Here at the Fool, we have an investment philosophy called Rule Breakers -- the search for stocks that we think will defy conventional wisdom in a slew of ways, not the least of which is delivering stellar 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. Think about it: A trip to the grocery store is a dizzying adventure in the good, bad, and 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. Sure, product placement may have 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
In the early 1980s, Nike (NYSE:NKE) was an obscure athletic-shoe company with a funny logo. By the end of the decade, a certain No. 23 was all over TV promoting the "Air Jordan," and Nike become a household name. Investors who put $1,000 into the company in 1987 -- Jordan's third season in the NBA -- would be sitting on $86,500 today.

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 that my taste in movies usually skews a bit, um, darker, but if nothing else, it provided a good opportunity for research.

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.

Starbucks appears so much in You've Got Mail, it almost feels like a character. That movie was released in 1998 -- some years after the coffee company went public. New investors to Starbucks in 1998 would have realized a fourfold return today.

Popular lexicon
Think about how some brands sneak their way into our everyday usage. They even creep into our dictionaries, for that matter. Kleenex has become synonymous with tissues. Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) has become standard for soda. Xerox (NYSE:XRX) has become common parlance for "photocopy" (much to the company's chagrin).

When a brand name becomes a verb, it has the stuff of a Rule Breaker. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) not only became part of our daily search, but it's now also part of our language. How to find a long-lost friend? A retailer that sells diamonds? The history of the mullet? Whether your ex is savaging you in a blog? Just Google it.

TiVo (NASDAQ: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 go the way of the Kleenex.)

Stale leads?
Of course, ubiquitous brands are but a starting point to identify a possible Rule Breaker. Always 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 the growing number of copycats.

Krispy Kreme Doughnuts landed more than a few mentions on the popular sitcom Will & Grace, and it was featured in a photo op on the New York Stock Exchange. The doughnut maker seemed to saturate pop culture at the turn of the century -- 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.

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 have sneaked into common vernacular is a good place to start. Will Sirius Satellite Radio (NASDAQ:SIRI) achieve similar status in the next 10 years and reward investors in the process?

Our Rule Breakers service closely follows emerging brands. We've recommended two online retailers we think will have some pop-culture staying power. If you'd like to test-drive our community, click here for a free 30-day trial. You'll get two stock recommendations every month, access to all of our 18 recommendations to date, and a community of discussion boards where you can vet hundreds more stock ideas. There's no obligation to subscribe. You have my word.

This article was originally published on March 21, 2005. It has been updated.

Alyce Lomax own shares of Starbucks but none of the other companies mentioned in this article. Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation, and TiVo is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.