French writer André Maurois called business “a combination of war and sport.” Others have likened it to a jungle. There’s some truth to those characterizations, of course. The world of business is marked by hungry competitors in a constant battle for a bigger share of market. And, as in the jungle, any business or brand that stays in one place too long increases its odds of falling prey to more agile and powerful predators. This is particularly the case today, a time when giants can be built on the back of a single powerful idea.
From to Google, eBayto Apple, we’ve seen how quickly new competitors can rise up and shake up entire industries — or even invent their own.
For brands, it’s imperative in this environment to keep moving—to keep growing and changing and progressing into new territories. This movement needs to be strategic, though; stretch a brand too far in the wrong direction, and it is liable to break. So, what are the rules of brand extension? What sort of new and different things can a brand aim to do?
If Virgin, which started off selling LPs, can go into airlines, trains, broadband, mobile telephony, insurance, vacations, carbonated drinks, music, radio, and space tourism, does that mean the likes of Atlantic Records or Def Jam could follow suit?
Generally speaking, the broader the brand values, the more scope there is for growth. Yet not every company is quick to see its true potential. For two decades, Apple struggled to gain market share in the personal computer category; it wasn’t until Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1996 that it recognized it could be a powerhouse in consumer electronics with its already embedded philosophy of simple design. Even then, it took nearly a decade before the company was ready to jettison “Computer” from its name. Contrast that with Virgin, which within five years of Virgin Records going international had moved into film and video distribution, gaming, air travel, and holiday tour packages. From early on, Richard Branson’s Virgin was about more than music; it was about innovation, fun, and freedom—and that gave it the dynamism to move into new areas, where it worked hard at fulfilling its promise, thereby creating trust. Similarly, with brand values centered on affordable design, IKEA was able to move beyond home furnishings, building lower-priced homes for sale or rent across much of Northern Europe.
"As marketers, we need to consider it a part of our job to help our clients look beyond arbitrary limits and branch out into new areas."
Using our Creative Business Idea process, we examine what’s happening among consumers, in which directions the category is moving, and where the brand sits within that category. Then we work to figure out how all these pieces of the puzzle can be rearranged to the client’s advantage. Sometimes it’s just a matter of gaining a fresh perspective on what it is a client does or sells or represents.
A few cases in point:
Dr. Scholl’s was a solid, centenarian brand stuck in a category associated in consumers’ minds with orthopedic shoes and ankle-puddling support hose—a world away from Timberland, let alone Jimmy Choo.
How could they get people to see the brand in a fresh light? They didn’t need to reinvent the product; they already had developed a brand-new line of gel inserts. What needed reinventing was the category. Scholl’s had to remove the stigma of arch supports and varicose veins, taking the brand out of nursing homes and putting it into dance clubs. They did this by rebranding the category as lifestyle supplements rather than medical aids. Once that mental leap was made, it was just a question of putting together a fun marketing campaign and watching as the good doctor’s brand got off to a sprinting start into its next 100 years. Are you gellin’?
If you had an opportunity to visit Paris in the 1990s, you’ll know how people described the métro system: unpleasant, dirty, dangerous. RATP, the Paris subway and bus transportation system, wanted an ad campaign that would improve the system’s image. The agency said no. Instead, it helped RATP transform itself from a transportation company into a company in the business of making people more mobile. This would require a near total re-creation of the ridership experience. Elements of the Creative Business Idea were put into place throughout the system, including contact-free electronic passes, redesigned stations, new shops and galleries for public art displays and performances, and the production of a weekly entertainment guide detailing events around the city. As a mobility provider, RATP even partnered with a bicycle-rental company to make its passengers’ commutes even easier. By thinking of its business in a new way, RATP had given itself permission to provide services and amenities it would never before have considered.
Whatever their category and circumstances, most brands have the potential to extend themselves profitably provided they have the desire and commitment to do it, the flexibility to change, and the imagination to envision a smarter future. Brands that fail to innovate and constantly challenge themselves to push forward will inevitably find themselves at the wrong end of the food chain.
Naomi Troni is Chief Marketing officer of Euro RSCG Worldwide. This summer, the communications company will celebrate the power of ideas with the release of The Creative Business Idea Book: Ten Years of Breakthrough Thinking.