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Brands: Define Your Secret Sauce, Keep It Sacred

By Allen Schiffenbauer

When my son was a teenager we took an international family vacation every year. While he enjoyed soaking up unusual sights, sounds and tastes, he always asked to eat at a local McDonald’s. Wherever we roamed, the McDonald’s experience was the same, from the smell of the stores to the taste of the special sauce on the Big Mac. My son liked the predictable and familiar in those visits. I appreciated the price and enjoyed taking note of menu items that were relevant to the local market — wine at McDonald’s in Italy and Dr. Pepper in Texas.

McDonald’s nails what many global B2C and B2B brands struggle to get right. It represents a strong, compelling promise to customers about what it offers — an efficient, inexpensive and familiar meal — and delivers on it consistently. While most aspects of the McDonald’s experience — the brand’s “special sauce,” let’s say — are the same everywhere, the marketer understands that it must allow some flexibility to meet business goals, cross borders, and evolve with consumer tastes.

Great, enduring companies identify and embrace what makes their brands special, deliver it the same way every time and know when to allow meaningful flexibility. This isn’t easy. It requires a deep dive into what customers value in a brand and a commitment to deliver that time after time. Companies that thrive typically don’t mess with the “sauce” that makes their brands special. Consider IBM. Big Blue started life as International Business Machines, evolved into a mainframe computer company and, following its 2002 acquisition of PwC Consulting, became a business solutions consultancy. Today, its “Smarter Planet” positioning underscores the company’s promise to help create solutions that are collaborative, responsive and socially responsible. Much has changed in the world since IBM was founded. What remains consistent: The world sees IBM as an innovator who can meet a client’s business needs in an ever more technology-oriented world.

GE is another great example of a company that has managed to stay true to a heritage of innovation and “bringing good things to life” while evolving its product line through light bulbs and toaster ovens to jet engines and financing. It enters new business and exits old ones when it makes sense but never abandons the overall legacy of General Electric, which was cofounded by Thomas Edison.

Occasionally, companies alienate fans when they change course unexpectedly or mess with what makes their brands special. A couple of years ago, for instance, watchers of Volvo Cars of North America sent up a flare when it appeared the company was veering from its decades-long “safety” positioning. It was even criticized for touting a “naughty” sedan. The company is on brand again and reportedly aims to have no injuries or fatalities involving its vehicles by the year 2020. Even McDonald’s sometimes blunders. While the company now offers salads and premium coffee as it adapts to changing tastes and competition, the company is sitting on 10 million pounds of unsold chicken wings it purchased recently. The wings were criticized for being too spicy for its customers and more expensive than rivals’ offerings. “Mighty Wings” didn’t fly at McDonald’s, but they offered a lesson to this company and others: Change the menu if you must, but don’t mess with the sauce.

Allen Schiffenbauer is chief research officer for The Brand Consultancy in Washington, D.C. His recent client work includes helping position Children’s National Medical Center for growth in an increasingly competitive marketplace. He also worked with Quicken Loans to develop and deliver a compelling promise that is indeed “Engineered to Amaze”. In previous engagements, he had the privilege of introducing the world to a variety of new products ranging from Bud Light to Fruit Roll-ups.