loss goals. Special K has also launched App for smart phones to help monitor weight goals. Special K has also tapped into time of year occasions around New Years and spring to re-enforce the brand messages.

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BMW Films: Branded content light years ahead of its time

Posted on Posted in Beloved Brands in the Market

Can you do something as great and as big as BMW Films from 2001?

As marketers are abuzz with content marketing, challenge yourselves to do great content you love, not just ok content work you like.  While being part of the community and targeting unique users is the right strategy, creating bad content might do more damage than good. It looks cheap. When you forget to entertain, when you don’t put in the quality in execution, or where your brand is too obviously jammed into a piece of content that has nothing to do with your brand. When you don’t astonish and delight the consumer, you fall flat. So, don’t just do content, do content that you and your consumer will love. 

BMW Films

Integrated content at it's best

In 2001, BMW launched BMW Films, light years ahead of the industry. While everyone was still worried about producing 30s and 15s and newspaper ads, most brand leaders were still thinking whether they could afford to put 1% of their budgets into the Internet. From a brand point of view to that point, BMW had always used traditional media like TV and Print to sell their cars. But they saw that things were changing, especially seeing that the role of the internet on the purchase cycle. Roughly 85% of BMW purchasers used the Internet before purchasing a BMW. BMW knew that the average work-hard, play-hard customer was 46 years old, with a median income of about $150,000. Two-thirds were male, married, and had no children. In general, we see that Brands move along the Love Curve, going from Indifferent to Like It and Love It before becoming that Beloved Brand for Life.  Competitively, BMW had a lot of love but it was still battling traditional rival Mercedes who had the most love of all Luxury Car Brands. Everyone else was compared to Mercedes.  Also, brands like Lexus and Infiniti were gaining some emotional support from consumers and gaining share. BMW needed something to show consumers what makes a BMW truly a BMW. They needed to put their stake in the ground to push to be the Most Beloved Luxury Car brand. They needed something that the consumer would love and in turn love the BMW brand.


Make the BMW car the hero

The idea of BMW Films was to cast the BMW car as a hero into the starring role of a movie, and in fact many movies. BMW assembled a cast of A-list directors (Guy Richie, Tony Scott, Ang Lee) and A-list actors (Clive Owen Forest Whittiker, Madonna, Mickey Rourke), and developed scripts within the basic framework of having a central character that helped people through difficult circumstances using deft driving skills—in a BMW. The car became the star. Each director who chose a script was then given complete creative control over content and direction, something they would be hard-pressed to find in Hollywood, and something that BMW ordinarily wouldn’t allow if filming a traditional advertisement.

BMW used traditional media with mock movie trailers on TV and on-line advertising to surround their consumer and drive traffic to the website. The end results were staggering: the series had been viewed over 100 million times in four years and had changed the way products were advertised. BMW has had a great decade of sales, recently surpassing both Lexus and Mercedes as the #1 luxury brand.


BMW took risks

BMW Films was out there. It took risks, and was an incredible production. To me, it’s still the benchmark for Content Marketing. To me, it’s like Bob Beamon surpassing the long jump record by 2 1/2 feet when everyone else was measuring in inches. It’s like Babe Ruth hitting 60 home runs when the next guy had 17. The love for a brand normally comes when we love the work we do on that brand. The love permeates through our work and onto the consumer. However, if we don’t love the work, how do we expect our consumers to magically love the output of our work and then love our brand? Not likely. My challenge to you: push yourself to love it, don’t just kinda like it. Don’t settle.
Since BMW Films, I have seen some great viral work like T-Mobile, incredible integrations which make me stare and say “wow, I wish I did that”. But in the past 10 years I’m yet to say “Now that’s better than BMW Films”.

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Learn to think, define, plan, execute and analyze your brand

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Linsanity becomes an overnight Beloved Brand

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Jeremy Lin has become an overnight sensation. Here’s a guy who didn’t get any scholarships, went undrafted and has been cut by two NBA teams already. His rookie NBA season, he averaged 2.6 points per game and barely got any playing time. Just two months ago, he was cut by Golden State, one of the worst teams in the league. He went to Harvard of all places and even in the Ivy League, he only averaged 12 points a game. This guy has literally come from out of nowhere. Even he knows that.  He was sleeping on his brother’s couch just a month ago. On top of all this, Jeremy Lin is the first American born Chinese player to a breakthrough in the NBA, which strengthens his fan base around the world. In just seventeen days, he’s gone from a nobody to an instant global sensation, who might one day command a brand value of over $100 Million.

