Moving sideways is difficult

Photo courtesy: Matt Brown

This article was originally published in LinkedIn Pulse on 2nd March 2017

There is an innate charm about being effortless or natural. It is about not trying too hard, not pretending and not putting on a fake persona. The world’s greatest statesmen, politicians, business leaders and speakers have this trait. It is a trait that only few brands have been able to embrace. But what is it about being effortless or natural that has anything to do with brands? There is a lot if we play close attention.

To attain excellence in a field requires discipline and practice. To become effortless or natural in the way you lead your life also requires practice. For brands, becoming natural is about attaining a state when they do not have to try hard to justify their positioning or face a hard graft in making consumers believe in their innovations. Again, to achieve this natural state requires consistent application and persistance.

But surprisingly some brands unknowingly become effortless. This is because the pursuit is excellence in meaningful innovation and in building a distinct brand identity (without having the need to try too hard).

Elizabeth Segran’s article in Fast Company on how Nike became a fashion powerhouse illustrates examples of how the brand’s high technology innovation process for its sneakers made some of them sought after fashion and luxury items. The successful evolution of the brand to own two distinct identities — sportswear and fashion wear is not an easy task. But Nike’s success in doing so feels effortless and natural.

Let’s look off the beaten track for other examples of effortless brand building (or to be more specific, expanding a brand effortlessly into adjacent categories). A brand that does it quietly, but brilliantly, is Nivea. From a women skincare brand to a Nivea For Men range and then expanding its women’s portfolio into facial care by imbibing cosmetic elements, the brand has significantly expanded its presence. Majority of its innovations (whether it is focused on category expansion or to garner market share) has been hugely successful. The secret to its success is a deep and continuous understanding of skincare as a regime from a family’s perspective (rather than individual perspective).

Strategic adjacency plays are complex to design and implement, which is why a simplicity in thinking is required. Too much thinking and too much effort in implementation is the first sign of “trying to hard”. Brands never recover from such shaky starts. Another factor that has been driving too much thinking is the desire to be ‘digitally friendly’ or a ‘digital native’. Digital is a term that stands for an amalgamation of platforms on which brand building can (or should) happen, and not necessarily a new form of oxygen that all brand builders need to breathe to survive.

Coming back to simplicity in adjacency plays (or for the sake of simple English — expanding and building a brand in new categories), there are some critical aspects that drive this simplicity:

  • ‘Evolutionary’ is more effective and pragmatic than ‘revolutionary’: We talk about brands being personalities, having emotions, having the ability to be our friends and influence our lives, shaping our personalities, influencing our behavioural traits etc. In our lifetime (and a brand’s life which is significantly longer than a human being), we come across a handful (or insignificant) of revolutionary human figures. But we will come across a higher number of individuals who have become supremely successful in their lives after starting from humble origins (or in many instances from abject poverty or destitution). Applying this same scenario to adjacency plays leads to a conclusion that brands need to evolve as they grow and expand into newer categories (and not attempt to revolutionise them). I will deliberately and consciously steer clear of the startup brouhaha that is enveloping all of us when I mention the word ‘revolutionary’.

‘Evolutionary’ means a gradual development of something. For a brand it means an expansion of a brand’s capabilities to provide solutions to related problems (sometimes seemingly unrelated but in reality related). From being a brand that provides ready-meal solutions to also becoming one that provides ingredients for easy-cooking meals is evolutionary. So is expanding capabilities to become a holistic dairy products provider when you started life as a fresh milk provider. Or expanding a brand’s credentials to include peripheral requirements when the brand in itself addresses a core solution. Evolutionary brand building also stands when a brand expands its functional capabilities and solutions for a wider range of needs in a category.

A slightly dated (3 years is not a long time in brand building) but relevant article from Ad Week highlights some interesting brand extension examples that people liked or disliked (in an online poll). Some of the examples evaluated were really bad examples of brand extension (and expectedly got low votes), but the ones that stand out as poor performers, where we could have expected a more positive response are ‘Dr Pepper Marinade’ and ‘Samsonite Outerwear’. These results prove that our perceptions about brands and what they stand for is clearer than what manufacturers tend to believe. The above examples also lead nicely to the second principle of effortless adjacency plays.

  • Believability / Credibility: A much touted (and often abused) term in concept and idea testing, believability should be a critical element of brand extension strategies. Corporate strategy places a lot of importance on the principle of ‘ability to win’after research and analysis comes up with significant opportunities for organisational growth. This corporate strategy principle can be adapted to ‘ability to convince’ in the domain of brand adjacency plays. Does your adjacency plays have the ability to convince the consumer that your brand actually belongs in that category? Does your brand have the equity or credentials to be able to announce that it has a stake in the ground? If not, do not attempt that brand extension as your brand will surely fail

Some pitiful attempts include basing extension strategies on false beliefs like:

“We have owned this category for the last 20 years and the adjacent category is rapidly emerging as a complement / substitute. We should be there….”

