Here at the Fool, we have an investment philosophy called Rule Breakers -- the visionary search for stocks that will defy conventional wisdom in a whole slew of ways, not the least of which is delivering amazing returns to investors. One of the most important aspects of the Rule Breaking investment philosophy is the presence of a dominant brand -- one that begins to exemplify a certain product or pastime, or has even come to actually mean something about a person who uses it.

That might not seem so easy, given the glut of brands crossing our paths every day. If you think about it, a trip to the grocery store is a dizzying adventure in the good, the bad, and the ugly of branding. If we look back, however, we may be able to see how the hottest brands developed, even as they continually picked up relevance within our culture. And that's a lesson we can use going forward.

Indeed, for some consumer brands, picking the dominant players may be as easy as watching the hottest new show from your couch, taking in a flick, or chatting with friends and family.

The world is full of stock ideas. That's part of what makes investing so fascinating -- that, and the hope of great returns. In fact, maybe you're being downright barraged with ideas. (There is a seedy downside to this sort of thing, and longtime Fool Rick Munarriz recently opined about it here and here.) Sure, product placement may be something that's been around for quite some time, and soon, people may start to get exceedingly turned off when a placement isn't pulled off deftly. But until then...

Pop-culture credentials
A clever and believable product placement can reveal a potential Rule Breaker by leading us to the brands that have been drilling down and ingraining themselves into our culture.

One Sunday a month or two ago, I watched what I consider a rather regrettable number of romantic comedies of the Tom-Hanks-meets-Meg-Ryan variety. This was an anomaly, considering how my usual taste in movies usually skews very differently, but oh, well. it happened, and I actually noticed a few interesting things.

Namely, I noticed a weird strain throughout my viewings -- at the very least, major characters held Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) cups, with their noticeable mermaid logos, and at the most, these characters identified closely with their trips to Starbucks. It said something about their lifestyles, in fact -- enough to illustrate an intrinsic part of the personalities of the characters in theater.

I made a similar observation while watching Sex and the City (again without leaving the couch): Carrie Bradshaw regularly pecked away at her Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) laptop as she wrote columns about dating travails in the Big Apple. Meanwhile, on that very same runaway hit show, TiVo (NASDAQ:TIVO) became a character of sorts -- it was Miranda's "boyfriend," at her beck and call for dinner and a movie.

Popular lexicon
Speaking of brand names becoming verbs, most of us should have suspected that Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) might be a possible Rule Breaker when it became part of our daily search -- and our language.

How to find a long-lost friend? Or a website that sells diamonds? Or the history of the mullet? Or whether your ex is savaging you in a blog? Google it, he said, she said, everyone said. And so a potential Rule Breaker is born. It's the kind of stock that has become part of our language, for goodness' sake.

Our friend TiVo has achieved the same status, with people "TiVoing" their favorite programs. (Now, bear in mind, company officials recently said that using "TiVo" as a verb is a naughty no-no. They don't want their brand to become like "Kleenex," which came to mean any old swatch of tissue, or "Xerox," which came to mean any old paper copy.)

Another company that sneaked into our lexicon was long-ago Rule Breaker AOL, which lost the plot but lately seems to be trying hard to regain that crown. Now sucked into Time Warner (NYSE:TWX), AOL may have reached its apex of pop-culture recognition when it not only starred prominently in a movie but also inspired the title. That's right, trivia buffs: I'm talking about You've Got Mail.

Craigslist, a private company and thriving champion in running an anti-corporate business, is increasingly sneaking into conversations. If you say you want to ditch something -- or find something, like an apartment, house, jogging partner, or even main squeeze -- the reply more and more frequently is to "look on Craigslist." It was recently the entire subject of an indie film called 24 Hours on Craigslist. It's still a private company, but that's some serious branding in the making.

Stale leads?
Of course, this is just one element of identifying a possible Rule Breaker -- it's a place to start. You've got to compare the brand in question with the realities you see around you. After all, despite TiVo's increasing presence in popular culture and language, you could argue that it's been a victim of its own success, given its identity crisis and all the copycats.

Krispy Kreme Doughnuts (NYSE:KKD) has landed quite a few mentions on the popular show Will & Grace, has gotten a photo op on the New York Stock Exchange, and has had its moments as a pawn for PhotoShop nuts. But that didn't mean that in addition to deep-frying the decadent doughnuts, the company wasn't cooking the books at the same time. (Although it certainly did illustrate that that company has the corner on the market for decadence and therefore has one heck of a brand, regardless.)

At any rate, most of the companies we've just discussed have Rule Breaking attributes. And while no amount of pop-culture credibility is a reason unto itself for you to invest without doing a whole lot of homework, examining the names that are sneaking into the common vernacular is a good place to start. Another good place to start is to share the thoughts and ideas that are regularly exchanged within the virtual halls of our Rule Breakers service. Click here for a free 30-day trial to find out what all the fuss is about.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.