A brand extension strategy that doesn't sacrifice authenticity featured image

Brand extension strategy should nurture the perceived authenticity of your brand. Authentic extensions maintain standards and style, honor brand heritage, preserve the brand essence and avoid brand exploitation. Authenticity is one of the most valuable assets of symbolic brands and should be included in a broader extension strategy.

When a brand grows in favor in the marketplace, its managers are often tempted to employ a short-sighted brand extension strategy to stretch it into new avenues to increase the company’s profit. This is a cost-effective way of entering new product categories as it allows marketers to leverage the parent brand in their go-to-market efforts.

There is, however, also a significant downside.

Opportunistic brand extensions risk diluting the brand image1Martínez, E., & de Chernatony, L. (2004). The effect of brand extension strategies upon brand image. Journal Of Consumer Marketing, 21(1), 39-50. doi: 10.1108/07363760410513950 and essence, and shattering authenticity perceptions. This means that it’s not only about finding a good enough fit between the parent brand and possible extension categories. You also have to preserve your brand’s cultural and symbolic value, especially if you operate in a self-expressive segment such as lifestyle goods.

In this article, I will explain brand extension authenticity and provide you with a handy framework you can use build your own authentic brand extension strategy.

What is a brand extension?

Simply put, a brand extension is about using a well-established brand name with a strong image to introduce a new product and to increase revenue. There are also many brand extensions types that differ mostly on whether the extension ventures into a new category or remains within the same one as the established brand operates in.

I won’t go into more detail here but Wikipedia has a great page about brand extensions if you want to read more.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to what makes a brand extension authentic.

Authentic brand extensions

Cosmopolitan, the famous women’s magazine, once produced its own Cosmopolitan yogurt because it learned that a majority of people used edible products in their bedrooms. Harley Davidson, the rugged motorcycle manufacturer, extended into cake decorating kits. Leadership at Harley Davidson later decided that it wasn’t enough to have just one stupid brand extension on their resumes so they also introduced wine coolers. Perhaps most interesting of them all is Colgate’s Lasagna. Nothing says fresh teeth like a lump of frozen meat and cheese, right?

To no one’s surprise, these products were all quickly pulled from the shelves and now serve as brand extension strategy examples in which authenticity should have been considered.

Witnessing an increasing amount of inauthentic extensions, University of Connecticut researchers Susan Spiggle, Hang Nguyen and Mary Caravella2Spiggle, S., Nguyen, H., & Caravella, M. (2012). More than Fit: Brand Extension Authenticity. Journal Of Marketing Research, 49(6), 967-983. doi: 10.1509/jmr.11.0015 developed a comprehensive and practical framework to help brands market authentic extensions.

You need to consider these four aspects if you want to ensure an authentic brand extension:

Maintain brand standards and style

First, you need to stay consistent. It is after all an extension, not a new brand meaning consumers should be able to recognize it right away. Any significant changes will lower the value of your distinctive brand assets and harm the brand in the long-run.

Spiggle and her colleagues recommend asking customers to rate four statements on a 7-point Likert scale.3All statements from this point come from Spiggle et al. (2012) But if asking customers is not an option, evaluating these yourself is also useful.

  1. The standards of YOURBRAND are apparently contained in this extension
  2. The style of this extension seems to reflect that of YOURBRAND
  3. This extension appears to reflect the quality I associate with YOURBRAND
  4. This extension appears to be inferior to what I expect from YOURBRAND
LEGO Star Wars is a great example of an authentic brand extension part of a broader brand extension strategy.
Star Wars is a great example of an extension that maintains authenticity and carefully considers standards, style, heritage, essence and exploitation. The brand’s extension into toys is one of many successful strategic plays in a broader brand extension strategy.

Honor brand heritage

You need to honor your heritage. This means staying true to the history and roots of the brand. There’s a reason why brands such as The North Face and Patagonia don’t pursue extensions like the examples above. They stay firmly within their niches because they know the value of brand authenticity and are not about to throw it away for a few dollars.

Ask your customers or self-evaluate:

  1. This extension appears to connect with what I know about YOURBRAND origins
  2. There is no link between this extension and what I know about YOURBRAND legacy
  3. YOURBRAND seems to have abandoned its roots with this extension

Preserve brand essence

In addition to heritage, your brand extension also has to be consistent with the broader brand identity and maintain uniqueness and symbolic value. Specifically, you need to make sure that how consumers see themselves and other consumers as a result of using the brand doesn’t change in any significant way.

This part is a little harder to evaluate on your own as it is very subjective so I recommend at least talking to a few of your customers to answer the statements below.

