Type "Warren Buffett" into Google, and you'll get about 5 million hits. Amazon.com yields roughly 3,900 results in its books section. Over on CNBC's website, there's an entire page called "Warren Buffett Watch."

Closer to home, my fellow Fools have written tomes on why Warren Buffett is such a successful investor. We've praised his intelligence. We've analyzed his shareholder letters. We've spilled plenty of virtual ink describing his views on the importance of an economic moat in any investment. We've even belabored the point that as small and nimble retail investors, you and I have an advantage over him.

And although we idolize him as the quintessential Graham-and-Dodd value investor, today I'd like to talk about one key component of Buffett's success that may sometimes go overlooked in all the talk of cash flows and margins of safety.

Getting past the numbers
It's true that Buffett has made a killing with deep-value stocks, both for Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-B) and while running the Buffett Partnership. He's perhaps best known for his ability to patiently invest in good businesses at rock-bottom prices, as seen in his investment in Washington Post (NYSE:WPO) when it was trading at a fraction of its liquidation value.

But Buffett himself claimed that "the really sensational ideas I have had over the years have been heavily weighted toward the qualitative side." And that's the key component of his success: Buffett has been able to value something intangible, something not present on the balance sheet -- the brand.

The story behind the success
When Buffett first began purchasing shares of American Express (NYSE:AXP), Wall Street despised the company. The Salad Oil Scandal had tarnished the company's Wall Street reputation. Some shareholders filed lawsuits, and the fallout forced American Express to realize a loss of some $60 million.

Rather than follow the crowd and ignore the company, Buffett went to an Omaha restaurant, and then to banks, travel agencies, and drugstores. There, he observed that customers were still paying with their American Express cards. The tarnished image hadn't reached the folks paying for goods and services. This finding corroborated what he'd heard from other businesspeople, who'd told him that folks had not ceased using AmEx traveler's checks.

Although the loss was nothing to laugh at, it was a one-time occurrence. In reality, the company's core business was intact and wasn't being given the credit it deserved as a reputable credit firm with significant market share.

His qualitative assessment persuaded him to place almost one-quarter of his assets into American Express stock -- an investment that paid off in spades. To quote Roger Lowenstein from his Buffett biography, "Buffett saw a type of asset that eluded Graham: the franchise value of American Express' name." In other words, it was about the brand.

The soda toll bridge
Buffett's investment in Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) followed a similar pattern. To quote Lowenstein again, this time about Buffett's investment in Coca-Cola in the late 1980s: "In Buffett's terms, the [Coca-Cola] brand name was a sort of universal toll bridge."

He was amazed at the underlying strength of the company's name -- a brand that carried a value that couldn't be quantified. As Buffett explained, "If you gave me $100 billion and said take away the soft-drink leadership of Coca-Cola in the world, I'd give it back to you and say it can't be done."

He also recognized Coca-Cola's potential in foreign countries -- and today, the company derives more than half of its revenue outside North America. Since first buying in the 1980s, Buffett has continued purchasing Coke shares -- for a position worth more than $11 billion today.

What to do with this information today
The lesson is clear: When analyzing potential investments, don't underestimate the value of a company's brand. (Of course, don't overestimate it, either -- perennial underperformer Eastman Kodak is a good example of what can happen if you do that.)

The market's turmoil in 2008 has sent many of the top brands from around the world plunging in value. Here are three companies with top-ranked global brands (according to Interbrand) that I believe look cheap today:


Market Capitalization

2007 Brand Rank

Trailing-12-Month Price-to-Earnings Ratio

General Electric (NYSE:GE)

$292 billion



Disney (NYSE:DIS)

$60 billion



Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT)

$43 billion



Data from Interbrand and Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Putting advice into practice
It's easy for investors like us to focus on the quantitative aspects of finding stocks -- running our valuations, coming up with target buy and sell prices, and anticipating high annualized returns. But we must not forget the qualitative side of things that has contributed to some of Warren Buffett's massive success.

David and Tom Gardner take such an approach to investing at Motley Fool Stock Advisor. Since the service began six years ago, their recommended stocks are beating the S&P 500 average by 42 percentage points. To see the stocks that pass their strict quantitative and qualitative criteria, including their top five stocks for new money, click here to join free for 30 days.

Adam J. Wiederman and The Motley Fool both own shares of Berkshire Hathaway, which is a Stock Advisor and Inside Value recommendation. The Motley Fool also owns shares of American Express, an Inside Value pick. Coca-Cola is an Inside Value pick, too, while Disney is a Stock Advisor recommendation. After all that, the Fool's disclosure policy needs to catch its breath for a second.