The missing ingredient: Credentials.

April 1, 2005

Three years after Barilla was introduced into the U.S. market in 1996, the brand became the No. 1 pasta in America.

Not bad, considering the competition: Ronzoni, Mueller’s, Creamette, Sa

n Giorgia and American Beauty, among others. The previous market leader (Ronzoni) was owned by Hershey Foods, a formidable marketing machine. Furthermore, Barilla sells for 5 to 10 percent more than the competition.

Traditional wisdom would credit Barilla’s success to its barrage of 30-second television commercials. An American woman makes eye contact with a mysterious Italian stranger who serves her Barilla pasta, all set to vocals by tenor Andrea Bocelli.

Today, Barilla has 17 percent of the dry pasta market, more than twice the market share of the No. 2 brand Ronzoni which has 7 percent.

Most commercials focus on creating a rapport with consumers in order to build loyalty to the product. There’s a certain “warm and fuzzy” feeling in your typical TV spot. The objective is to make the consumer fall in love with the brand. The soft-sell is in; the hard-sell is out.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach, provided you add one additional ingredient: credentials. What are Barilla’s credentials? They’re in the commercials and on the package. “Italy’s No. 1 pasta.”

Subtract the credentials from the commercials and you have nothing but mush. Beautiful, enchanting, romantic mush.

Most advertising is mush, especially television advertising. Thirty expensive seconds wasted trying to proposition the viewer without providing enough credentials for the brand for the consumer to take the offer seriously.

Advertisers often confuse cause and effect. Sure, every advertiser wants the consumer to fall in love with his or her brand. Sure, every advertiser wants to build brand preference, loyalty and all those other mushy attributes. That’s the effect the advertiser wants to create. But what’s the cause?

Invariably the cause is some variation of the brand’s credentials. “It must be good because it’s Italy’s No. 1 pasta.”

Not, “it must be good because the company ran a wonderful commercial.”

Behind almost every successful brand is some aspect of credentials. Either the brand was the first brand in the category (Coca-Cola), the first brand in a segment of the category (Mercedes-Benz and expensive cars), the first brand to claim a certain attribute (Volvo and safety), the first brand to be endorsed by an influential third-party (Crest and the American Dental Association), the leading brand in a country identified with the category (Barilla and Italy.)

After brands become established, however, advertisers fall all over themselves dropping their credentials. Big mistake. Credentials are what built the brand. Credentials should always play a role in the advertising and the marketing of the brand.

What built the Federal Express brand? “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” Federal Express was the first cargo carrier to focus on overnight service. FedEx means overnight. “FedEx this package to L.A.” means to get this package to Los Angeles by tomorrow morning.

Like many other advertisers, FedEx has dropped its credentials. No mention of overnight service, just a long line of “credential-less” themes like “The world on time” and “Relax . . . it’s FedEx.”

What should FedEx advertising say? “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” Those are the company’s credentials. Sure, the FedEx has other services, including two and three-day deliveries, but if it does a terrific job on overnight delivery, it must be pretty good at those other services, too.

How soon they forget. James C. Wetherbe wrote a book on Federal Express outlining the company’s 11 management principles. Do you suppose any one of those 11 management principles had anything to do with focusing the company on overnight service? Of course, not.

Keep tuned. “Italy’s No. 1 pasta” is likely to go the way of “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”