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The question came up yesterday in Orange Coat’s virtual salon de the: Can a brand become so strong that it can no longer truly evolve? (That isn’t the way the question was framed, but that is how I understand it.) Here are some 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.

or

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.

If you are looking to give your brain a hernia, you can read my reply here. Or… you can read the abbreviated version right here instead. (Your call. Just don’t call me at 3am looking for a bottle of Tylenol. I won’t answer my phone.)

Note: You DO want to read Bear’s post. Just don’t read my 10,000 word comment at the end of it.

So first of all, let me answer Bear’s excellent question: YES. Absolutely. Brands can and do become as unchangeable as George Washington’s portrait on the One Dollar bill.

BUT that this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be a very good thing. It is the just reward of all enduring superbrands. The Seventh and final state of brand exaltation, just before ascending to brand Nirvana, in fact. In plain Anglais, this is what happens to really BIG, Iconic brands like, oh… let’s see… McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Nike, Chanel, Starbucks, Porsche, etc. So we aren’t exactly talking about struggling/failing startups here. The lack of rigidity is a result of their immense global success: These brands stand for something so specific, so “core,” so universally understandable that they have in a way become immutably framed as the embodiment of… whatever it is they represent. (Fast food, cola, athletic gear, fragrance, coffee, sportscar.) They don’t need taglines. They don’t need to explain themselves or reinvent themselves. They just are… what they are: McDonald’s. Coke. Nike. etc.

What happens when one of these brands attempts to branch out or make a change? Usually, it fails. Miserably.

I’m sorry McDonald’s, but you can’t really get into the premium sandwich business. Coke, your premium drinks won’t work either. Nike, forget trying to get into the formalwear market and Armani won’t try and shake up the world of athletic apparel. Chanel, if you start selling deodorant, you’re done. Starbucks tried the music kiosks a few years ago, remember? (Fail. Stick to coffee. You aren’t a music store.) Porsche, please don’t try the SUV/crossover thing again. Ever. You might as well start making station wagons and sedans. What are you thinking? Let Jeep take care of the off-road stuff for ya. You belong on the road and the racetrack.

Brand erosion starts with that kind of nonsense: One day, you’re the “it” brand in a specific category, and the next, you’re half-assing in five different categories. It doesn’t work that way… unless either Steve Jobs or Richard Branson happen to be your CEO.

So what’s an iconic rigid-as-a-statue brand to do? Are such superbrands condemned to an existence of repetitive tedium? Are their brand managers condemned to an autopilot existence? The answer is of course no. I, the mighty BrandBuilder, hold in my very pink brain the solution to all of your rigid-as-marble brand conundrums. Have yourselves a little taste of superfly how-to-do-the-thingamajig thingie:

1. Sub-brand Kung Fu: If your brand is inflexible but you want to try something new, create a sub-brand that will carry the new idea for you.

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-series lenses. 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. McDonald’s could use this technique to create a line of healthy meals that people would truly embrace as genuinely un-Mcified. They haven’t really done that yet.

To some extent, but in a more subtle way, BMW also does that as well with its various series with their own quality and design features and specific pricepoints. It’s a great way to clearly and safely segment and compartmentalize different quality levels within a brand.

Bonus: If the sub-brand fails, the parent brand can distance itself from it and walk away, unscathed. (“Oh yeah… that Green Label thing last year? Ha. Funny you should mention that. It was just a fun little experimental project. We tried but it didn’t make it. Oh well.”) Same with the second option:

2. Create a whole new microbrand: Some ideas are so unique that they deserve an identity all their own.

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. Very smart.

Another example: Lexus and Toyota.

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

Have a great day, everyone! πŸ™‚

image credit: Christopher Wray-McCann