As I’ve laid out the Brand Love Curve, people ask me “Can a brand go straight to LOVE IT?” My answer is “NO”, but some brands can go along the curve at warped-speed. A few examples: the first time I had a White Chocolate Magnum Bar in the 1990s, I made it all the way to the Love It stage on the second bite. When Kevin Spacey as “Keyser Söze” started limping away at the end of The Usual Suspects, I instantly knew it would be my one of my brands for life. Lin has gone to Beloved Status that fast.

Jeremy Lin’s first big game was only 17 nights ago and yet he’s all over the news.   Eighteen days ago, no one really knew him. In fact, his own Facebook status in early January was “Every time I try to get into Madison Square Garden, the security guards ask me if I’m a trainer LOL”. His story has grown in legendary fashion, winning 7 games in a row, hitting last-second shots, beating Kobe Bryant. All this is the basketball side.

As a brand, Jeremy Lin has gone along the Brand Love Curve at warp-speed, potentially even faster than Justin Bieber. But for Lin, it’s been the Perfect Storm of Events.

  1. He’s just an Average Joe: He went undrafted, cut by two teams, no job, sleeping on his brother’s couch. Great Story. It all adds up–he’s one of us. We love those stories, where the guy just shows up to try out and makes the team. Before the Lakers game, Kobe was laughing about the prospect of guarding him. After he scored 38 points, Kobe was marveling at his ability. They make movies with scripts like that.
  2. He’s another Tebow:  He thanks Jesus when he wins. He’s nice and humble. He’s also a highly flawed player who like Tebow, wins in the end. And like Tebow, he wins in dramatic fashion. We just rode the Tebow Story–and we’re clearly not done with it. Most of us want more Tebow. We want heroes and we want them to be good guys. 
  3. New York is the Centre of the Universe: If this was Oklahoma or Portland, it might not be so crazy, but it’s New York, the home to the most powerful media and advertising in the world. He’s already made the cover of Time Magazine and now back-to-back covers on Sports Illustrated.  Ratings for Knick games are through the roof–the highest since Michael Jordan.  His #17 jersey is selling like crazy. Social Media has gone crazy behind Lin.  Did the New York Media help add fuel to the fire?  Likely.
  4. It’s a Global Story:  Lin, while born in America is the first American born Chinese player in the NBA.   His games are being watched Live in China. And he’s an instant national hero in a country of One Billion people.  And as we know, the economy in China is strong–giving them the real purchasing power to get behind Lin.

As with any Beloved Brand, the more loved the brand the more valuable that brand will be.    A month ago Lin was making the league minimum. Now, he could be worth somewhere between $15 Million and $150 Million, depending on how long this status can last for him. A few numbers that help tell the story.

  • Since Feb. 4th MSG’s stock price has increased 6%, adding $139 million to the company’s market value. During the same period, the S&P 500 has gone up less than 1%. With increased TV ratings, higher ticket prices and the #1 selling jersey, with continued success, the Knicks have to re-sign him. That means Lin’s next contract could see a salary of $10 Million per year.
  • Yoa Ming, the only other notable Chinese player in the NBA, made up $80 million in endorsement deals in China.  China has gotten behind Lin in a dramatic fashion.  With a soaring economy and One Billion consumers, that could be a huge payday for Lin.   Especially for American brands wanting to a breakthrough in China. With all this hype and Chinese pride, Lin could generate $80-100 Million in China.
  • There are already rumors going on that he has signed on with Nike, that he will be the new face of NBA’13 and his agent is quoted as saying that he has already turned down Millions. Even in America, Lin could easily turn this into another $25 Million in US Endorsements.  

If things go right, and assuming Lin continues to play reasonably well, add it all up and Jeremy Lin could easily turn his Beloved Brand Status into $100-150 Million per year.

Finding your love in the art of being different

Posted on Posted in Beloved Brands Explained

Whether it is with advertising or new product innovation, brand leaders must embrace the art of being different.

