Line extension into unrelated categories dilutes a brand

In their book ‘Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind’, Al Reis and Jack Trout discourage brands from line extension into unrelated categories. Line extension in branding refers to using your brand name for a product in another range that is separate and distinct from the original category.

For example, say you owned a successful soap brand called Sabuni Luxury Bar (sabuni is the Kiswahili word for soap) and wanted to expand into another product category to spread your risk or address a need in the market place.

For the purposes of argument let’s imagine that the new category is in edible oils and you figure out that you’d like to leverage on the strength of the already thriving Sabuni brand. You therefore launch a cooking fat called Sabuni Oils – and add a suitable tag line such as ‘nothing cleans your palette like Sabuni Cooking Fat!’

Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it, but marketing directors are doing this everyday. If a brand is a ‘promise kept’, what expectations do brands set for the consumer experience, and can that experience be credibly cast into another category? The fear is that any extension into a separate and distinct category will erode the original brand and offer an inauthentic image on the other side.

Examples are abound on this subject. The first computers by Apple were called Apple I and Apple II and after time, in order to develop a distance between them and other personal computer manufacturers they adopted an innovative naming convention, choosing to call their new creation Apple Macintosh, which was later shorted to the Mac.

After establishing a solid name in personal computing, they launched a new music playback product, and instead of calling it Apple Walkman, they called it iPod. Years later they introduced their legendary cellular phone product, and based on their unique naming convention, they called it the iPhone rather than the Apple Phone, and when the iPad was invented they avoided grotesque tie-ins such as iPhone Tab.

However, when it comes to brand names Apple isn’t without its flaws and the products they’ve introduce that have had underwhelming commercial success are those that have extended the Apple name into new categories such as Apple Watch and Apple TV. In both cases the brand extensions have not been able to convincingly differentiate themselves from the competitors in those fields.

So let’s bring it closer to home and from the most uninspired quarters. In 1993 the government parastatal offering telephony services in the country decided to follow the rest of the world and launch a cellular phone service for the masses. Anyone familiar with our government parastatals knows that futuristic thinking and brand excellence is not their dominion.

In a spat of rare genius they didn’t call the new brand Telecom Kenya Mobile or anything like that but decided on Safaricom which has turned out to be one of the most successful companies of all time in Sub-Sahara Africa. When Safaricom later introduced mobile money they didn’t call it Safaricom Money, Safaricom Dough, or anything similar but instead went for M-PESA.

Indeed there are several reasons for the success of Safaricom but I’m convinced that deliberate branding has been a major factor.

Once an emotional connection has been established between a brand and its consumers then line extension can only dilute its meaning in the market. Therefore if you intend to launch a product outside of your main category, you’d be best advised to consider a new brand name.

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About Joe Otin

CEO of The Collective digital ad agency, Chairman of the Advertising Standards Board of Kenya, and Rotary Governor Elect of District 9212 covering Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea & South Sudan.

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