Can you build too good of a brand?

Posted 9 years ago by Adam Gautsch

Here's my question that I would like smarter people than me provide an answer to.

Can you build such a strong brand that it actually hurts you?

This question is sparked from thoughts of artist being very good at building personal brands but then having these brands define them in ways that are detrimental.

Two quick examples,
Bob Dylan- folk singer: This clearly hurt him when he tried to transition past the folk audience.

Possible business case example: McDonald's trying to introduce higher end menu items that are, on their merits, good but don't fall within the McDonald's brand.


Hunter S. Thompson- professional consumptionist: By the end, Thompson became a caricature of himself spending more time eating, drinking, and drugging than doing good work. By most accounts, he squandered some of his talent at the hands of trying to live the life of the Hunter S. Thompson brand.

Possible business case example: An ad agency trying to hard sell the cool or edgy direction to a client instead of the direction that works best for the client.

I guess the easy answer is to say that a good brand is good because it doesn't get pigeonholed so easily. But I'm not convinced that is the right answer.


olivier blanchard ~ 9 years ago

So the question, slightly reframed, would be can you build too 'specific' of a brand? So strong in its one unique "thing" that it becomes rigid and inflexible? Can a brand create such a powerful identity for itself that it becomes completely immutable?

The answer is yes. But there is a way around that, which I'll get to in about forty-five minutes. (You might want to go pop some corn and get a refill on your slushie. We might be here a while.)

The examples that you site are excellent: McDonalds' is going to have a tough time selling premium food items. Even when you visit McDonald's experimental (edgy) test locations, it's still, well... McDonald's.

But why would McDonald's want to change their value prop, their identity, when it has worked pretty well until now? If the chain isn't growing as fast as it would like, it may be that the market has reached a certain saturation point. (It happens when you're the giant global leader in a category.) If they aren't selling as many burgers as they would like to, maybe it isn't because they need new menu items. Maybe it's because some of their restaurants aren't exactly clean? Or maybe because some of the humans working behind the counter weren't as beaming with excitement as the ones you see in their TV ads?

McDonald's brand and menu aren't the problem. The experience McDonald's creates has been suffering these last few years, and it has caught on. It's as simple as that. New sandwiches and nicer interiors won't change the experience, and the experience drives traffic to the stores.

Instead of trying to become something it isn't, (trying to fix a black eye with a back rub) McDonald's should instead learn to embrace its McNature. McDonald's is a cool brand. It's a cool place to go eat very good fast food for just a few bucks. Their fries rock. Their Big Mac is delicious. Their playgrounds are fun. But I can't help but wonder if McDonald's problem doesn't have something to do with its own executives feeling embarrassed by their own brand. It sounds like the identity problem is an inside issue rather than a market-driven one. Someone is projecting a "not good enough" complex onto the whole operation. This isn't a market-driven motion, it's an ego-driven one. Too much navel-gazing and not enough customer engagement. McDonald's doesn't need to try and be anything but McDonald's.

But back to the point: Some identities/brands are as flexible as you want them to be. In the case of artists, a brand can be as malleable as silly-putty:

Hunter Thompson and Bob Dylan could have reinvented themselves, much like Madonna reinvented herself year after year during the 80's and 90's. Kid Rock easily made the switch from pop/rock to Country, so why not Bob? George Clooney went from being a vague TV actor in the 80's to being a Hollywood superstar. Is Kanye West an R&B artist? A rapper? A producer? A political activist? What is his musical style? The guy is constantly in flux. How do you define Kanye's brand? Kanye is just Kanye, whether he produces a movie score, acts in a theater production of Death of a Salesman or joins Justin Timberlake for live performance at the MTV Music Awards. The point: Nobody pigeon-holed Bob or Hunter. They did it to themselves. Unlike the McDonald's example - in which the brand is as immutable as a chunk of lead on an alchemist's desk - personal brands or branded movements are fluid.

If Bob Dylan wanted to change his image, his brand, he could have changed his hair, upgraded his wardrobe, and cut an album with Jazz artists or a Euro mod band. If Hunter wanted to free himself from his consumptionist image, he could have gone into rehab or moved to New York City or written something completely different from what he knew people expected. Choices were made not to do these things even though they could have been done.

In sharp contrast, if McDonald's really wants to get into the premium fast food (I chuckle at the notion) or healthy fast food biz, it can... but it probably needs to create a premium and/or a health-conscious sub-brand to carry that concept because the McDonald's brand won't allow it. It's solidified like a statue. Like the face of a President on a coin. McDonald's is as immutable as the portrait of George Washington on the one dollar bill. In order for McDonald's to launch a believable, authentic and commercially viable premium line of products and experiences, it has to do so under a separate brand altogether - one which is devoted to that idea. To that ideal, even. A brand that can embody the concept, the product and everything that goes with it.

Canon does this with its L-Series lenses, identified by the little red disc around one of the bezels. You can buy regular Canon lenses, or you can buy the L-glass. Specialized does the same thing with its bikes, shoes and accessories with a premium sub-brand called "S-Works". This type of strategy allows rigid brands to branch out without running into brand misalignment or erosion issues.

If Cartier or Chanel wanted to create a mass consumption brand, one designed to help them scale to mass market without hurting the premium cachet of their "real" brand, they could - for example create edgier, more affordable Cartier-Street or Chanel-Pink Labels. Give some of the proceeds to charity, tweak the logo, the copy, the image, etc. get all social media happy, and target a younger crowd without having to worry about having sold out.

Another way to do it is to create a whole new separate brand which isn't an offshoot at all. When Microsoft decided it was going to get into the game console business, the powers that be smartly went completely off the brand reservation with the non-Microsoft "X-Box" branding. They did the same thing with ZUNE, giving it its own look, feel, identity, presence, etc.. These aren't Microsoft sub-brands. They are unique, stand-alone brands that happen to belong to Microsoft. Smart.

