What Is Brand Elasticity? How to Stretch without Snapping

Brand is like a rubber band: it’s made to change shape in response to external forces. Your audience’s relationship to your brand is guaranteed to shift over time, prompting you to flex, bend, and stretch into new spaces in order to stay profitable. 

Brands who want to remain relevant are always on the lookout for opportunities to expand into new product categories, solve new problems and stake bigger claims in their audience’s hearts and minds. 

But what happens when you overextend? Just like your overall brand image is determined by your audience’s perception, it’s also up to them to decide whether or not you belong in new spaces. Venture too far outside of your realm of credibility, and even the most elastic brands can snap.

Know your potential for brand elasticity.

Is your brand seen as a broad consumer problem-solver or a focused specialist? As you attempt to move beyond the parameters of your established messaging, your success will depend on what your audience believes you are capable of—and not all brands are equally stretchy. 

There’s a reason that popular children’s characters like Marvel superheroes and Mario Bros have seemingly limitless licensing potential. Kids believe in Mario so much, they readily accept him on products that have nothing to do with video games, like lunch boxes, sneakers and bedsheets. Manufacturers know that kids will choose these products over others simply because they feature a brand that they love.

But if splashing popular iconography across a broad range of products sounds like a no-fail recipe for marketing success, consider this: how many people do you know with Downton Abbey bedsheets? 

Brand elasticity isn’t measured by popularity, but by your audience’s relationship to your brand. You can have unmatched sales and a proven track record of industry competence in one arena, but unless your audience can make the leap from the quality of your current offerings to your new ones, they aren’t likely to come on the journey with you.

When brand elasticity goes too far. 

You’ve probably heard about the brief existence of Colgate-branded frozen foods, a story so fraught with brand elasticity gone wrong, it reads like an urban legend. But what about Cadillac bicycles

If you’re unfamiliar with Cadillac bikes, you aren’t alone. The luxury automobile manufacturer expanded into high-end bicycles in 2005 as part of a strategy to grow their product line and appeal to younger consumers. 

The plan was a commercial failure. Cadillac’s image as a luxurious, spendy brand just didn’t translate to bicycles. Moreover, consumers’ ideas about bicycles as an eco-friendly, adventurous and carefree way to get around didn’t gel with their image of Cadillac. 

If you think the brand elasticity lesson is that automotive companies shouldn’t expand into other modes of transportation, consider how this may have gone differently with Subaru-branded bicycles. It’s not a question of whether car companies can sell bikes, it’s about how only adventurous brands can sell adventure. 

How to stretch your brand:

Your brand is more than your products and it all comes back to audience perception. You may know with great certainty that you are capable of extending your product line, but if your audience doesn’t accept your new offerings as an extension of your brand, you risk confusion and dilution. Stretch, but stretch smart!

Do your consumer research.

Before you embark on a brand expansion, it’s a good idea to do qualitative and quantitative research that will reveal who interacts with your brand, and for what reasons. 

Know how well your brand is recognized within your category as well as outside of it, and see how you stack up to competitors. Remember: since your audience owns your brand, it’s important that you’re known for the things you believe you’re known for. 

Next: know your audience. Demographic information is a great starting point, but a behavioral segmentation study can identify distinct categories of consumers based on their intrinsic values and motivations. This data can be tremendously helpful in determining whether your audience is likely to be receptive to your brand extension before you take the plunge. 

Be a problem solver.

Understand how your brand solves the problem consumers already expect it to solve, and then seek out adjacent ones. The saying, “If you can paint a wall, you can paint a house” applies here. Look for ways to leverage your brand’s existing authority in new categories. 

Be aware, however, that your audience needs to trust that your expertise extends as far as you say it does. Consumers enthusiastically accepted chewable Pepto Bismol tablets and the gut-soothing brand’s new line of herbal anti-diarrheal capsules, but there is a reason they aren’t hawking pink toilet paper. 

Decide what’s best: a branded house, or a house of brands?

Brands that participate in multiple product categories have to make strategic decisions about organization and messaging. 

Branded houses prominently attach their marks to all of their products, clearly uniting them in consumers’ minds. Apple, for example, taps into their powerful brand recognition by affixing their logo to all of their goods, from watches to headphones to home security systems. Apple’s reputation for quality and innovation is so well-established, it transmutes consumer confidence to any new product offerings, even in the incredibly broad category of electronics. 

Alternatively, a house of brands operates more like a silent partner. Proctor and Gamble, for example, is home to a wide array of home brands that all have distinctive messaging and brand voices. Rather than convince the public that a company that makes great shampoo would also make great potato chips, P&G recedes into the background and markets each brand separately. 

When you are trying to gain traction in a new space, it is important to consider whether your existing brand reputation will help or harm you. 

In the 1990s, Black + Decker’s reputation had fallen off amongst construction professionals. Their line of small household appliances and DIY-friendly tools was flourishing, but contractors felt uncomfortable buying a cordless drill from a brand that had become better known for panini presses. 

Rather than face the uphill battle of changing their image, Black + Decker took a hybrid approach to their brand architecture: they retained their line of housewares but introduced a separate brand of power tools geared towards professional contractors. By separating DeWalt from its other products, Black + Decker managed to stretch into a new space without confusing its existing brand image. 

Ready to explore your brand elasticity?

Successful, profitable brand expansion is the result of deep introspection and ongoing consumer research. Understand how your audience views your brand and you’ll be much better able to predict how far your credibility naturally extends, and where you may need to bridge gaps. 

Make sure that your audience is ready to accept you in new spaces before you enter them, and you can stretch your brand without snapping.