By Steve Rivkin
Q: Aren’t all brand names elastic? That is, can’t they extend over a range of products or services?
To a certain extent, yes, a brand name can be extended.
For instance, consider the brand ESPN. It started out in 1997 as a single cable channel, but has since mushroomed into half a dozen other channels, two radio channels, Internet access, and a print magazine – all built around the concept of sports coverage and commentary.
But note the core concept behind everything ESPN does. A name can only be stretched to a certain point before it “snaps” in the consumer’s mind and no longer stands for a clear concept.
Consider these failed brand extensions:
- Alpo brand cat food. (Hey, I’m a pet owner. I know that Alpo means dog food.)
- A-1 poultry sauce. (What? A-1 is something you put on steaks and hamburgers.)
- Pierre Cardin wine. (Just because the guy is French, that doesn’t mean he knows anything about wine.)
- Tanqueray vodka. (Vodka? I’ve been drinking Tanqueray gin forever. What do they know about vodka?)
Q: Those seem to be fringe products. What about more serious examples of this “snapping point?”
- Jostens was a pioneer in the market for class rings, yearbooks and other school graduation products. Then it moved aggressively into the educational software business, acquiring existing brands and turning them into Jostens services. But school customers didn’t make the connection, preferring to deal with specialists in the computer world. Ten years after its brand extension, Jostens took a $140 million pretax write-off and sold off its educational software business. It went back to its core strength, selling achievement and recognition products to students.
- Bayer is just about synonymous with aspirin. (It created the product in the 1890s.) But as the newer acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) products grew stronger, Bayer launched a $150 million program to introduce a selection of aspirin-free products under the Bayer Select brand. Consumers were confused, and Bayer Select brands languished, never gaining more than 1% of the pain-relief market.
Q: What about other companies that did not blur the distinctions among their brands?
- American Honda Motor Company applied its midrange Honda brand name to a lineup of vehicles – Civic, Accord, CR-V. But as Honda climbed the ladder of performance, styling and luxury, it realized it could not “stretch” the Honda brand indefinitely – and the upmarket Acura brand was born, with a completely separate identity. (You have to search long and hard in Acura materials to find any references to Honda.)
- When the low-fat craze hit the cookie market, almost every brand rushed out with a line-extended version of its regular cookie. (One of the first was Fat-Free Fig Newtons.) Nabisco took a different approach, launching a separate brand called SnackWells – which rapidly became one of the top ten best-selling grocery items.