Brand Extensions: Logical, Puzzling Or Hopelessly Out There

What with Frommer's introducing a line of luggage and Newman's Own introducing wines, this has been a big week for notable brand extensions.

And the early reviews from branding and licensing experts on these two extensions, at least in concept, are quite positive.

"If you're going to buy luggage, why not buy from a brand like Frommer's that's known for its insider experience and knowledge of travel?," sums up Robert Passikoff, founder and president of the Brand Keys branding consultancy.

"Consumers know Frommer's as experts on travel. So, from a licensing perspective, luggage would certainly be a natural category to look at," says Michael Stone, president of the brand licensing consultancy The Beanstalk Group.

The Frommer's Luggage extension seems to be in line with core factors that go into defining the appropriate scope of a brand, including being in synch with the brand's core equities and having relevance to a sufficiently large and appropriate group of consumers, Stone notes. Assuming the line fits the brand's demographics and offers product differentiators that capture consumers' attention and secure sufficient retail distribution in the highly competitive luggage category, "this extension could well work," he concludes.



The luggage is being offered through and other online retailers at present, though it may be extended into some bricks-and-mortar chains, according to Michael Berger, a spokesperson for the line, which is designed/manufactured by Delsey USA through a licensing deal with Frommer's rights owner Wiley Publishing, Inc. The target demographics span people of all ages looking for quality at an affordable price (promo prices for individual pieces range from $29.99 to $119.99), from "AARP members to honeymooners," Berger says.

As for product differentiators, features being touted include a patent-pending fiberglass frame construction that's highly durable yet enables luggage that's up to 40% lighter than comparable pieces on the market, plus numerous design details that enhance packing organization, space expansion and luggage handling.

Newman's Own wines--starting with a 2006 California chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon offerings that will debut next year at a suggested retail of $16--also seem an eminently logical extension, given the brand's now well-established credibility and image, say the pros.

"In many respects, it's a confounding brand," but "a great case study of how a celebrity can be turned into a brand," observes Stone. "Years ago, who would have thought to link Paul Newman with salad dressing? Car racing gear, maybe--but salad dressing would not have been on my list. It seems to have started by serendipity and Newman's name and the fact that they give all the profits to charities clearly helped the brand take off. But they also smartly capitalized by moving into pasta sauces and other foods."

Younger Consumers Think Newman = Popcorn
While Newman's respect as an actor and public figure among the Boomer-and-beyond demographics provided a foundation, Newman's Own is "no longer about the celebrity; it's about the food brand," Stone emphasizes. "If you say 'Paul Newman' to younger consumers, I'll bet that their immediate association is with food--popcorn and so forth."

But even as Newman's Own takes a tongue-in-cheek, somewhat down-home approach to marketing, Newman's association with sophistication helped make salad dressings, pasta sauce and other offerings--and now wine--natural fits in the minds of more mature consumers, Stone points out.

Brand-wise, "Newman is basically Teflon-coated, in the most positive sense," comments Passikoff, whose view is that the success or failure of a brand extension has less to do with differentiating a specific product than the "believability" of the brand.

"It's getting tougher and tougher to differentiate a product based on its qualities or benefits," he says. "What it really comes down to is whether consumers trust that a brand will deliver up to their expectations. Ultimately, the brand is the differentiator."

Newman's Own has unusually broad latitude for extensions because of its high believability quotient, Passikoff adds. "Newman has respect and authority as an actor and now as an entrepreneur. He's produced quality salad dressings and other extensions, so why wouldn't we assume that he'd offer a nice glass of wine?"

At the same time, Passikoff--like Stone--stresses that, in most cases, the believability of the extension in terms of its mesh with the brand's established area or areas of expertise is an extremely critical factor.

"One of the big mistakes companies fall into is confusing a marketing opportunity with a brand opportunity," Passikoff says. "The two are different most of the time--although when it's done right, the extension is both: a solid brand opportunity is a marketing opportunity."

Too often, a company looking to expand a brand's reach will jump into an extension largely because it has the wherewithal to manufacture it and get it distributed, or the ability to license it, he says. "This is the 'Field of Dreams' approach: Build it and they will come, or buy it. They don't really determine whether there's a need or demand in the market, as opposed to a trend that's insupportable over time and--equally important--whether anyone's going to believe this extension coming from this particular brand."

Gaines-Burgers For People?
Frito-Lay's venture into lemonade and a long-ago attempt by the Gaines-Burger dog food brand to market frozen dinners for humans spring first to Passikoff's mind as examples of extensions that failed the believability test.

But the history of brands is strewn with extensions that would seem incongruous from the get-go, as has been amply documented by Matt Haig in his book Brand Failures: The Truth About the 100 Biggest Mistakes of All Time." A partial list includes Harley-Davidson perfume, Heinz All-Natural Cleaning Vinegar, Virgin cola, Bic underwear, Ben-Gay aspirin, Cosmopolitan yogurt, Colgate Kitchen Entrees, and LifeSavers soda.

When brands or extensions fail, the core reason is always that "something happens to break the bond between the consumer and the brand," Haig pointed out. The brand "sins" that can create such breaks, Haig wrote, include "brand amnesia" (forgetting what a brand is supposed to stand for, as Coca-Cola did in introducing New Coke) and "brand ego" (overestimating a brand's importance or capabilities and so entering a market for which a brand is "clearly ill-suited, such as Harley-Davidson trying to sell perfume").

Other wince-inducing examples appear annually in the brand-extension survey of nearly 900 branding experts conducted by the TippingSprung branding firm and Brandweek.

Last year's "winners" in the "Most Inappropriate Brand Extensions" category included Chee-tos-flavored lip balm, a Salvador Dali deodorant stick, Diesel Jeans wine, Chicken Soup for the Soul pet food, Play-Doh perfume and a Lamborghini notebook computer.

Previous years' winners have included Barbie Luxe (upscale interpretations of Barbie's wardrobe for human grown-ups, including a tiara); Hooters Air (an airline touting scantily attired flight attendants) and Harley-Davidson's cake decorating kit. (Obviously, Harley-Davidson also has its share of winners: In 2004, its footwear extension was voted among the best brand extensions.)

Yet, as Passikoff and other experts acknowledge, it's far from unheard-of for an illogical, inappropriate extension to succeed on purely monetary terms. The problem is the damage that out-of-left-field extensions can do to a brand's core equity--particularly if the brand was not rock-solid to begin with.

While Coca-Cola and McDonald's (which spent $100 million on marketing an Arch Deluxe burger geared to adult tastes and sold "about six burgers," according to Passikoff) can withstand a big incongruity hit, others have not been so fortunate.

As TippingSprung CEO Robert Sprung told BusinessWeek, "Just because it sells well doesn't mean it's good for the brand in the long term."

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