Monday, April 21, 2008

Abstractions in Extensions

Abstraction is tough to sell. It's easier to imagine the face of a girl if you've met/seen her. But if you hadn't seen her, you wouldn't be able to figure out even if I described her features in the best possible way. Sounds similar to "A picture is worth a thousand words." Words are abstract, visuals are a little less. Isn't it also similar to saying "Actions speak louder than words."? Pictures are more tangible, more concrete. Actions have greater impact, are easily felt.

Let me explain through some concepts through a lollipop exercise:

Imagine 'Soft'. What happened? Difficult? Easy? What did you imagine? Velvet, Sofa, Fur, Fairy, Child or something else... Fair. You can imagine many many more things.

Imagine 'White'. Fairy, Milk, Soap, Fur, Feather, Swan, etc. You can imagine many things.

Imagine 'Beauty'. Aishwarya Rai, White Marble, Taj Mahal, Lake, Sea-shore, Smile, etc.

These words can represent many things at the same time. Said in isolation, they would conjure different images in different people. Yes? You would agree. Different minds would converge to one image only if there's another word (added to any of the above words) which would force them to think in one dimension. For example, if I say 'White Feather', you can't imagine any other thing than 'a feather which is white'.

Now comes my assertion: When a brand is extended, 'whatever the brand stands for' needs to be made an all inclusive concept, which forces the concept to become abstract; the end result of which is lack of clarity about 'what the brand stands for' in the consumer's minds. The more the extension, the more the abstraction. The more the abstraction, the lesser the understanding among consumers.

Consider the brand Dove. Typically, if I ask someone what is brand Dove, I would get a reply like 'Soap with Moisturizing Cream'. And the image in the mind would be a 'white-colored soap' in 'bar' form because perhaps moisturizing cream has come to be associated with 'white' or perhaps Dove always highlighted the white color of the soap. So, that's Dove for you. Soap with moisturizing cream. And we have plenty to say about how successful a brand it is.

However, some marketers are bent on extending it. In fact, they have extended it to include other variants of bar soap, body wash, shampoo, deodorant, etc. Ask them what does Dove stand for? To give an umbrella concept, they'll say Dove is 'Softness'. Or perhaps something else, if they are able to fetch the right word that is. In other words, consumers would now have to think of Dove as 'softness (or whatever else)'. As abstract as that! Definitely with all these offerings, consumers can't say Dove = Soap with Moisturizing Cream. For if they still say that, then Marketing Managers of Dove have failed. And, if they don't say that, then the Marketers have successfully replaced a concrete concept like 'Dove = Soap with Moisturizing Cream' with a rather vague one like 'Dove = Softness'.

But the concept of 'softness' is different in different products, therefore difficult to realize (for consumers) for each of the product categories. Marketers will try and force it down the consumers throats the idea of 'softness'. Why? Because the former have intellectually and logically inferred what Dove is and now they assume the right to teach the latter what Dove is. Wow! The consumers will have to accept it, isn't it. They have no choice. They have to watch television, they have to watch soaps. But on the retail shop-floor they have a choice to ignore the shampoos, deos and whatever you have.

Have doubts? Then, try answering what is the brand Dove? And if you come up with an answer, you know what Dove is, and it isn't. Is it just 'softness'? Do you buy its deos, shampoos, etc? Perhaps. Will you continue to buy the same in future? May be, may be not. But will you buy the soap in future? Definitely.

Thankfully for Dove, it might thrive on people's belief in the 'Moisturizing Soap'. But in other cases, through the means of needless extensions, marketers might be successful in making the brand abstract, thereby obliterating the existing equity and eventually, killing the brand.

Brands need less extension, less abstraction. Less abstraction by itself will lend concreteness to the brand, help solidify its position and therefore, facilitate easy understanding and memory among the consumers. Think before you extend.