“Our brand stands for lots of things for different kinds of consumers. That should help us expand into adjacent categories and tap into growth opportunities”

“We have a strong master brand that has supported a portfolio of brands across multiple categories. If we continue on the same strategy of master brand endorsement, then we can launch new brands to tap into new categories”

“It is a trend that is rapidly gaining momentum. We have a brand that can address the needs behind that trend. Let’s just go there”

“The categories that we operate in are rapidly transforming. We need to have future ready brands, which means we need to play in new categories that are being created or as existing categories splinter etc.”

All the above are examples of high level strategic thinking that ignores the “ability to win” or “ability to convince”. All of them have a palpable sense of urgency but ignore whether the brand has the believability / credibility credentials. Let’s look at how the beliefs above can sound true when they are infused with thoughtful perspectives:

“We have been market leaders in this category for the last 20 years. Adjacent categories are rapidly emerging as substitutes / complements. What learnings do we have that we can effectively transition over? If want to develop brand extensions, what can we build on and what do we need to develop?”

“Our brand stands for a lot of things to lot of different kinds of consumers. We need to have a distinct core proposition and then explore opportunities where the brand can stretch into. Being something in everything is a sign of fragmentation, and not a sign of strength”

“We have a strong master brand that has supported the growth of portfolio brands till now. As we look to expand into adjacent categories we need to understand the ability of the master brand to support that expansion or whether we need to reposition one or two of our portfolio brands”

“We need to start thinking of how we reposition our brand(s) to tap into emerging opportunities. This needs to be a combination of how much our existing brand(s) can stretch into new territories or do we need to look at new sub-brands to tap into new growth opportunities”

  • Alignment with the brand’s core values and missions: Adjacency plays or brand extensions are no jokes and have the ability to either strengthen or seriously undermine brand equity. Before contemplating how to expand into a new category, brand owners need to assess whether the brand has those values that can support that extension.

I can already hear alarm bells ringing, quiver full of arrows being pulled up and all forms of targeting skills getting sharpened, but I need to say this. Google’s birth may have been ‘revolutionary’ but its growth has been ‘evolutionary’. Google’s mission is “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible”. Let’s look at how its evolution into a brand with a portfolio of products aligns with this mission:

Google currently has 78 products listed on its website (and quite a few significant ones in development). All these 78 products align with its mission statement through one or many of these dimensions:

Organise: Organises the information an individual wants

Access: Provides user-friendly access to information an individual wants

Simplify: Simplifies information for meaningful decision making

Capitalise: Capitalises on the commercial opportunities that information provides

Transform: Transforms the way information can be made meaningful, valuable and life-changing

Magnify: Magnifies the impact of information using different mediums, formats and delivery mechanisms

The evolution of Kleenex from a simple functional tissue brand to one that has multi-dimensional solutions and dynamic formats is fascinating. It is all about finding extension opportunities that fit with a brand’s core values and missions. Again it is important to stress on the evolutionary aspect of brand building (and not revolutionary) — from a cold cream and makeup remover to handkerchief substitute to travel versions to one with calendula (to give a nose suffering from cold some relief) to anti-viral.

  • Before contemplating consumer feedback, think whether it is sounding like a joke inside the organisation already: If yes, kill the brand extension idea and go back to what you are doing best. Brand builders are under too much pressure now to rise and deliver against expectations (quite a few of them unrealistic) — to be innovative, creative, futuristic, commercially savvy and wearing their consumers’ hearts on their sleeves.

If the need to formulate and implement a brand extension strategy is to show that the organisation is not standing still and doing something, then the very first rule of being effortless is broken — you are simply trying to hard. Brand builders need to build brands with intent and not as a past time.

There are two ways of making sure that a brand has a solid foundational grounding in a new category or has the ability to meet a newly discovered need in an existing category — investment in consumer understanding, R&D and continuous improvement and the easier option of acquisition.

Hard path requiring grit and perseverance: Gillette’s success with the Mach 3 in India

Easier path when you don’t have the capabilities : Unilever’s acquisition of Dollar Shave Club

The above two examples will not fit the true definition of a brand extension strategy but highlights options that organisations take to become successful in new categories (or categories with evolving needs).

Encapsulating the three broad points above, the key principles of ensuring success in adjacency plays is simple (but hugely impactful in today’s age):

1) Do not start when you know there is a high chance you will abandon

2) If it sounds and feels like a ‘bit too much’, it is ‘too much’

3) Brands are not jelly — they need to be moulded, casted and presented over time

4) You may feel like you have the capability to extend a brand but in reality you don’t — adjacency plays is not only about launching a new line in a new product category. It is about launching to win

5) Don’t try your hand at building products that the organisation’s legacy, ethos, values and mission does not support

6) Remember how you started life with — evolution is a journey that started somewhere and you continuously need to revisit that starting line

7) Categories might be adjacent in the real sense of the definition but the needs can be divergent and remarkably different — in-home and out-of-home coffee drinking are adjacent categories but needs are very different

8) Brands promise something to consumers but the target operating models deliver — If your TOMs fail, then your adjacency plays are useless

9) You can only transfer a small share of strength to an adjacency play but you do transfer over a large share of your weaknesses that you have when you start in any category (uncertainty, ambiguity, need for clarity, lack of consumer understanding, different competitor dynamics etc.)

10) Please remember that effectively selling different varieties of ketchup does not give you the credentials to step up and sell different varieties of baby food