Girl Scout cookies photo

If you ever think “branding” is some snake oil buzzword we marketers lob around to make ourselves sound important, consider these three words: Girl Scout Cookies®

Proof: You just thought of your favorite cookie, and if you thought of anything but Thin Mints®, you were wrong. Thin Mints from the freezer — cookie heaven.

Consider the Girl Scout Cookie sales.

According to a 2018 article from Forbes, from February to April every year, more than one million Girl Scouts fan out across the country and sell around 200 million boxes of cookies, driving $800 million in revenue. For comparison, Americans buy about $675 million worth of Oreos in an entire year. Girl Scout Cookies also account for more sales than national brands Chips Ahoy and Milano combined.

Still think “branding” is a meaningless buzzword? Consider more evidence from the Girl Scouts and the corresponding lessons for other businesses.

Exhibit 1: The brand packaging is worth more than the sum of its parts.

The same cookies in a different package won’t sell as well as Girl Scout Cookies. In fact, $4 for 32 Thin Mints (9 oz.) is what we marketers call “premium pricing.”

Lesson: Packaging and brand reputation can make what’s in the package more valuable.

Exhibit 2: Brand attributes can justify premium pricing.

You can find cookies very comparable in taste to the Girl Scout Cookies for a lot less. But Girl Scout Cookies crush the sales of other brands. Why do we pay more? Because of what we marketers call “brand attributes.”

One of the most powerful brand attributes for Girl Scout Cookies is that part of our purchase price goes to support the Girl Scouts’ mission of building confidence and skills in young girls. That gives us a warm fuzzy. Having to connect with a Girl Scout to get Girl Scout Cookies reinforces that attribute. You literally see who you are supporting. Making this an impersonal, online transaction may sell a ton of cookies initially, but it would damage a highly valuable brand attribute in the long-term.

Lesson: Creating a brand that stimulates a positive emotion lets you charge more for essentially the same product.

Exhibit 3: Scarcity makes Girl Scout Cookies a sought-after product.

Why are Girl Scout Cookies only sold February to April? Because the Girl Scouts are marketing geniuses. Since we can only get them for four months, we don’t mind paying more — probably loading up while we can — and our anticipation builds in the off-season.

Lesson: Even if we sell year-round, having special sales events can help drive demand. Warning: Consumers aren’t dumb. Having constant sales events can diminish returns.

Exhibit 4: Girl Scout Cookies don’t need to advertise.

Welcome to the nirvana of branding, where word of mouth and what we call “brand advocates” drive $800 million in Girl Scout Cookie sales. You’ve never seen a national Girl Scout Cookie ad because it would be a waste of money. It’s all word of mouth, triggered by one million girls.

Lesson: Strong brands can build the most cost-effective advertising there is: word-of-mouth.

Girl holding her girl scout cookie orders

Exhibit 5: Influencer marketing has worked for centuries.

Influencer marketing is a 21st-century buzzword, but the Girl Scouts have been doing it since 1917. Their influencers are enthusiastic girls and their moms, dads, neighbors, friends, and colleagues who buy and get others to buy as well.

Lesson: Strong brands also build brand advocates, aka influencers, who increase revenue exponentially.

Exhibit 6: Strong brands are built over a very long time.

How did Girl Scout Cookies build this juggernaut brand? The same way massive brands like Nike®, Coke®, Apple®, and others are built — bit by bit over a very long time. In the case of Girl Scout Cookies, brand building started in 1917 when the Mistletoe Troop in Muskogee, Oklahoma, baked cookies and sold them in a high school cafeteria as a service project.

That embryonic beginning was nurtured and slowly, methodically built upon with effort that spanned more than a century.

Lesson: Building strong brands never happens overnight, no matter how much money you throw at it. It takes years of commitment, discipline, smart investment, and patience.

Exhibit 7: Brands take a long time to build, but a short time to damage.

The classic proof of this is when mighty Coca-Cola® rolled out a new formula in 1985. Disaster.

The Girl Scout Cookies brand continues to be as strong as ever. But a few years back, they stirred some angst by changing the names of some cookies, specifically Samoas® to Caramel deLites® and Tagalongs® to Peanut Butter Patties®. The changes caused ripples in the Girl Scout Cookie universe, especially among those who loved Samoas and Tagalongs most (even though those are both inferior to Thin Mints). The cookies are now called Caramel deLites/Samoas and Peanut Butter Patties/Tagalongs on the Girl Scouts website.

Lesson: The more beloved your brand, the more cautious you should be when changing any element of it.

All of this is food for thought as we enjoy a few (or an entire sleeve) of frozen Thin Mints, or whatever inferior Girl Scout Cookie variety you are into. Interested in talking more about branding? Drop us a line.