Sep 11, 2008

Mktg - Stretching the 'rubber brand'

The mention of a brand name almost always evokes images that have long since been associated with it. For example, Lux with Hollywood-like complexions, Marlboro with rough-and-tough machoism, Sony with innovative technology, Rolex with a pioneering/ adventurous spirit, Pepsi with youthful exuberance and so on. And, consumers always aspiring for the proverbial “moon” usually lap up extensions of that imagery by buying a variety of products that have the same brand name or what are commonly known as brand extensions.
This brings us to the concept I like to call ‘rubber brand’ – brand names that stretch to similar categories to capitalise on the strong consumer franchise built up over a considerable period of time.
Examples of ‘rubber brands’ include Vicks, which extended itself from the well-known vapour balm to cough drops, lozenges and inhalers; Dove from toilet soaps to shampoos, Dettol from antiseptics to toilet soaps and Caterpillar from heavy earthmoving equipment to rugged all terrain cat boots! All these are based on fairly defined product categories such as bronchial medication, personal and household cleansing agents or coherent images of soothing relief, fresh feelings and heavy-duty manhood!
However, this exclusive brand aura that has so thoughtfully and painstakingly been built up over the years may not obtain the same consumer response when extended to different or even related product categories indiscriminately. In other words, the ‘rubber brand’ snaps in case it is stretched too far! Consumer associations of a well nurtured brand image with a particular product are so strong that to include another product in haste with the same brand name into his frame of reference may be akin to a foreign particle entering your eye — you desperately want to get rid of it!
One can, therefore, reasonably presume that this is what happened to a lot of also-ran brand extensions from a consumer point of view, without considering factors such as pricing and distribution. Thus, the consumer may think emotionally, but always acts rationally.
Corporations thus realised that there are limits to stretching the ‘rubber brand’. For example, in entertainment electronics National and Akai initially produced high-priced tape decks and amplifiers, but over the years, realising that the volume game was more lucrative, went on to tap the mass market for low-priced music systems and two-in-ones. However, in the process, unless you constantly innovate and are seen to be a pioneer in the category, the brand begins to be seen as being “for everybody” and the aura of exclusivity felt earlier tends to spread thin.
What happened, particularly in these two cases, was that consumers who desperately wanted to feel they were part of a select audience privy to the offerings of a superior brand felt part of a crowd they did not want to belong in. The ‘rubber brand’ snapped and the hunt was on for a new brand. Out of this changed scenario evolved the exclusive Cambridge Audio and Denon (amplifiers), Bose and Canton (speakers) of the world. And, so today, connoisseurs of music are extremely choosy during their buying process. For them price is not critical as they are willing to pay extra to belong to the inner circle of exclusivity.
Similarly, till recently, the evolved photographer rarely bought a Kodak, Konica or Fuji camera even if these brands were synonymous with film roll. For him a Canon, Minolta or a Nikon camera elevated his status to where he could look down upon the masses who shoulder these run-of-the-mill cameras
Today, however, the scenario has changed with the digital age and all brands vie for a slice of the pie.
To partly circumvent this, companies reacted by spinning off new divisions or buying exclusive labels to cater to these niche markets. Philips created Marantz and National formed Panasonic in entertainment electronics, while Colgate launched Palmolive soaps/shampoos. Similarly, both Unilever and Proctor & Gamble hitherto seen as the last word in mass marketing bought niche brands such as Elizabeth Arden and Old Spice rather than ride on their existing brand equities when entering the cosmetic market and now have a variety of high-end luxury brands.
It pays to be cautious while contemplating brand extensions. Research can shed light on consumer perception of brand names and their associated images, after which the limits of extensions can more or less be mapped out. This is essential so that marketers and brands do not overstep the line — given the euphoria of past successes — only to find themselves falling into the rubber brand “snapped” trap.

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