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What it takes to become the world’s #1 cookie…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Welcome to Edition #43 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? It’s not about being better; it’s about being different.

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? OREO, the world’s bestselling cookie with $4 billion in annual revenue, is actually a knockoff.

It’s 1897 and brothers Jacob and Joseph are at odds: After 7 years of building a multi-million-dollar bakery in the Midwest, the brothers disagreed about where to take the company next.

Joseph wanted to merge the company with its competitors and become a monopoly. Jacob, who led the company, was against this move, but fell ill and stepped down. 

Joseph, now in charge, went against his brother’s wishes. He merged with the two other major competitors at the time, creating the National Biscuit Company, or Nabisco.

Jacob was furious. 

When he recovered from his illness, Jacob split from his brother and started a new company in defiance, “the Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company.” In 1908, he launched a new cookie called “Hydrox.”

With a sweet vanilla fondant sandwiched by two pieces of bitter chocolate shortbread, Hydrox became an “instant classic.” 

Bitter about Jacob’s split, Joseph led Nabisco to launch its own version of Hydrox. It looked exactly the same as Hydrox but just called by a different name: “OREO.”

Despite his brother’s knockoff, Jacob’s Hydrox reigned for the next 50 years as the “King of Biscuits.”

Then, OREO changed its approach.

While Hydrox focused on marketing campaigns that “seemed hell-bent on exposing OREO as an impostor,” OREO made three strategic changes.


  1. increased its price (which made it seem like a more premium product)
  2. licensed itself to dessert makers (which made it seem bigger than it was)
  3. re-branded itself (which made it seem “snazzy”, relatable, and fun)

Fast forward, and, by 1998 (86 years after OREO’s unveiling), OREO reached $348 million in annual sales while Hydrox made a mere $16 million

Today, Hydrox is available predominately on Amazon… while OREO, which has sold ~500 billion cookies worldwide since its debut in 1912, can be found in almost every grocery and convenience store (not to mention my OREO McFlurry).

So, the next time you find yourself competing against others—whether to get into grad school, land a job, or secure a promotion, remember OREO—who achieved break-out success not by being fundamentally better, but by being positioned differently.

Hydrox (est. 1908) versus OREO (est. 1912). Images via AllRecipes and Broma.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? You don’t necessarily need to be better. You just need to be different.

OREO vs. Hydrox is a fascinating marketing case study of two products that look, taste, and are virtually identical—and are only differentiated by how they position themselves.

OREO’s uphill battle to overtake Hydrox is not unlike what we face every day in our careers. How many times have you found yourself applying to a program, seeking a job, or shooting for a promotion… only to find yourself wondering…

“Why would anyone ever pick me? There are so many more qualified candidates!”

But, as OREO’s story shows us, sometimes you don’t need to be better—you just need to be different.

How can you be “different”? Try this:

(1) ⁠⁠Ask yourself, “What is the profile of the typical candidate?”

  • E.g., “People who apply to business school are probably coming from finance, consulting, or tech, typically have 3-4 years of experience, and are likely going to write essays about how they want to go from advising companies to running companies.”

(2) Ask yourself, “Where do I need to be merely ‘good enough?’” by filling in this blank: “I should have _____ because that’s the ticket for admission. Anything beyond this point is overkill since it’s next to impossible to know if one person is better than another.”

  • E.g., “I should have a GPA above X and a GMAT above X, but once I’m in range, it’s hard to see how an extra point on my GMAT will make a difference… so, it’s probably time for me to focus on my essays.”

(3) Ask yourself, “What makes me different?” by filling in this blank: “I doubt many people who are _____ can say they’ve done / are _____, whereas I’ve done / am _____.” 

  • E.g., “I doubt many people who are applying from investment banking can also say that they’re a former teacher, whereas I taught middle school chemistry, which relates to my next career move because I am interested in ed-tech.”

Of course, being “different” enough from your competitors doesn’t always translate to getting into your ideal program, landing a role at your dream company, or securing a promotion. But by knowing what it means to be “good enough”—and therefore being able to reallocate your time to make other parts of your candidacy shine—you may just find yourself an OREO in a world of Hydroxes!

I know it because I’ve experienced it: When I was pitching The Unspoken Rules to the world, I consistently got the same feedback: “Another career guide?” It wasn’t until I focused on how my first-gen experience made me—and my perspective—different that people began to see the value of my project.

Stand out!


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