Ries & Trout Were Wrong: Brand Extensions Work by David Aaker
I am deeply indebted to Al Ries and Jack Trout for advancing branding with their classic book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, in which they introduce the concept of positioning, defined as the brand perception residing in a person’s mind. It is an excellent book in many ways and still relevant. However, their judgment that practically all extensions are strategic mistakes is just wrong. In a subsequent 1993 book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, they doubled down on their anti-extension advice saying “a line extension ultimate leads to oblivion” and warning that to be successful you have to narrow a brand’s focus.
Their argument is that brand positioning strength is context sensitive, and if the brand is exported to another product area, its image — particularly its connection with a product class and any related benefit — will be weakened and confused often causing lasting damage. Thus, any gain in marketing efficiencies is just not worth the risk. The only exceptions are for those rare cases where a brand has small volume, the budget’s very small, products are commodities, or there is a very low level of competition.
Being provocative, as these authors are, can be healthy. However, because the books are so visible and influential and firms have been guided by their advice regarding extensions, it is worth providing some perspective. Below I’ll list a few reasons why brands can and are extended without damaging core brand perceptions — and thus why extensions are a very useful strategic option.
First, an extension can enhance the brand associations rather than detract from it. Consider Disney, a maker of cartoons, which expanded into the Disneyland theme park and TV series and later into retail stores, more theme parks, resort hotels, a retail store chain, a TV channel, cruise ships, and Broadway theater. All these extensions enhanced the Disney brand by reinforcing the fun, family, wholesome Disney image, enriched the brand with symbols, characters, songs, and experiences, and provided huge amounts of brand exposure.
Second, an extension that is successful can provide energy, visibility, and momentum. Dove was a 200 million dollar bar soap brand in 1991, based on its moisturizing feature, when it went on an aggressive series of extensions involving products like body wash, deodorant, shampoo, and more. The result was not only a multi-billion dollar business but a sharp increase in bar soap sales. The success of Virgin Airline also helped rather than hurt the legacy Virgin brand.
Third, customers are capable of having brand perceptions that are different in different product contexts. Dove has a meaning in shampoo (with its Weightless Moisturizer) that is different from that of Dove bar soap — but the Dove bar soap image is in no way diminished. The perceptions of GE Jet Engines in no way detracts from the positioning of GE Capital, and some GE associations apply to both.
Fourth, product relevance should not be affected by an extension. Product relevance means that when a product is cued such as with cruise ships, Disney is both visible and credible and thus is recalled. It is unimportant whether a person thinks of cruise ships or television channels or any other brand extension when Disney is cued. So the extension of the Disney brand should not affect its relevance.
Finally, if there is a perceived risk to the brand, a subbrand can serve to provide some distance. So, for example, Pizza Hut Express, Martha Stewart Everyday, and Gillette Good News are all extensions that provide protection from a downscale offering that could have tainted the brand. And Gillette Venus (for women) protects the masculine Gillette heritage.
A brand extension is not always a good choice, as discussed in my book Brand Portfolio Strategy. The risks that Ries and Trout describe are real but, in most contexts, they can be mitigated or removed entirely. The position that extensions should be avoided, if taken literally, can inhibit business and brand growth strategies, and will not serve a firm well.