BOOKS: How elastic is your brand?

Brand Stretch; David Taylor; Wiley, £19.99.

by Robert Jones, Consultant at Wolff Olins
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

- Sound advice on how to extend an asset profitably is welcomed by Robert Jones. If you've ever had a Mars ice-cream, you've tasted brand stretch.

The idea is simple: take something everyone loves (the Mars bar), translate it into a new dimension (ice-cream) and you get a completely new revenue stream. That's the theory. In practice, half of all attempts at brand stretch fail, and David Taylor's new book sets out to show how to get it right.

This is, in many ways, an admirable book. It's brief and readable, and full of useful devices for those of us with chronically short attention spans - summary boxes, 'key takeouts' and checklists. It's also packed with real-life messiness and there are dozens of examples, from Huggies to Cosmopolitan and Remy Martin to Special K.

Even better, this is a book with a point of view. Taylor is consistently opposed to what he calls the ego-trips of companies such as Virgin and Easygroup, which are so deeply in love with their own brands that they stretch them into contortions that could never work - for example, Virgin vodka or the easyMoney credit card (total customers: 1,500).

Taylor is right that the key to success is to stick to your brand's core idea, and to deliver something valuable for customers. Virgin's core idea is about iconoclasm - it's an irreverent upstart that challenges complacent providers. This works for airlines, mobile phones, and even trains - but not for vodka or wedding dresses.

Brand Stretch usefully defines three kinds of stretch. A core range extension is like adding a new flavour, and easy enough. A direct stretch takes you into a new, but related, market: for example, Dove stretching from soap to shower gel. An indirect stretch goes further: since Dove's big idea is 'moisturising', it was able to move from skin products into shampoos too.

Taylor suggests a five-stage process - a clear and easy-to-follow prescription for success. The first step, sensibly, is 'strengthen the core' - you can't stretch comfortably on a wobbly platform. And he is insistent on protecting the core brand - too often, marketing departments get excited about their clever brand extensions and fail to invest in the original brand.

Taylor's advice on filtering out ideas is more useful than his thoughts on having ideas in the first place, and the final chapter - on brand architecture - is probably his least convincing. Overall, though, the method is sound.

But is it enough? Stretching brands may have worked well in the 1990s, particularly for fast-moving consumer goods. But is this approach now radical enough? Achieving growth - sustainable growth, rather than just poaching a bit of someone else's market share - is getting harder and harder. Brand extension, however disciplined, won't create the new concepts, the new categories, the new markets that we need.

And, indeed, some of the most interesting stories in the book aren't examples of brand stretch at all. Apple's iPod isn't a brand extension: it's a clever, well-designed and useful new product. The iPod didn't start at a marketing department awayday. It began life as a new product idea and took its shape because the whole ethos of Apple is about creating things that look really good, work really well, and let people do new things.

This kind of new growth doesn't come from tinkering. It doesn't come from intellectual exercises to manipulate an existing brand property. It may well not come from the marketing department. Real growth comes from something less artificial and more organic in the organisation.

And what we as consumers want is not a thousand more brand extensions.

There are already more brandlets in the world than we could ever understand or care about. What we want instead is genuinely useful new things.

To find growth, companies need to reinvent the markets they operate in. The tired language of the marketing department may not be enough to get us there. What organisations must find - and what consumers want - is not 'differentiation' but difference.

- Robert Jones is a consultant at Wolff Olins and author of The Big Idea (Profile Books, £7.99).

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