Assessing what should not change: the brand kernel

All extensions are real products or services, and real decisions have to be made concerning their attributes and characteristics. Typically the first extensions are very conservative. Then bolstered by success, extensions gain their degrees of freedom (from the prototype). This is the time when the issue of what should be left intact, unchanged, and what can change is asked.

Extension and respect for physical identity

One of the first questions raised in extensions is how far the brand can go from its physical basis. This is especially true for brands whose identity rests heavily on their physical facets. Dove positioning for instance is based on its moisturizing power, and the claim of 25 per cent moisturizing cream content. This claim is maintained across extensions. All Orangina’s extensions respect the ratio of 10 per cent real juice and 2 per cent real pulp in the bottle or can.

Typically, first extensions are very close to the original: Mars introduced a Mars ice-cream bar, for Mars looks like a bar. Only later would it dare to move to other formats and shapes. However, growth can only be found by gaining more degrees of freedom: self-imitation cannot suffice.

In addition, extension is an extension of the same benefit elsewhere: it accentuates the move of the brand from pure product to concept, from pure tangible values to intangible values as well. Taillefine/Vitalinea is a leading yoghurt brand based on good taste with 0 per cent fat. It made a successful extension in the biscuit market, but with a promise of ‘less fat’. Finally it was extended to purified water, a product with no taste but with slimness benefits.

At some point in time, it is then possible and even necessary to forget the tangible root. Smirnoff is a vodka. However, Smirnoff Ice, the world’s number one ready-mixed drink, is based on not vodka but malt whisky. Skyy Blue also is not vodka but whisky-based. Of course, this is not a guaranteed way to success. In the United States everyone knows that Captain Morgan is a brand of rum. To grow the business it too introduced Captain Morgan Gold, a ready-mixed drink. Instead of rum, it too used whisky as a basis. This ingredient switch created a number of strategic advantages:

  • lower taxes;
  • access to greater distribution than is possible for rum, for instance through beer distributors;
  • access to television advertising (not permitted for spirits in the United States).

The new product however failed. Consumers did not like the taste enough, a classic in food and drink new product failure.

In brand management, identity plays a key role – and this is doubly true in extensions management. If consumers reject the very idea of an extension, it is either because they cannot see what benefits it offers that the competition does not (the number one reason for the failure of extensions), or because they cannot see the logic of the extension under this brand.

In other words, the extension is in conflict with their concept of the brand’s essence and kernel of identity – that is to say, the handful of attributes without which the brand ceases to be the brand. So how can we gain an understanding of identity as perceived by consumers?

To return to basic theory for a moment, the brand – like any concept – is defined by essential and less essential traits. The former are identifying traits, and are thus crucial. The latter are variable: they may be prominent in some brand products and less prominent in others. In his work on the perception of stereotypes, Salomon Asch showed that some traits had a considerable impact on overall perception, while others could be absent (or even contradictory) without affecting overall perception.

Abric (1994) extended this theory to include social perceptions, and Mischel extended it to brands (2000). According to the theory, the brand changes over time by incorporating traits into its kernel which had until then been peripheral, featuring only in some of its products. These traits form the heart of the brand’s vitality, the source of its ability to adapt to its ambient environment.

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