brand story and chicken wings

Buffalo Wings and the Brand Story

Every successful brand needs a story. Yours can have one, too.

The other day I was having dinner with our Director of Content Marketing who manages our San Francisco office. As we looked over the menu, he noticed the restaurant served Anchor Bar Chicken Wings. The magnitude of this didn’t catch my attention, but since he had spent time as a kid around Buffalo, N.Y., he was thrilled to see them and began fondly recounting the story of their origin.

The story goes something like this. The bar owner’s son, Dominic Bellissimo, was playing poker with his pals after closing. Hunger soon took hold of them, so his mother, Teressa, offered to throw something together. There wasn’t much in the kitchen, but she did have a few leftovers on hand: chicken wings, some hot sauce, a little Ranch dressing, and celery. You know where this goes from here.

I’m not sure if the Anchor Bar has an advertising budget. In fact, I can honestly say I’ve never seen any marketing from them, which is pretty remarkable considering people from New York City to Topeka, Paris, and even Kuala Lumpur, have lovingly shared versions of the Anchor Bar brand story for over 50 years.

How does this happen? How does a brand go from being a purveyor of items to being a part of American lore?

What makes a great brand story?

  • An origin story: The Anchor Bar, along with Patagonia, Ford and Apple, all have origin stories. Patagonia’s origin story starts with Yves Chouinard hand-forging climbing equipment with friends in the 1960s. Ford’s, of course, has a guy named Henry who basically invented modern mass production. And Apple’s features a college dropout who toiled in his garage to create something called the personal computer.
  • A passion for the craft: All of these companies feature people who had a passion for creating something unique or better. These people either really wanted to improve a hobby or a sport, or they were tinkerers who saw a better path forward and just couldn’t let it go. Steve Jobs didn’t just want to create the PC, there was something in his DNA that wouldn’t let him walk away from it. Microbreweries use the passion angle a lot, too. How many of them share stories about the founder’s love of quality beer?
  • The transformative moment: In a truly great brand story, a passion for doing something different typically crosses paths with a transformative moment. Patagonia’s moment was when Yves Chuinard realized that he could create something better than the popular climbing pitons that were damaging rock faces. After nearly freezing to death on a fishing trip, Eddie Bauer–a sporting goods storeowner–started experimenting with down in jackets.
  • Authenticity: A good brand story also needs to be grounded in truth and demonstrate a purpose or idea beyond profits. You could argue Henry Ford was all about making money, but even he was driven by the desire to disrupt the status quo and deliver affordable cars to the masses.

So, back to the Anchor Bar. It has an origin story about “why, when and how” its wings were created. It has the transformative moment when Teressa Bellissimo threw something together based on a market need (her son’s hunger). She had a passion for creating great food and feeding the people she loved. And what’s more authentic than nice people making a living in a Buffalo neighborhood gathering spot?

Can you create a brand without a brand story? Sure, but it will take a lot more resources. Without something to fill the void, it will lack what we call “tribal momentum,” which is that passionate group of customers who willingly share your story and move you from being an ephemeral commodity to a brand that aligns with the very core of who they are.