Too many new product launches follow the same formula: conduct a basic product concept testing, hope for a moderate pass, meet with sales and explain how this is almost identical to the launch we did last year and builds on the same thing we just saw our competitor do, re-enforce that the buyer hinted that if we did this, we’d get on the shelves pretty easily. Go to your ad agency, with a long list of mandatories and an equally long list of benefits they can put in the ad. Tell the agency you’re excited. They’ll tell you they’re excited as well. Ask for lots of options, as a precaution because time is tight and we’re not sure what we want. Test all the ads, even a few different endings, and then let the research decide which one is best. That way, no one can blame you. Do up a safe media plan with mostly TV, some small but safe irrelevant secondary media choice. 


Ah, we have our launch

You mistakenly think this is a guaranteed formula for success because it follows last year’s launch. You convince yourself that you had to play it safe because sales are down, margins are tight and you will do something riskier next year once this launch is successful. What looks like a guaranteed success will likely get off to a pretty good start and then flat-line until it will be discontinued three brand managers from now.

The best new product innovation and advertising has to be both different and smart

At some point, to a breakthrough in a cluttered market, you have to do something different enough to stand out: now, more than ever. It might feel like a risky move, but it is almost riskier not to take that chance. Push yourself to be different.  


smart different

Find the space that is smart and different

Smart but not different (our launch above) 

These do better in tests than in the market, mainly because consumers have seen a similar idea before. In the market, these launches tend to get off to a pretty good start—since it still seems so familiar to consumers. However, once challenged in the market by a competitor, this launch tends to falter because people start to realize it is no different at all. So they go back to their usual brand and your launch starts to go flat. This option offers limited potential.


Smart and different:


These launches don’t always test well: consumers don’t really know what to make of it. Even after launched, it can take time to gain momentum, having to invest in advertising to explain the story and you need to put in the effort to really make the difference come to life. Once consumers start to see the differences and how it meets their needs, they equate different with “good.” This new product begins to gain share and generates profits for the brand. This option offers long-term sustainability.


Not smart and not different:


These are the safest of safe, likely a complete copy of someone else in the market. This happens when the pipeline is dry. You go back into the R&D lab and pick the best one you have–even if it is not very good. They do pretty well in tests because of their familiarity. What appears safe is actually highly risky. You should have followed your instincts and not launched. This option is a boring failure.


Different but not that smart

This is what happens when marketers get focused on the product first instead of the consumer. This type of launch offers superior technology, but not really meeting an unmet need. So you launch what is different for the sake of being different. It does poorly in testing because the consumers do not get it. Everyone along the way wonders why we are launching. But in the end, consumers don’t really care about your point of difference, and it fails. This launch is the better mousetrap that no one cares about.

Advertising Testing Result

Push yourself to be different

Brand leaders need to figure out how to separate good from the bad. One caution is letting market research over-ride your own instincts. As Steve Jobs said: “it’s hard for consumers to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it. Yet now that people see it, they say OH MY GOD THAT’S GREAT.”

As a marketer, we tracked many numbers (awareness, brand link, persuasion, etc), but the one I always wanted to know how we were doing on was “made the brand seem different.”

Whether it is new products, a new advertising campaign or new media options, always push yourself to do something that stands out. Don’t just settle for ok. Always push for great. If you don’t love the work, how do you expect your consumer to love your brand? Afterall, the opposite of different is indifferent and who wants to be indifferent.      

In case you need any added incentive: Albino fruit flies mate at twice the rate of normal fruit flies and the place where most groundhogs are run over is right in the middle of the road.  

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Our playbooks will show you new ways for how to think, define, plan, execute and analyze your brand

  1. You will find new strategic thinking models and examples for each of the four strategic thinking methods, looking at core strength, competitive, consumer, and situational strategies. 
  2. To define the brand, I provide a tool for writing a brand positioning statement as well as a consumer profile and a consumer benefits ladder. I have created lists of potential functional and emotional benefits to kickstart your thinking on brand positioning. We show a step-by-step process to come up with your brand idea and bring it all together with a tool for writing the ideal brand concept. 
  3. For brand plans, I provide formats for a long-range brand strategy roadmap and the annual brand plan with definitions for each planning element. From there, I show how to build a brand execution plan that includes the marketing communications plan, innovation process, and sales plan. 
  4. To grow your brand, I show how to make smart decisions on marketing execution with chapters on how to write a creative brief, how to make decisions on creative advertising and how to lead the media choices. 
  5. When it comes time for analyzing the performance of your brand, I provide all the analytical tools you need to lead a deep-dive business review, looking at the marketplace, consumer, channels, competitors and the brand.  