  1. This extension is not consistent with my image of YOURBRAND
  2. This extension seems to embody the essence of YOURBRAND
  3. This extension preserves what YOURBRAND means to me
  4. This extension captures what makes YOURBRAND unique to me
  5. What makes YOURBRAND distinct to me is lost in this extension
  6. The key associations I have with YOURBRAND are missing in this extension

Avoid brand exploitation

Greed and excessive commercialization is authenticity’s biggest enemy. It doesn’t matter how you put it, if people feel like you are prioritizing profit maximization over your brand’s values and essence, it will have a massive negative impact on perceived authenticity.4Fritz, K., Schoenmueller, V., & Bruhn, M. (2017). Authenticity in branding – exploring antecedents and consequences of brand authenticity. European Journal Of Marketing, 51(2), 324-348. doi: 10.1108/ejm-10-2014-0633

Again, I suggest that you at least try to involve customers and if that’s not possible be aware of your own biases when rating the following statements:

  1. The extension likely trades off the essence of YOURBRAND strictly for profit
  2. This extension likely sacrifices what I think makes YOURBRAND special in exchange for commercial gain
  3. With this extension, it seems that YOURBRAND was more concerned about preserving the brand rather than growing the market

Why your brand extension strategy should care about authenticity

At the end of the day should you really care about authenticity? From a moral standpoint: yes. From a business outcome standpoint: almost always yes.

90% of consumers say that authenticity is an important factor when deciding to purchase brands.5Stackla. (2019). Bridging The Gap: Consumer & Marketer Perspectives on Content in the Digital Age. https://stackla.com/resources/reports/bridging-the-gap-consumer-marketing-perspectives-on-content-in-the-digital-age/ That’s because people use authentic brands as resources construct their self-identities.6Elliott, R., & Wattanasuwan, K. (1998). Brands as symbolic resources for the construction of identity. International Journal Of Advertising, 17(2), 131-144. doi: 10.1080/02650487.1998.11104712 Such identity quests are becoming more and more important in today’s hyperreal environment.

As a result, people are more likely to buy and more willing to recommend authentic brand extensions. They also strongly dislike inauthentic extensions.7Spiggle, S., Nguyen, H., & Caravella, M. (2012). More than Fit: Brand Extension Authenticity. Journal Of Marketing Research, 49(6), 967-983. doi: 10.1509/jmr.11.0015 That being said, authenticity is most relevant in B2C contexts where consumption is symbolic. But don’t fall into the trap of classifying what is symbolic versus functional based on the usage situation. Even the most functional products can be highly symbolic.

Next steps

You should consider what role authenticity has in your brand. To get you started I can tell you that if you are selling anything like cosmetics, coffee, apparel of any kind, home furnishing or decoration, jewelry, trips or events, or anything related to people’s hobbies and deepest interest then authenticity most likely plays a significant part. Keep in mind that in these scenarios a brand extension means much more than new products. It’s an extension, and possible dilution, of a person’s own sense of self.

So, if that is the case, remember to consider what a brand extension will do to your authenticity. If you have a brand extension strategy, include authenticity in it. Talk to your customers either face to face or with a survey (preferably both) to get an idea about how to best grow your business while remaining authentic.

References

  • 1
    Martínez, E., & de Chernatony, L. (2004). The effect of brand extension strategies upon brand image. Journal Of Consumer Marketing, 21(1), 39-50. doi: 10.1108/07363760410513950
  • 2
    Spiggle, S., Nguyen, H., & Caravella, M. (2012). More than Fit: Brand Extension Authenticity. Journal Of Marketing Research, 49(6), 967-983. doi: 10.1509/jmr.11.0015
  • 3
    All statements from this point come from Spiggle et al. (2012)
  • 4
    Fritz, K., Schoenmueller, V., & Bruhn, M. (2017). Authenticity in branding – exploring antecedents and consequences of brand authenticity. European Journal Of Marketing, 51(2), 324-348. doi: 10.1108/ejm-10-2014-0633
  • 5
    Stackla. (2019). Bridging The Gap: Consumer & Marketer Perspectives on Content in the Digital Age. https://stackla.com/resources/reports/bridging-the-gap-consumer-marketing-perspectives-on-content-in-the-digital-age/
  • 6
    Elliott, R., & Wattanasuwan, K. (1998). Brands as symbolic resources for the construction of identity. International Journal Of Advertising, 17(2), 131-144. doi: 10.1080/02650487.1998.11104712
  • 7
    Spiggle, S., Nguyen, H., & Caravella, M. (2012). More than Fit: Brand Extension Authenticity. Journal Of Marketing Research, 49(6), 967-983. doi: 10.1509/jmr.11.0015

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