The limits of the classical conception of a brand

Most brand limitations are self-imposed. This is why brand extension took so long to emerge as a normal practice of brand management. This is also why some authors still hold it in disrepute. These prejudices are based on a classic conception of brands, which reigned over marketers and all business schools for almost a century. However, it cannot resist the conditions of modern markets.

The classic conception of branding rests on the following equation:

1 brand = 1 product = 1 promise

For instance, in the Procter & Gamble tradition, every new product receives a specific name, which is totally independent from the other brands. Ariel corresponds to a certain promise, Dash to another, Vizir to a third. Mr Proper is a household detergent, and nothing else. Let us compare this policy with that of Colgate-Palmolive: Palmolive is a toothpaste, a soap, a shaving cream and a dishwashing liquid; Ajax is a scrubbing powder, a household detergent and a window cleaning liquid.

The classic conception of branding leads to an increasing number of brands. If a brand corresponds to a single physical product, to a single promise, it cannot be used for other products. Under this conception it is a rigid designator, the name of a product, a proper noun, just as Aristotle is the name of the famous Greek philosopher (Cabat, 1989). It names a specific reality, as a commercial name is linked to a specific company.

Under this conception of the brand, few extensions are possible. The brand is in fact the name of a recipe. All that can be done is range extension, that is a variation around the central recipe either by:

  • ameliorating the quality of its performances.
  • The brand then gets a series number: for example Dash 1, then Dash 2 and Dash 3;
  • increasing the number of sizes in order to adapt to the changing practices of the consumer (packet, tub, mini-tub);
  • increasing the number of varieties (Woolite for wool and Woolite for synthetics).

The classic conception of branding is actually limiting. It does not differentiate the history of the brand from the reality of the brand. Of course, a brand originally begins with a new single product which is better than the competition, thanks to the know-how of a firm.

With time, and through communication, packaging, advertising, etc, the brand becomes rich with features, images and representations which give it its style. The brand thus has personality along with know-how. After designating an origin (the manufacturer’s brand), or a place of sale (the commercial name), the brand conveys after some time the signs of non-material elements, which take root in physical production (the products) and iconic production (advertising images, logos, symbols of visual identity).

The relationship between the brand and the product is therefore reversed: the brand is no longer the name of a product, but the product itself carries the brand in a sense that it reveals the exterior signs of an interior imprint. The brand has transformed the product, endowing it with both objective and subjective features.

In this reversed perspective, there is no other limit to brand extension than that of the ability of the brand to leave its mark on a new category of product, ie to segment it according to its own attributes. Bic, ignoring the dissimilarity of products, left its mark by creating sub-segments of simple, cheap and efficient goods wherever these attributes are valued. Bic failed where these were not valued – in the perfume segment.

The classic conception of branding is nominal: the brand is the name of an object. If one looks beyond this object, and wonders what project it conveys and what vocation it embodies, one can grasp the full meaning of the brand, its etymological meaning (the brandon), the exterior sign of an internal transformation, on behalf of a key value (the brand essence).

Thus, the classic conception of the brand takes the history of the brand for its long-term reality. But, although the brand originates from a product, it is not the product. The brand is the meaning of the product.

Products cannot speak for themselves. The consumer is perplexed in front of a tin of brandless frozen lasagna. How can he or she foresee the satisfaction that will be derived from this tin? The brand reveals the intention of the maker: what values did they try to put into this tin? What did they want to introduce in this product: the love of tradition, an example of work well done, a respect for modern tastes, the will to find a compromise between fat and light food?

Extensions cannot be made in all directions. The direction is defined by the brand itself. A brand works as a genetic programme. It carries the code of the future products which will bear its name.

What does this new conception of branding change for brand extension? According to the classic conception, brand extension barely goes beyond very similar products. The key concept is product or usage similarity. This does not explain how perfumes by jewellers – Van Cleef, Bulgari, Boucheron, etc – are successes. It reduces brand identity to one single facet, the physical. This logic would exclude the idea of a Swatch car.

The larger conception of branding leads to extensions out of the initial category. The brand is different from the original product. It is a way of dealing with products, of transforming them, of giving them a common set of added values, both tangible and intangible: this way, a Swatch car is possible. An alliance with a company which has the technical know-how (Mercedes for example) suffices. This alliance, eventually made explicit through co-distribution, will give reassurance as to the car’s quality and free consumers’ desires.

The case of Lacoste helps to compare the operational consequences of each of the two conceptions of branding. Lacoste gained its reputation in 1933 through its tennis shirt made out of knitwear (called the 12 × 12), so a logical extension of Lacoste could be made not only toward other knitwear products, but also to other polo-shirts, sportswear and textiles in general.

Under this conception, shoes and leather items are excluded (apart from tennis shoes), since they do not use the same know-how as textiles and knitwear. Under Lacoste’s broader brand conception, the crocodile signals a typical attitude: with Lacoste, one is casual when smartly dressed, and smart even when dressed casually.

Lacoste is beyond fashion: it is a classic. From this perspective, Lacoste can brand shoes or leather goods as long as they preserve the brand’s originality; it must not brand products that have already been seen. The other condition is to brand only products which embody the values of the brand: flexibility, casualness, extreme finish, durability, distance from fashion, unisex use, etc. What enables Lacoste to brand a product is not the physical fit, but whether the product belongs to the Lacoste culture and high standards.

This new perspective opens new sources of growth for brands. Instead of looking at themselves as product brands, they become concept brands, defined by a set of values and not by a single instance (Rijkenberg, 2001). Indeed, brand logic is additive. The brand is the sum of its attributes: it is revealed by the products that it covers. The case of McCain is typical. The brand generally penetrates new countries through its frozen fries (it is actually the main supplier to McDonald’s).

They later introduce a frozen pizza (‘deep pan’, typical of the American way of life and of eating). They then launch buns to aim at the snack market. McCain also launched an iced tea to penetrate this high-growth market. Brand identity is actually uncovered by the sum of all these products. McCain’s identity in Europe is that of ‘American fun and generous food’. Generosity is both a relationship trait and a physical trait: all portions should be bigger when signed by McCain.

Hence the surname ‘deep pan pizza’ or the higher cap of its iced tea (surnamed Colorado to refer to a mythical view of America). Future products may come from anywhere as long as they embody this enlarged identity of the brand, and fall within the territory of legitimacy the brand has created step by step, through each of its product launches.

History should not determine the future. In order to remain up to date, the brand must also be able to evolve; this is achieved through extension towards products which lead it in new directions and modify its meaning. Nestlé, known for dry foods (its prototypical products are instant milk and chocolate), did not enter the ultra-fresh market of yoghurts just to increase its turnover. The move was also intended to nurture its image thanks to this more modern segment, capable of updating its traditional and classic image traits.

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