Water cues

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branding

Extensions and Deep Cues

In a down economy many brand managers review their brand architecture to determine what to cut and what to nourish. A new study offers guidance.

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When times are tough, many brands decide it is time to refine their brand architecture. Brand architecture describes the system companies use to relate a portfolio of brands to one another and to the master brand. A lot of attention is paid to brand architecture in lean economic climates because it is expensive to support multiple brands and when budgets are tight a refined brand architecture can lead to greater economies of scale.

Just as many consumers are finding themselves over-extended financially, many companies are finding themselves over-extended on the brand marketing front. When times are good, and a market opportunity presents itself, it’s a common knee-jerk reaction to extend a successful brand. Fooey Cola is a hit? Great, let’s make Gooey blended cola malts. If all brand extensions were that intuitive, brand architecture wouldn’t be that difficult. In reality, brands are often extended using less obvious relationships.

Marketing researchers at UCLA released a study in 2002 that cast interesting light on how people view brand relationships. The authors focused on “deep” vs. “surface” cues consumers use to evaluate brand extensions. A surface cue is just what it sounds like — Fooey and Gooey sound very similar and use a consistent naming structure and they are both beverages. The relationship between them is a surface cue. On the other hand, if the same company started making Fooey barware, the extension would require a deep cue — Fooey is a cola, you pour cola into a glass, now Fooey makes great cola glasses to enjoy your drink. The consumer has to link the original brand to an abstract category relationship in order to extend the brand in their minds. Understanding the difference can make the difference when you audit your brand portfolio to consider architectural refinements.

But the UCLA study took a novel approach to this subject. They studied the differences between how children and adults evaluate surface vs. deep cues. They found that children 12 and under can evaluate brands using deep cues if they are explicitly asked to do so. If they aren’t primed to evaluate the deep cues, they rely only on the surface cues. Thus, they might favor the Fooey barware because they like the name and think the logo on a glass looks cool. Prime them with the deeper cue and they might give you a different answer, “they’re just trying to sell me a glass.” 12 was a golden age in the study because the researchers found that when respondents were any older, the surface vs. deep dimension nearly mirrored adult behavior.

There are many adult brands who have successfully established a youth market. Starbucks comes immediately to mind. Many of those young Starbucks fans were willing to go with the brand as it extended into bottled beverages, ice cream treats, and music offerings. My own children were adept at finding the Starbucks logo anywhere we went when they were very young. If long-term loyalty is the goal, how do you structure your brand portfolio so that you retain your young brand audience when they age up enough that surface cues are no longer the hook? Many brands find themselves losing an audience when their youngest consumers reach the age of about 14 (e.g., Disney, Mattel). For the brand manager, is there a way to transition those audiences into a new relationship with the brand by switching the focus from surface to deep cues? In other words, can our understanding of the difference between those cues be used to create a migration path for young, loyal customers? Can those cues be used to extend the brand into new markets? And can this form of strategy work without being abused by marketers to further erode public trust about the motives of brands?

Even if your brand doesn’t face the challenge of migrating young audiences up, you should still consider the criteria used in your portfolio to justify extensions. Ask three questions:

  1. Is the relationship between brands based on deep or surface cues?

  2. If a deep cue, how abstract is the relationship? Does it require significant knowledge of the product or the category for the consumer to make the connection? If a surface cue, is it enough of a link to justify a brand extension or can you roll the extended brand under the primary brand?

  3. What is the systemic effect? This particularly applies to complex brand portfolios. How many deep cues are floating around in your system? How many connections can the consumer draw? On the surface level, do multiple extensions dilute the core equity in the brand?

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