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Branding: Focus or Flexibility?

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My last post, Positioning for Extinction, stirred up quite a debate. Laura Reis, a big proponent of highly focused brands, suggested that Weber stick to charcoal grills and launch a new brand for gas grills.

I took the other side, saying that Weber’s brand is strong enough to cover both types of grills (plus, as Marianne points out, their grilling utensils and restaurant.) At last count, over 20 people have contributed to the debate; the comments are worth a read.

As is often the case when smart people are polarized on an issue, I start thinking of the middle ground. How can we all be right? I often agree with Laura when she talks about focus, yet there are very successful brands that don’t fit that mold (I’m thinking of GE, IBM and Apple, for starters.) The issue of focus versus flexibility in a brand can depend on a couple factors:

1) How new is the brand? Here’s where I completely agree with Laura: new brands should tightly focus. Pick one problem that needs solving and build a reputation for solving it. Netflix solved convenient movie rental. Google solved fast, accurate search. Apple offered a cool new way to compute.

As the brand becomes well-known, it may earn the right to extend its products and services. Sometimes age translates into trust; older brands are familiar and usually within our comfort zone (we assume that if they’re still around, they must have done something right.) IBM could move into IT services because of its long history in computing, and GE could successfully move into financial services… although that was a real stretch; I wouldn’t have recommended that one. Regardless, if a company develops a strong reputation that transcends their original product (ie. convenience or trust or safety or cool) then it can consider product/service expansion within the scope of that reputation.

Is expansion always recommended? Not at all. But building a brand is a dynamic, ongoing activity… not something you do once and check off your list. Brands are living entities, and their continued existence largely depends on the environment in which they operate. If markets and consumer preferences change over time, brand flexibility and adaptibility becomes important. Some might say that changing times require a new brand; in most cases, I’d disagree. Companies pour a lot of money into building a brand over the years; if it executes well and earns trust, then there’s a big bank account called ‘brand equity’ that would be foolish to discard. Which leads me to #2…

2) How much trust has the brand earned? To use an analogy, let’s say I hired an assistant to help me coordinate projects. Would I trust her to take on strategy work, or customer interviews, or client interaction? No…. at least not at first. If she’s not a great project manager, I’ll let her go. If she’s good at project management but doesn’t show an aptitude for anything else, I’ll keep her as a project manager. But if she earns my trust and shows a willingness to learn, I’d be quite open to testing her out in other areas… and pretty soon she might be running with projects of her own. I think you can see where I’m going with this.

Customers “hire” a company/product/service to fill a certain role. After building up a set of perceptions about that company, they know to either replace it, keep it for the specified role, or expand their relationship with it based on earned trust.

In my analogy, the assistant’s ‘brand’ is not based on being a project manager. If I trust her with other tasks, it’s because she’s built a personal brand on how she works, not what she does. In the “focus” philosophy, that person must stay a project manager her entire life; in the “flexible” philosophy, she can extend into other areas as long as she proves that she can build on her strengths and that the new role fits her strengths.

So Apple should not confined to being a computer brand because its reputation is not based on what it does (computers) but how it does it (cool). The Apple brand easily encompasses a broader range of products as long as they all deliver on Apple’s cool reputation. Conversely, Comcast (in my personal experience) should stop trying to get into telephony and internet access until it’s earned a solid reputation as a cable provider. If I have continued problems with my cable service, why should I trust them with other services? By spreading themselves too thinly, they end up not doing anything well.

So as you build your brand, think both about your core offering (what you do) and what you want to be known for (how you do it). The latter part — which is ultimately your reputation — provides the flexibility for your brand to transcend your initial product or service offering if it makes sense. And yes, there is a point where too much flexibility completely dilutes your brand. Unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules in this business; we can debate this issue for weeks, and everyone can provide examples to prove their respective points. But at the end of the day, every brand must consider a multitude of factors that go into this decision. Like people, brands are highly personal and individual. What is right for one is not necessarily right for all.

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Jennifer Rice is the founder of Mantra Brand Communication. She has extensive experience in brand/marketing strategy, market/customer research, integrated marketing communications and channel support.

Jennifer also writes theWhat’s Your Brand Mantra? blog which offers musings on branding, marketing and the ecology of business.

Branding: Focus or Flexibility?
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