Brand extensions have been on my mind lately. Not only because Susan G over at BrandCurve has been talking about them, but also because it’s kind of what I’m up to at work these days. I recently stepped ankle-deep into the brand extensions puddle with my purchase of a new office chair from Staples. It wasn’t Staples brand, but rather Sealy Posturpedic. Yes, the mattress folks are in the chair market.
Apparently, there is a sort of synergy between the Sealy and Staples, as is evident from the sample of memory foam provided with my chair. This little cube, which cute and cuddly, provides absolutely no function as serves solely as a brand trinket promoting something I’ve already bought. Just thought I’d point that out.
But the reason I’m posting this is to take a closer look at brand extensions. Every time we see a new product or service from a familiar brand, it makes us think. Consciously or sub-consciously, I think we all evaluate this new extension on a sliding scale between “completely absurd and out-of-left-field” to “totally appropriate and I-can’t-believe-they-didn’t-do-that-sooner”. In the case of my new chair, I’d say its closer to the latter. Here, consumers (myself included) presume that the same lessons learned in the mattress arena about textiles, padding, support, strength-to-weight ratios, etc. will come in very useful in building a decent chair. It helps to throw in those trademarked names like Posturpedic and Memory Foam. There is still a lingering element of confusion as to why Sealy would be making chairs in the first place. There tagline, after all, still reads “it’s made for sleep. It’s a Sealy”. Not exactly the message managers want to read when outfitting an office.
Of course if Sealy were to start making office furniture, that would put them severely on the absurd end. While furniture is only a slight jump from chairs, it’s a massive leap from mattresses. Like in politics, gotta keep the support of your base. (no pun intended)
Brand extensions have the tremendous ability to help and hurt a brand. By extending carefully into new, related arenas, a brand can reach new consumers and help the businesses grow. Think of Starbucks Teas, for those who don’t like coffee, but like the whole ‘experience’ of having a drink with friends at some place aside from a bar. On the other hand, collecting products and services seemingly at random can create confusion for the average consumer. What does Virgin, which started out as a record label, know about making wine? Or for that matter, international airlines and mobile phones.
A primary rule of brand extending, one that is still often broken, is not to cross products and services. While in grad school, I noticed that this is much more of a European thing where supermarkets will offer services like car and home insurance, postal services, minor veterinary work, auto maintenance and even banking and loan services. To me it seemed strange that Marks & Spencer, the quintessential British department store, was equally well-known for their upscale grocery chain.
This consumer logic that keeps me baffled is, I believe, rooted in the fact that we place a great deal of emphasis on expertise. Successful brands and companies have proven to us that they are the experts in a certain area. For example, Meineke does Mufflers, Dunkin Donuts make donuts. By definition, it’s impossible to be an true expert in more than one area. (In spite of the popularity of Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee and bagels, I wouldn’t call them experts in either category, they’re just exploiting the whole concept of rush hour and the working schedule of the average American schmuck.)
So while Sealy may be an expert in mattresses, I reckon they still make a capable chair. So far so good, as far as me and my lower back can tell. I still fancy myself an expert in branding — am I completely wrong? Your thoughts?