The myth and misuse of “one thing” — part one

In 2009, Laura Ries of Ries & Ries brand consulting derided a new ad campaign from UPS claiming they do “more than shipping.” She writes:

Once your brand stands for something in the mind, it is almost impossible to change the brand’s position. UPS stands for shipping and the UPS Store stands for a place to ship. And that is not a bad thing, in fact it is an enormously profitable business.
Brands like UPS should reinforce their strengths in advertising and not try to expand into other companies’ categories.

I agree that brands need focus — that they should strive to stand for one thing in the minds of customers. But time and again Laura and her father/business partner, Al Ries, dole out advice based on generic rules of thumb that don’t apply to every business or situation. While a brand can stand for one thing, it’s unrealistic (and ill-advised) to recommend every business do only one thing, forever. After all, one benefit of a strong brand is the “permission” it gives to extend into other relevant categories.

To demonstrate the idea that a company’s success or failure is inextricably tied to the category in which they do business, Laura cites Kodak and Blockbuster as businesses that “are both in deep trouble because the film category and the video rental category are melting.” This is where her logic falls apart. Imagine, hypothetically, that the shipping industry was dissolving. What would her advice be for UPS? “You stand for ‘shipping,’ and it’s a bad idea to try to change that, so just let your company die along with your industry”? It’s bad brand advice because it’s bad business advice. (After all, brand strategy is business strategy.)

I think most interested parties would agree that Kodak and Blockbuster made errors — disastrous ones — by not saying “we do more than film,” or “we could stand for more than video rentals.” The strength of their brands put them in a position to very credibly claim “we stand for capturing life in images,” or “we stand for at-home entertainment,” respectively. And these positions would have allowed them to extend easily into new technologies by standing for an idea that transcends a specific media format.

Similarly, UPS may have an opportunity to stand for a bigger idea. Why shouldn’t they go for it?

Heirloom is a brand strategy firm helping entrepreneurs and business leaders build enduring brands. To receive articles, updates, and additional content from Heirloom, sign up for the newsletter.