4 Branding Lessons Learned A World Away (Featuring Donuts)

Branding — By

Since this article is about branding and I’ve been a branding strategist for many years, let’s be clear from the get go. I’m not talking about logos! This is about brand personality and marketing positioning. It all started with my recent world travel to Singapore and Malaysia. The trip lasted nearly three weeks. And while I enjoyed the local cuisine (Malay, Chinese and Indian) I did experience a craving or two for Western fare.

Imagine my surprise when at the Subang airport (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) I entered donut heaven. Homer Simpson eat your heart out!

I was not alone. Malaysia is a fusion of cultures and ideologies and yet it was donuts that brought us from many walks of life together one day.

The donuts from which I speak were a far cry from anything I had experienced from US mainstays Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme. And as I devoured my triple chocolate piece of paradise, the sugar rush got my brain going on a few important branding takeaways for you to consume…

Branding Lesson #1: You Can Differentiate a Commodity

I always considered donuts a commodity. And pretty much every donut place had similar offerings: glazed, with sprinkles, cake donuts, same old same old. Yet what I saw at Big Apple Donuts was taking the humble donut to heights not seen previously.

The advantage of starting with a commodity is you don’t need to educate people on what you’re selling. Most consumers know what a donut is. Have you ever thought of selling as a two-step process? Consider this:

Step #1: generic sell. In this case, selling the donut.

Step #2: Proprietary Sell. You sell them on why YOUR donut is special.

So if your market or industry has been commoditized, see what you can do to un-commoditize it. You can use the following inspirations #2 and #3 to do just that.

Branding Lesson #2: Make Personality Part of the Recipe

One effective method to transform a commodity is to infuse it with personality. The variety of donuts, complete with tongue-in-cheek monikers did exactly that. Here’s a sampling of some of the donut choices:

  • Dough Vinci
  • Duren Duren
  • Tom and Cherry
  • Tea-Off
  • Apple Ke Dapple
  • Donutella
  • Presidential Sweet

Not all 30-some varieties had clever names but all were unique in their own right, either in name, recipe, topping or filling.

Branding Lesson #3: Simple and Visual Wins Eyes and Wallets

The humble donut as canvas for true artistic expression? Definitely. Sure the donuts have fun names. Yet what seals the deal is their appearance.

Some donuts are real works of art. Something you would expect to find in an upscale restaurant here applied to the humble donut.

In essence, it’s not about a donut. It’s become the donut experience. Sure, I have a sweet tooth but it was the donut story that got me hooked. And will keep me coming back.

Branding Lesson #4: Novelty Without Quality = Fail

Sure, the donut names are fun and they look scrumptious, but what if the donuts didn’t taste as good as they looked and sounded?

I’m happy to report the donuts met and exceeded my expectations. My donuts were very fresh and I’m told contain less sugar than their American counterparts. (Although you’d never know it from the taste!)

The key takeaway here is the quality of the product was consistent with the branding of the product. If the product was high novelty but low quality, maybe they get the initial sale but the customer won’t come back and buy again.

You may be thinking, “sounds great” but how does all this branding and fun donut stuff translate into sales and business success? Well the proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the donuts.

Big Apple Donuts is currently in four countries: Malaysia, China, Thailand and Indonesia. They’re expanding rapidly (nearly 40 locations in Malaysia alone) and global expansion beyond Asia is in the works. I for one can’t wait!

Please share your feedback and comments below.



  • Marc Harty says:

    In researching this article, I learned that 10 billion donuts are produced on an annual basis in the USA. But a different country consumes more donuts than even the US? It’s Canada!

    Here’s a question: have you been similarly inspired by other branding examples and how has that impacted your business?

    ~ Marc

  • Marc Harty says:

    In researching this article, I learned that 10 billion donuts are produced on an annual basis in the USA. But a different country consumes more donuts than even the US? It’s Canada!

    Here’s a question: have you been similarly inspired by other branding examples and how has that impacted your business?

    ~ Marc

  • Enjoyed the article, Marc.

  • Marc Harty says:


    Thanks for stopping by. When do you head to Hawaii for Perry's event?

    ~ Marc

  • Already back from Maui 🙂 Spoke about four concepts I had never talked about before (Digital version now available):

    It was amazing! I'm spoiled now on conferences because of the Maui location, how smooth the event went, the quality of the speakers and attendees. Best conference I have ever attended.

  • Marc Harty says:

    Perry draws a good crowd. I believe my colleague Glenn Livingston was a speaker too, was he not? Glad things went well. Let's catch up soon.

    ~ Marc

  • jadaykennedy says:

    Hi Marc,

    Excellent tips. Not sure how to incorporate them into my book marketing plan. I write books.

    Something I have used food for are ways and reasons to promote my books.
    I add a favorite food, hobby, skill or personality quirk to each book s main character. Then I can use that for a reason to get my books stocked at a non book store, a reason for holiday promotion (there's a wacky holiday for a lot of things), for different locations for book signings, and promotional contests.
    Strange holidays are a gold mine for marketing.

