How food superbrands manage to become your family

Alex Riley in front of an old Coca-Cola car Alex Riley investigates the power of food brands

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Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Starbucks, Red Bull, Heinz: giants of the food and drink industry.

Food brands were the last behemoths of business we would tackle in our series Secrets of the Superbrands - a look under the bonnet of some of the world's largest companies.

But what is the secret of these food superbrands? How does a purveyor of grub become a global phenomenon?

"I buy food for the taste!" I thought. "I'm not some mug who is manipulated by branding."

Yet my kitchen cupboards are stacked with big name brands.

And it seems I am not alone.

Looking at the baked beans market, for instance, Heinz sells 10 times as many beans as their nearest rival.

Heinz baked beans have been on sale in this country since 1886. Since then there have been some minor tweaks but the recipe of this kitchen staple has remained basically the same.

Alex Riley and schoolchildren
  • Secrets of the Superbrands
  • BBC Three, 2100 BST, Tuesday, 31 May

Could it really be that no-one has come up with a better recipe in over 120 years? Do Heinz's beans really taste the best, or is there something else going on?

Family members

Neuroscientist Professor Gemma Calvert spends much of her working life examining the inside of consumers' heads with an MRI scanner.

By stimulating their brains with marketing materials she can see how they react to brands. She helped us to design an experiment to examine the Heinz phenomenon.

We showed an ordinary person a series of pictures of a Heinz beans can, a Coke can, Red Bull, McDonald's and a host of well-known branded packaging, followed by photos of their close friends and family members.

The results confirmed Prof Calvert's research. We use the same part of our brain to recognise well-known brands as we use to recognise friends and family.

The brands even provoke a similar feeling of warmth and well-being to the one we get when a loved one walks into the room.

Three classic tins of Heinz beans in a black and white photograph Heinz's labelling has changed little over the years

This is the part of the brain marketers dream of reaching. Once your brand is embedded this deeply in someone's mind they will keep buying your product (unless you do something really stupid).

These brands represent far more to us than just food.

We've grown up with them. We have such deep memories of them stored away they become part of who we are.

We also went out on the streets of Kingston and gave passers-by two samples of beans to compare - one from a Heinz tin and one from a Tesco Value beans tin.

Virtually everyone expressed strong opinions on which one was better - the one from the Heinz tin.

What they did not know, however, was that both samples were in fact the same, only the label was different.

Prof Calvert explained that the samples genuinely tasted different - the branding affects our taste buds.

Brand recognition

But achieving "family member" status has not been an accidental process. Mega-brands are powered by huge marketing machines, who work tirelessly to attain this holy grail of brand awareness.

Picture of Father Christmas on a Coca-Cola vehicle Coca-Cola put its brand on everything, including Christmas

I was amazed to discover that Coca-Cola had understood this way back in the 1880s. Within the first 10 years of its existence, the company had given away free samples to 10% of the US population.

It had also printed its logo on anything it could get hold of: trays, mirrors, key-rings, shops, billboards, neon signs.

Coke's hard work has meant that "Coca-Cola" is the second most widely understood phrase in the English language next to "OK".

That is not to say that superbrands always get it right though, as Coca-Cola will attest to.

The launch of New Coke in 1985 received such a poor reaction that Coke's original formula was subsequently reintroduced as Coca-Cola Classic.

So with all these years of brand building what hope is there for a newcomer? The answer is none.

Taking market share from an established food brand is "not to be attempted" according to ex-Heinz chief executive Tony Reilly.

Marketing spend

But there is a way around that problem - as Red Bull co-founder Deitrich Mateschitz demonstrated.

When he was told there was no market for energy drinks, he coolly replied: "We're going to invent one."

Formula 1 Red Bull racing team Red Bull have got their brand known by owning two Formula 1 teams

And he did. Red Bull now sells three billion cans a year.

But Mr Mateschitz was not a drinks man, nor did he have a background in food.

Like Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, and Asa Candler, the man who made Coke what it is, Mr Mateschitz's background was in marketing.

Like Coca-Cola, Red Bull spent a lot of money on marketing.

In fact, it is the 25% of revenue which Red Bull spends on marketing that makes it different to every other drink.

That money goes to buying, creating and getting their name plastered all over high-adrenalin sports.

Owning two Formula 1 teams, four football teams, two ice hockey teams and a jet fighter display team gives your drink a personality.

Once you have a strong personality and your name is everywhere, you can become a "family member".

So are we all mugs who are manipulated by global brands? We are certainly influenced by all the marketing hype but ultimately it is us who make the buying decision, and we will buy what we want.

Heinz has become a favourite "aunt" by giving us what we want for 125 years.

But if friends and family change, you can go off them very quickly.

Secrets of the Superbrands is on BBC Three at 2100 BST on Tuesday, 31 May.

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