You will learn everything you need to know so you can run your brand and be successful in your marketing career.

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Burger’s Priest, the building of a beloved burger

Posted on Posted in Beloved Brands in the Market

Original Story, October 2011:  This Saturday, I visited THE BURGER’S PRIEST in Toronto.

Even before you try the burger, you hear the story first, and it’s quite crazy. That’s the way a brand should be.  I have had quite a few people tell me that the Burgers Priest was clearly the best in Toronto. But then they get into the storytelling of what they know. Part of the story is this idea of a secret menu, that you have to ask for. Funny enough but if you google “Priest Secret Menu”, you’ll see about 15 stories come up from various Food Critic reviews. Confirms that it’s a marketing ploy–and a great one for driving word of mouth. The second part of the story is that the owner, who most describe as crazy, even though they never likely interact with him. Apparently, one day he was looking for a really good burger and couldn’t find one. So, he decided to just get in his car and drive until he could find one. He ended up in his car for six months, traveling all through the US from New York to the South, through Texas and Out to California and back. He was intent on learning about the secrets of the best hamburgers he could find. He’s has photos, up at the Priest, of all the great burger places that inspired this burger. Once back, he took all the great ideas and build his own burger. He’s layered in the idea that this burger is a religious experience, with the priest’s idea.  And the mission is to “redeem the burger one at a time”. That’s the brand story anyway.Best burger

Now with a brand story, you need to create buzz. Word of mouth on this is amazing. When I got there, just before noon on Saturday, there were already 10 people in line about 10 minutes before the place was open. I also saw the attached sign, asking people to line up to the left to avoid blocking the entrance to the Apartment. I looked for the apartment, and it’s about a good 50 feet away.

So clearly, all the story and mystique has created a word of mouth that is getting people to travel for this burger. It’s 45 min from my house, and I ran into someone I knew who lives 45 minutes the other way. Both of us just felt compelled to try it. Keep in mind, the stories he’s created help drive word of mouth and in turn demand. The line up makes things much more predictable for him, so the food is fresher/better tasting. He can manage his inventories, staff accordingly and drive down his costs by driving up his volume. Plus, I would have paid anything at this moment for the burger. Lastly, I started to tell my friend in line that about the Five Guys burger I had which was amazing and a stranger jumped into our conversation to defend his priest, saying it’s not even close.   Already has brand advocates defending the brand. He’s clearly working his branded business system.

As for the burger, it was ideal. I’d say it’s a tie with Five Guys Burgers–which has a story unto itself–with celebrity endorsements like Obama and Shaquille O’Neil. Both use the same technique of keeping the burger juicy while ensuring it’s well done on the outside.  Very similar taste. (More bacon on the Five Guys, and the Fries are better) The fries at the Priest need improving to be great. Poor Licks, a Toronto icon for many years, has been losing out the last few. The only good thing about Licks now, is there’s never any wait and you can have a nice quiet meal (e.g. no one goes there)

For those of you looking for a great burger, I’d recommend it for sure. For those of you looking for unique marketing and seeing how a small business is trying to drive a BELOVED BURGER, this is a great example. Not sure if he spent six months figuring out the world’s best burger, or just six months becoming the world’s best marketer. A great brand in the making.

Top 3 Burgers in Toronto (my view)

  1. Five Guys Burgers
  2. Burgers Priest
  3. Craft Burger (now the Big Smoke)

Nov 16th, 2011, Update to the Story: Burger’s Priest opening a second location in North Toronto, on Yonge Street between York Mills and Lawrence.  Great location choice. Talk of further expansion into the West end of Toronto, likely High Park or Bloor West Village.   Need a good income level to afford 9 dollar burgers. It will be interesting to see how many they put into Toronto, and then into the rest of Canada. One big fan of the Priest who I told was actually disappointed about the expansion plans.