    J. Aday Kennedy
    The Differently-Abled Children's Author

  • Marc Harty says:

    Hi J. Aday,

    Thanks for your comment! I know authors have specific needs and challenges in getting the word out. And you shared some good tips in your comment.

    Regarding how to best leverage the branding lessons I mentioned in the article above, here are my thoughts…

    First, because there is so much clutter, you MUST have a brand personality that people can bond with. Second, with our ability today to target specific messaging to specific audiences, we can test different ideas and see how that land.

    Thanks again for your feedback, much appreciated!

    ~ Marc

  • Wow! I'm sold Marc. I'm a sucker for donuts anyway, but I will have my antenna up for Big Apple Donuts.

  • Marc Harty says:


    All I can say is I hopped off the cupcake bandwagon and
    climbed aboard the donut train… 🙂

    ~ Marc

  • Randy Peyser says:

    Obviously, the Dandy Randy would have to be my hands-down favorite!

  • I agree you can attempt to differentiate a commodity…but a donut is an example where it is realitively easy to do so. There are wide variations in donut type and quality.

    How does one differentiate something like say…a bag of white rice(Uncle Ben's did it with 5 minute cooking), or a natural gas supplier, or oranges.

    Sounds humorous, but the Internet has “commodified” a lot of products, such as airline tickets, mortgages, insurance, that used to rely on salespeople and marketing to produce results.

    Not by accident, many of those same businesses are in “real” trouble…as the internet has forced them into a “race to the bottom”…people see little difference between the products and brands, so the purely shop price. I'm not sure any amount of personality and marketing will change that for many products.

    The internet is our best friend, and worst enemy.

    Either way, very nice blog and presentation.

    Best to you,

    Neal Coxworth

  • Marc Harty says:


    Does look pretty good, eh? Thanks for your feedback…

    ~ Marc

  • Marc Harty says:

    Hi Neal,

    Thanks for your comments and feedback. You make some good points. It's also true that what makes the Big Apple Donuts positioning so masterful is the presentation. Until now, I've seen gourmet cupcakes, but not donuts!

    You are also right that the Internet has made many products and services commodities.

    What I didn't cover in this article, but will in the future are those companies that go for “branding lite” or superficial branding that is not congruent with the product or service's core attributes.

    I've always believed that the right messaging and positioning is what lasts. I worked at the ad agency that started the Motel 6 campaign back in the 80's and look how long that's been around.

    Thanks again for your feedback!

    ~ Marc

  • Simon says:

    Thank you for your wonderful review on Big Apple Donuts & Coffee. Most of what you have described sums up the approach in positioning this brand coming to 3 years now. Now that we know how marketing consultants such as yourself see our brand, on a positive level, we can now rest assured that the efforts over the years have paid off. Just so you know, beyond Malaysia, the brand is marketed as Bapple Donuts & Coffee and soon making its way to Europe and the US.

    There's a wealth of information here, and some of your other interesting articles have also caught my attention. I look forward to more of your marketing insights especially on other brands in the F&B industry.

    Again, thank you for your constructive assessment on Big Apple Donuts & Coffee.

    Warmest regards,
    Simon Teng
    Big Apple Donuts & Coffee

  • wiredprworks says:

    What a sweet take on branding, Marc!

    I'd say the same thing is happening with cupcakes, at least here in Chicago. Packaging. flavor and presentation is a huge differentiator. [I love apple filled cupcakes with vanilla cinnamon frosting!]

    While they may look irresistible, if they don't taste good you won't finish the cupcake or order another one. That's why branding is so important to building customer relationships.

    Thanks for sharing your creative insights and your travel experiences.


  • ToughestCustomer says:

    Great info Marc. Thanks. And I love the donut as the center of your article. Who'd 'thunk' that a donut could be branded as something new. Gives insight to us all to think outside the box.

  • Marc Harty says:


    Great to get your feedback here. Keep me posted when Big Apple heads to the US. I'll be visiting Malaysia again in a few months and look forward to a return visit. Thanks again for stopping by. We now have the “official” word from Big Apple. 🙂

    ~ Marc

  • Marc Harty says:

    Hi Barbara,

    Thanks for your comments! Great to see you here and anyone reading this comment should check out Barbara's blog at http://www.WiredPRworks.com

    And yes, whether it's donuts or cupcakes, the taste has to match the visual experience. I know the “gourmet cupcake” is a popular thing, but had not seen donuts go that route to such success as I did with Big Apple.

    ~ Marc

  • Marc Harty says:


    Thanks for the positive feedback! I'll be exploring some other interesting topics and subject matter soon on my other blog so stay tuned…

    ~ Marc

  • ToughestCustomer says:

    Will do. Looking forward to it.

  • Marc Harty says:


    Did I see you are at the #XBM event? I know Felicia and Carrie. Say hi for me! 🙂

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