This paper aims to understand the motivations for product innovation and brand leadership using a series of case studies focusing on firms with leading market positions of different types. Design/methodology/approach - A qualitative study is presented of three leading food sector firms of different types (large/public, medium/private, and international/cooperative). An analysis of brand leadership is undertaken in the context of a conceptual framework linking process innovation, product innovation, and the firm's resource base and market orientation. Findings - The cases suggest that process innovation supports product innovation as firms implement strategies to differentiate their products. Response to changing demand is a disciplined reaction where firms exploit their specialized resources using superior product knowledge and branding power. Leadership positions are maintained not only by responding to changing demand but by steering the market using innovative products and consumer education. Research limitations/implications - This study suggests that firms use their unique resource base and form strategies to capitalize on their capabilities. A single, dominant orientation is not necessary to maintain leadership. Rather process innovation can facilitate product innovation leading to successful product differentiation and enhancing a leadership position. The question of whether the growing power of retailers means the demise for branded food manufacturers is one that deserves attention. Innovation and its motivation is a national public policy concern that is influenced by a myriad of regulations and laws administered by various agencies. Originality/value - This study is the first one to pull together the experiences of food-firm brand leaders with their branding and innovation strategies as they look to the global arena for growth.