Sub-Brands, offshoots or independent micro-ventures can help contextually rigid brands branch out into new markets without suffering an identity crisis. Rigidity isn't bad... as long as you understand the value of it and know how to work around it.

Great question.

Kate Richardson ~ 9 years ago

Phew, after reading Olivier's elegant comment I've almost forgotten what I was going to say.

Oh yeah

What's the optimum number of brands for a company to own?


And if that brand can't stretch into for example premium food or beyond folk music?

Enter brand two. Or sub brand. Or the like

olivier blanchard ~ 9 years ago

Sorry, Kate. This was my annual "I will melt your brain with my word count" comment. Your cerebellum should eventually recover.

(You get major points for having actually read it!)

Jeff Schwartz ~ 9 years ago

I agree with the general sense of this brand discussion, particularly as regards Olivier's insightful comments about McDonalds, but couldn't let the quality of thought be ruined by a misrepresentation of Bob Dylan as a brand. Saying Bob Dylan was a folk singer who could have changed his image and brand if he'd just changed his hairstyle and put in the effort is just too far off the mark.

Olivier, did you miss the film "I'm Not There" in which five actors portray the chameleon who was Dylan during different phases of his public persona? One of the most storied image changes in 20th century popular culture was Bob Dylan's switch from folk to electric rock at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. He actually grew his audience with that change and continued to produce a wildly varied body of work that had a profound impact on American song writing.

Later Dylan chose to walk away from all of his various public personas and jealously guarded his privacy, i.e. he did his best to stop being a brand. That's one of the reasons Madonna has outsold him 130 million to 35 million records. But Dylan continues to make critically acclaimed albums to this day and is by far the more highly regarded artist.

Not everything is about the power of brand to sell hamburgers.

Adam Gautsch ~ 9 years ago

@Olivier: That is simply put the longest reply I've ever seen. Amazing on levels.

In more general terms of the comments so far, it is a very interesting answer to say simply start a second brand and I see that as working well sometimes (McDonald's and Chipotle). However, if you've worked very hard to build a brand and a reputation for quality why should you be forced to create a second brand just because what you want to offer isn't in lock step?

Moreover, often times this as seen as contrived or "cheating" (in the loosest sense of that word) to do so. To continue the artist examples, Garth Brooks, the GZA, and others felt it necessary to "re-brand" when they tried to release albums that weren't "on brand". The albums flopped.

I think that Bob Dylan example is good in that he basically said "folk singer" is not my brand "song writer" or "musician" is my brand and those that don't want to follow down this path, get off the bandwagon. Many did but many more jumped on board. I also agree that he wrote some of his best stuff after the transition. The Madonna example also works well. She never changed her name, etc but she did change her offering and asked people to come with her.

Are there similar business examples? Is there a brand that said we are switching up or evolving our offering away from our core audience but continuing to use our brand reputation to push this product and we hope you follow us?

Off the top of my head you could argue Apple did that with the iPod. It said we aren't a computer company but instead a music or entertainment company.

Carp ~ 9 years ago

@Bear Look no farther than the motor mile for your answer. Toyota, Nissan, and Honda have done this with their Lexus, Infiniti, and Acura brands with great success. They all did this very openly, so you knew who was building the cars. You could count on the reputation of quality and dependability while impressing your neighbors with a luxury nameplate.

In the late 80's, Toyota realized that while it wanted to compete with the best luxury models available, the Toyota brand was stuck with bringing dependable, affordable cars to the average Joe. So, Lexus was created and has made them billions. Honda and Nissan have followed suit, with a clearly defined target and plan, and are reaping the benefits.

A few years ago, they realized that their average median age was too high, so Scion was created to brign in younger buyers and has worked OK. The problem with Scion is that the product plans/gradual evolution of products that works so well with the Toyota and Lexus brands, doesn't translate well into creating exciting new products to attract the youngest driving generations. I think this might be some of McDonald's problem with the high end food. They're just not capable of the thought processes that market requires.

If you're going to change away from your core audience, you need to have a clear plan and be willing to change your methodology to match the target audience.

W ~ 9 years ago

What is meant by the term "too good of a brand". If you mean too focused, then I say no. Every successful brand needs to have a well-defined core strength. How you define that core strength depends on your overall brand strategy. We all know what Q-Tip and Kleenex mean as brands.

Within those brands you can have segmentation as part of your strategy. We know what to expect from Kleenex toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels. You don't want to deviate too far from the core strength of the brand. I'm not sure we'd run out to buy Q-Tip silverware.

Every brand needs a strong core message. If you can't easily define your own brand, then your customers can't either. Customers look for benefits (not features) that differentiate one brand/product from another and usually look to price first to determine value. If nothing differentiates two similar products, then price almost always wins. The product or brand that does a better job differentiating itself removes itself from the herd and becomes the dominant brand.

Apple was not the first MP3 player and arguably not the one with the best feature set. By promoting the benefit of "1,000 songs in your pocket", they did better than companies selling just a feature, an MP3 player. Apple sold the experience (along with iTunes) and customers responded by paying a premium. The white ear buds were the center of that brand strategy by separating those enjoying the experience from everyone else. Those of you that were not early adopters of the iPod certainly based part of your purchase decision on seeing those white ear buds everywhere.

You need to clearly define your brand and embrace the tribe of customers that relate to that brand. You can't please everyone. If you are selling cool and edgy that doesn't match with a prospects needs, then it gets into an ethical debate. Should you try to hard sell something the customer doesn't need? Are you going to be happy with being stern and stoic just to win the business? I doubt either side of the professional/client relationship would be happy in the long term.

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