Branding the minds of consumers Marketing: Establishing a brand with consumers, then extending that brand to other areas, can produce big profits. But the concept isn't foolproof: Witness Coca-Cola apparel.

Sun Journal

August 18, 1998|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Ralph Lauren has spread his name and an image of classic elegance and long-gone aristocracy from blazers to club chairs to suede-textured paint. Johnnie Walker will debut as a men's sportswear line this fall after 178 years as a Scotch whisky brand. And billionaire tycoon Richard Branson has built an empire convincing consumers to trust upstart ventures with the Virgin label -- to fly his airline, shop his record store, try his brand of cola.

All are masters of "branding," a '90s buzzword that has emerged as possibly the decade's hottest marketing phenomenon.

Building a brand and successfully extending it has become as much a matter of survival as sales tool. The idea is this: Equate the brand with a value or promise of an experience (for instance, Disney equals family entertainment), sear the brand into memory, then stretch it over as many formats as possible.

When it works, consumers splash on Lauren fragrance, wake up in Lauren sheets and do their living rooms in Ralph Lauren country. A leveraged brand can pay off big in sales and profits.

"There are cheaper jeans than at the Gap, but what's ingrained is [that] the look is right," says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a national retail consulting firm in New York. " 'I want to look like a Gap person. I can't make a mistake, I bought it at the Gap.' That's what a brand does. That's why branding is so important."

Branding has been around longer than Coke and Pepsi and Tide and Ajax. Disney, considered by many the Lion King of the brand extenders, has spent decades sprinkling its brand of fairy dust into television, movies, retail, theme parks, music. Branson, creator of Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Virgin Megastore and Virgin Cola, told the BBC last month that when he named his record company in 1969, "I had some idea of the name being catchy, and applying to lots of other products for young people."

Today, thanks in part to huge growth of the Internet and cable TV, a dizzying array of products and entertainment options vies for consumers' attention.

"We have to fight for our share of people's attention," says Greg Moyer, chief creative officer of Discovery Communications. "If you live on one brand in one medium, if you're only a television channel or only a store, you run the risk you'll be marginalized."

After 13 years on cable TV as the Discovery Channel, the company is extending its brand of "real-world storytelling" to other formats. The first Discovery Channel Store opened in Washington in March; another opens in Harborplace next year. Also in the works: science-oriented feature films for IMAX theaters and traveling museum exhibits.

"We're competing not just with other television brand channels for people's leisure time and attention, but with the time people spend in malls, with their families, traveling or pursuing continuing education," Moyer says. "Every day I am increasingly convinced that we need to be out in the world in people's communities with a physical, experiential demonstration of what our brand is about."

When retailers send out mixed signals about what they stand for, they often struggle (the Limited) or go out of business (Merry Go Round), says retail consultant Davidowitz. Successful branding campaigns, he says, such as at the Gap, put "a tremendous focus on developing a brand that the customer would trust, would love."

If Michael Jordan is a phenomenal athlete, the thinking goes, his athletic shoe, apparel and even cologne must be pretty good, too.

"It's something people can identify with," says Bruce Van-Kleeck, vice president of member services for Washington-based National Retail Federation. "You like our clothes, you'll love our bedspreads."

ESPN, the cable television sports network, has extended its reach by branding itself as a sports fan that's on the scene wherever other sports fans gather, says Judy Fearing, senior vice president of marketing for ESPN. With that vision, the network branched into radio, the Internet, magazines, the ESPN Zone interactive sports bar and restaurant, and next, video sports games.

"Strong brands with deep bonds and relationships with consumers are going to be the ones that will survive," Fearing says. "If you're not relevant and important to a consumer, they will quickly find a replacement for you."

Brands can cross traditional boundaries in part because of the blurring of once rigid lines between manufacturers, retailers and entertainment companies.

Starbucks started small in Seattle, grew into a ubiquitous chain and recently made the transition to manufacturing, packaging coffee for sale in grocery stores.

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