THE BLOG
07/15/2014 11:31 am ET | Updated Sep 14, 2014

Big Brother Brands

George Orwell pegged 1984 as the year that an authoritarian superstate -- personified in a political candidate known only as "Big Brother" -- would come to power in his fictional work about a dystopian future. The book was first conceived 40 years before the title year (although published five years later, in 1949).

Now, 30 years after the events of Nineteen Eighty-Four, could it be that Big Brother is finally manifesting? Not as a political entity designed to control the populace, but as a commercial confederation that owns and controls the majority of brands -- and the influence that goes with them.

Holding companies with a fleet of products under their ownership are nothing new. Various bits of legislation have cropped up over the years in attempt to control just how much sway one company might wield over a market. (Energy companies have often been the culprits in such attempts -- so early on that in 1935 the U.S. passed the Public Utility Holding Company Act to force companies to divest their interests. In 20 years, the number of holding companies declined, from 216 to just 18 entities.)

Such companies exist in every industry, from electronics to financial institutions, high tech to home improvement, and any other business you can imagine. But what factors -- besides their seeming unquenchable desire to acquire other companies -- make us think that they are exhibiting Big Brother-ish behavior?

We looked at a graphic that had been made available on the Sploid blog, which is part of Gizmodo.com. As they put it, when it came to the inside of the grocery store, "as you can see (these 10 companies) own everything."

The 10 companies mentioned are Mondelez, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Pepsico, P&G, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg's, and Unilever. And each of those companies has controlling interest in anywhere between two dozen to almost 100 other companies in the case of Nestlé.

Do you choose Nestlés' Dreyer's ice cream or Breyer's from Unilever? General Mills' Chex cereal or Crispix from Kellogg's? Many such products are at parity when it comes to such things as taste and quality, meaning it often boils down to how the brands make consumers feel at decision-making time.

Frankly, the more interesting story is not about when these giants go head-to-head in the grocery store. Instead, imagine being a smaller cereal manufacturer getting caught up in the marketing and shelf placement elements that come into play with products like these.

It's a daunting task: Where do the marketing dollars come from to start to build awareness when the playing field is already dominated by gargantuan powerhouse brands?

Lest you think we're dissing the Big Brother Brands, far from it. We have worked to create brand names with a large number of holding companies, as well as many of the companies within their portfolios. Their naming choices can tend to seem more on the conservative side versus those made by start-ups and smaller companies but when you're in business around the world, it often pays to play it safe.

Start A Revolution

Fortunately, there are ways to be a nimble David when competing against one or more of these Goliaths in the supermarket aisle. (And the same rule generally holds true in other industries as well.)

• Be different. The Big Brother companies have vast resources but can be slow to innovate -- why create something new when something old is still selling like hotcakes? If whatever you're making or doing is different from what's gone before -- and you can make it known -- you're bound to be noticed.

• Say something different. Starting with a brand name that stakes out some new territory in the landscape, and on through your brand promise and the story of what your product is about, you've got to be the brand that gets attention as opposed to the legions that get ignored.

• Reposition the competition. When competing against brands that are well-established in the marketplace, find a hook that's different yet welcome. Force those other guys to figure out that you've changed the game and now they're the ones playing catch up.

• Take the high road. Sure, they're the competition and you're the hero, but keep the conversation about how good your product is and stay away from comparing yourself to your predecessors. No sense tripping over someone else's goodwill.

Big Brother Is Watching

Ironically, the more successful a smaller company is with their brand, the more attention they're likely to get from a Big Brother brand. Those bigger companies typically used to work to create their own similar product, often with disappointing results. More often than not nowadays, they'll use their resources more wisely -- and just buy what they like. Innovative beverages like Odwalla, Vitamin Water, and Fuze were all gobbled up by Coca-Cola. Nestlé has bought up chip, candy and even restaurant brands like they're going out of style.

Sometimes, however, success is its own reward. For every Odwalla that gets snapped up, an Jones Soda remains cheerfully independent. Three Twins ice cream keeps it simple rather than follow the example of Dreyer's, which became part of the Nestlé family in 2002.

A compelling brand name is a way to start a conversation with consumers that is effective, regardless of whether the product is owned by a multinational corporation, a hot company on the rise, or a struggling startup. That winning name is also the intellectual property that could be the most coveted weapon in your marketing arsenal.

This article originally appeared in the Lexicon Blog.