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The Elastic Brand

Brands used to be in control, dictating what consumers should think, what they should buy and what they should watch. This is no longer the case. The control is now in the hands of consumers and staying relevant has become the most difficult job for a brand.

So, what’s the answer? Why are some brands more successful than others at becoming (and staying) relevant? Maybe it is because those brands are ‘elastic’, their ability to stretch over many different product lines, resulting in more relevance and value for the customer, while still staying true to the core of who and what that brand is.

To be clear, it’s not just the newcomer brands that have managed to be relevant over disparate products and stealing the limelight. Some storied brands have with effortless grace, managed to remain relevant and engaged with consumers by offering meaningful product extensions. Apple is a great example of an ‘elastic’ brand. They have successfully launched ever more diverse product extensions while always maintaining brand equity. As a brand, they have set the bar for computers, phones and other technology, yet you probably wouldn’t pull a funny face if they next came out with an Apple-branded clothing line. This is what I mean by The Elastic Brand.

History is full of stories of brands that have attempted reinvention through new products, yet only to crash and burn. Many of those who have tried this actually cause consumers to question the true intent of that brand. If “Can I trust you?” starts to cross the minds of once loyal customers, that usually signals an impending downward spiral. These missteps come at a cost to the brand — and to the bottom line.

The path to reinvention should always start with the DNA of the brand. What do people associate with it? Establishing this is the first step in understanding how to make the next move a successful one, whether that’s a new product line or simply a new method of consumer communication. Once on this path, the right questions must be asked, such as: what discipline or methodology could a brand apply today to stay relevant? How far does a brand have to go to totally reinvent itself in order to remain relevant? Brands often try desperately to stay relevant by offering what they feel are more compelling reinventions of their products. The word “new” seems to be becoming old at a rapid pace.

So how do you make the next brand extension stick? It must resonate in a deeper and more emotive way. Customers want to be emotionally connected. Next, one must take a long, hard look at the core of the brand. Is the brand associated with prestige, or is it more functional? What makes your brand known or famous in the first place? Not only is this critical in understanding a brand’s elasticity, but it also has the wonderful byproduct of reminding the team that they can feel proud of who they are and what they stand for! (But this is a subject for another day.)

Honda recently had a branded content piece for their music concert series, featuring up-and-coming talent, celebrating them and their potential success. Now it seems these days everyone is sponsoring a concert series, but this stood out. What did Honda do that was so different? The answer was simple. This wasn’t about music content; it was about a true understanding of the brand concept. They weren’t selling cars by the association of their product with music; they were selling Honda’s brand promise: “The Power of Dreams”. By sticking to what was fundamental about the brand concept, they achieved relevance and authenticity.

Honda is a functional brand and, as such, has to work harder to make its brand elastic than, say, Mercedes-Benz, which is perceived as a more prestige-based concept. A brand’s elasticity is first governed by a simple perception. The more abstract the brand concept, the more elastic it is and the more it can successfully stretch into other product categories.

It’s important to recognize here that people find it more plausible for prestige brands to expand their offerings beyond their normal area of expertise. For example, Mercedes-Benz could more easily develop a fashion brand than Honda. But Honda has no trouble selling anything with a motor in it, from boats to lawnmowers. This is an important distinction. A functional brand has analytical assumptions made about it. The style of people’s thought about a functional brand is more rational.

Aligning brand and consumer more perfectly requires both parties to bring something to the table. It also requires identifying the customer’s style of thinking – is it holistic or analytical?”

People who think holistically view subjects not only by their features, but also by how they exist in the wider context. They think about more than just the product; they think about that product’s place in the world. Does it affect the environment? Will my friend approve if I buy it? Does this product (and brand) match my values? An analytical thinker, however, questions the features of a product, such as how does this product compare side-by-side with the competition? What’s the MPG? Which offers the best financing deal?

No single brand can say, “We only have holistic-thinking customers”, but it can still target them. Or, more to the point, it can attempt to change how their customers think, to be more holistic in their appreciation and judgment of the brand.

These two things — identifying whether the brand concept is prestigious or functional and determining whether the customer’s thinking style is holistic or analytical — form the bedrock upon which a brand can determine how to create and benefit from its elasticity; how to shape extensions and communications that are greeted with approval and acceptance, rather than dismissal or irrelevance.

As an innovative creative agency, LO:LA is constantly looking for ways to help brands relate to customers, to stay relevant. We take data, insight and intuition and turn them into experiences that make people feel things, say things and then do things. Our goal is to find that sweet spot between the most relevant brand story (the brand’s DNA) AND the most salient consumer truth (how the customer thinks). This is where the magic happens.

We call this approach ‘THE NEW ROI’ (return on ideas) Through nimble, intelligent collaboration with our clients and partners, we help guide a brand as it begins to listen and to anticipate their customer’s needs and communicate that through the products they create and the stories they tell.

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