Branding Lessons From Walter White

A blog about business and economics.
April 13 2014 8:11 AM

Branding Lessons From Walter White

Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman and Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad.
Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman and Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad.

Photo by Frank Ockenfels/AMC

This story first appeared in Inc.

My wife and I have been binge-watching Breaking Bad on Netflix (I know—we’re a little late to the party). I couldn’t help noticing that, despite the fact that it’s fiction, the award-winning TV show contains valuable lessons about brand marketing:

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1. To build brand, focus on quality.

The reason that antihero Walter White’s crystal meth becomes so valuable is that it’s of much higher quality than the competition’s.

Through a tight control of his manufacturing process, White creates a product that’s almost 100 percent pure. The competitors can only manage around 60 percent pure. As a result, the meth consumers (a.k.a. “tweakers”) all want White’s product, not that of his competitors.

When you look at all the great commercial brands, you see the same thing. The brand is built on product quality and suffers when quality declines. A good example of this is GM, which has struggled for decades to return to its former reputation for quality, a struggle that its recent recall makes all the more difficult.

2. Tie quality to a visual hook (brand image).

As is frequently pointed out in the series, White’s product has a blue tinge to it and consequently acquires the brand name Blue. The consumers of the product quickly associate the blue color with the purity of the product. The color, in other words, becomes the brand image. When other people unsuccessfully attempt to imitate White’s manufacturing process, the lack of the blue color is as fatal to the knockoffs as the lack of purity.

Similarly, great commercial brands always have a visual hook—a logo or, better yet, a look and feel—that people associate with product quality. Apple is a great example of this. Every iPod, iPhone, and iPad is easily identifiable—even from a distance—compared with their frequently shoddy competition.

3. Make distribution as important as brand.

Throughout Breaking Bad, White’s main challenge (and the majority of his problems) comes from his need for a distribution network. Needless to say, some of White’s problems in this area are connected to the fact that he’s selling a product that’s illegal.

There’s a deeper truth here: If people can’t buy your product, having a great brand is worse than useless. Thousands of great products have failed because their makers failed at the basic block and tackle of building a distribution network.

The example that comes to mind is the Tesla automobile. Tesla has got a great product but an almost impossible uphill fight to distribute both the car and the power it needs to run.

Geoffrey James is the author of the upcoming book Business Without the Bullsh*t.

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