Financial Poise

Branding Lessons from a Pink Box

If you own a small business, you’ll learn very quickly that your brand is your bond. Though we often think of a brand as a name, it stretches far beyond the logo you choose.

Having a brand strategy is critical – we’ve written about it before. But while that overarching strategy is key, it is sometimes the smallest decisions that make the biggest impact.

Donuts and Accidental Branding Magic

For a very, very long time, the boxes in which you would find pastries were white. Maybe there was a logo on it. On occasion you would find a highly-stylized box, but even that is a more modern approach. It wasn’t until Ted Ngoy came on the scene that this changed, and it came from what might seem the most trivial of choices.

Ted Ngoy was born and raised in Cambodia. At the height of the Khmer Rouge genocide, Ngoy fled to the U.S. in hopes of finding safety and opportunity. In part because of the generosity of American familes and in part because of inspiration, he found both.

To hear Ngoy tell it in a recent documentary on Hulu entitled Donut King (watch it – you won’t regret it), his foray into the world of running donut shops was a mix of delight and nostalgia.

NARRATOR: Ted had started working at a gas station. One day he smelled this great fragrance, and he asked his coworker what it was, and his coworker said, oh, that’s a donut shop.

NGOY: I remember – it was a slow night, about midnight, and there’s no traffic. I run real fast, come to this window […] and say, “Lady, I would like to buy some donut.” She said, “Ok, I’ll sell you a dozen donuts.” I fall in love with donut from that moment I had a bite.

That was 1975, and after training at the legendary Winchell’s, he bought his first shop in 1977. He wound up creating an empire that at its height during the mid-1980s spanned more than 50 locations in California. His dominance was so considerable even Dunkin’ Donuts determined after a brief trial that the market was impenetrable; loyal customers upped their buys at Ngoy’s stores whenever they tried to expand into the territory.

Ngoy would eventually fall prey to the vice of gambling and lose it all, but his ability to rise from refugee to a titan was epic, as was his support of other Cambodian refugees over the years. However, even he had no idea how one small choice would ripple throughout American culture – and it had nothing to do with branding.

Ngoy was a masterful entrepreneur in his space. He had a product of unparalleled quality with great profit margins, and he continuously improved its appeal with innovative recipes. He improved efficiency and relied on a committed workforce to grow his business.

He was also incredibly cost-conscious, continuously seeking to limit overhead while possible. Part of that dealt with packaging. There’s a whole section of the documentary tied to this one choice, but the L.A. Times explains it more succinctly:

The boxes came from a supplier called Westco.

[…] [T]he new doughnut shops popping up sought to buy boxes that were cheaper than the white ones chains used, and Westco had the answer: leftover pink cardboard stock. The “9-9-4,” as it’s apparently called in the industry, fit a dozen doughnuts perfectly.

Pink boxes stuck around because thousands could be produced at a much cheaper price than their white predecessors.

“We doughnut makers were all about saving money,” Ngoy told the Times.  “Why buy the more expensive white? Save a few pennies and make big bucks.”

Prudent? Yes. But it wound up being much more than that. It became associated primarily with Ngoy’s operations, creating a substantial visual brand appeal that hit way harder than a simple logo on a lid, and it was saving money, too. Other donut shops eventually caught on, and as a result, more and more shops started adopting the same materials for their boxes. It became so ubiquitous it saturated pop culture.

Left to right: Parks and Rec (NBC), The Simpsons (Fox), and Pulp Fiction (Miramax).

Even today, the pink box endures. Perhaps most touching, it has evolved into a point of pride for Cambodian immigrants and entrepreneurs. As NPR reported, recent generations have latched onto its legacy, using similar boxes featuring designs that pay tribute to their culture and upbringing.

One of the donut boxes designed by by artist Phung Huynh.

The Pink Lesson

There’s this assumption that an effective branding strategy takes big bucks. Though a long-term effective branding and marketing strategy is an investment (and one that pays dividends), sometimes very small changes can make a very big difference beyond the basic spreadsheet.

Let’s say you’re running a boutique retail shop and have been purchasing high-priced, velour or satin-lined hangers to stand out. You may find that switching to recyclable hangers allows you to use a lower-priced product. Merge that with marketing touting a shift to a greener strategy, and you not only save money in terms of overhead but augment your value proposition in a market eager to support businesses aware of their climate footprint.

It’s not just about brick-and-mortar retail, though. Let’s say you’re a financial planner meeting with both prospective and existing clients on a regular basis, requiring presentations of either your offerings or their portfolio performance. While some clients might prefer a hardcopy of such materials, a good amount might opt for digital assets, instead. Going with a “digital first, printed upon request” approach achieves such ends, limiting your expenditures on printing while giving you marketing assets and granting you the ability to once again promote yourself as greener than the other guy. Don’t think it can work? Ask your local utility company.

Though greener options are all at once often more cost-effective upfront, marketable, and – let’s face it – responsible, the range of small choices to be made extends far beyond that. Maybe it’s investing in (reliable) self-service technology to minimize staffing requirements and increase speed of transaction completion. Perhaps it’s purchasing excess to-go materials on a rotating basis to cut costs and offer a quirky and differentiating element to your service (never know what you’re gonna get at that restaurant, do ya?). The possibilities are endless.

That’s not to say that these kinds of shifts are blanketly simple or don’t require thought. The reality is that – though throwing spaghetti at the wall can be useful as well as fun – established organizations should probably invest time into considering changes that look small from the outside looking in. That tiny tweak might be noticeable, fun, and (most importantly) marketable, but it can also require substantial structural changes in terms of operations on the backend of the business.

Upside? It can also yield substantial benefit in terms of your bottom line if done right. Just ask Ted Ngoy.

[Editors’ Note: To learn more about this and related topics, you may want to attend the following on-demand webinars (which you can listen to at your leisure and each includes a comprehensive customer PowerPoint about the topic):

You’ll find additional good reading in these articles:

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