Mr. Clean is a car wash in Texas. Gerber sells baby life insurance. Caterpillar makes flashlights. I think the brand extension business is just a little crazy.

I get why it should work, and I certainly know why businesses want it to. Any survey or focus group will tell you that consumers associate brands with purposes. GM makes cars. Apple makes computers. They also attach emotions to them, however unfairly and unevenly. GM cars aren't any good, while Apple's computers are cool. Comcast is a service nightmare. 

These internal states of brand awareness have value that should be transferrable to other products and services, especially if they keep within the constraints of that knowledge. Gillette should be able to sell men's grooming products because its brand is already all about razors. Microsoft sells computer hardware because it’s already in the software business. Such "extending" isn't a reach because the new products are easier to embrace and buy due to the power of the brands. Selling them that way is cheaper than trying to invent awareness from scratch.

Is it really that easy?

If you've read this blog before, you know that I am a raging heretic in the Church of Branding. I don't believe that consumers have relationships with brands, per se, as much as branded products make an impact in their lives, and that said impact is 

  • Far less meaningful than branding gurus believe, and 
  • Far more dependent on the context of how they're used. Functional reality takes over once a purchase is completed, perhaps not completely but certainly in large part. 

Consumers don't have experiences with brands as much as brands are incorporated into their experiences.

So any conversation about extending a brand has to include analysis of how the new product or service will be used, and how its functional benefits will make a meaningful difference to those moments. It's not about branding, really, but about how a product or service will impact reality.

Is the Mr. Clean car wash demonstrably better than the unbranded competitor down the street? It has to be if it expects to write repeat business. Could a Gerber insurance policy have a lower cost or higher payout than one from Allstate or Geiko? Any shopper will know that answer within a few mouse clicks. And those Cat flashlights should be able to withstand a direct nuclear blast.

Successful brand extensions have more to do with explicit value than a label, icon, or intangibles of brand value that are secreted away in consumers' souls. No great name will make a stinky product less stinky. People figure it out if you're trying to extend a brand too far.

Image source: John.P. 

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