When extension can become overstretch

Extensions are an increasingly popular way to boost a brand’s sales – they are seen as low risk, and can piggyback on a name people know. But variation can mean dilution. By David Benady

With Walkers Snack Foods understood to be considering launching a range of potato-skin crisps, called Walkers Skinfulls (MW last week), the question of how far brand owners should go in extending their brands is once again exercising marketers’ intellects.

If given the go-ahead, Skinfulls will rival a similar product launched by Walkers’ arch-rival Golden Wonder: Golden Skins were rolled out last week. Some observers question whether Walkers risks watering down its brand by bringing out further products that are not very different from the original and that could cannibalise sales of its traditional crisps. This would put it on the road to “innoflation” – a spiral in which innovations and variants blossom, but end up adding costs to the supply chain and confusing consumers without lifting the parent brand. Indeed, they can even damage it.

PepsiCo-owned Walkers regularly launches new variants and products and has scored considerable success with some, such as the premium-priced Sensations brand brought out last year. But others have failed, such as the short-lived Shots, which were phased out last year. The company finally scored some success with Cheetos on its third launch attempt, yet axed Sun Dog popcorn. It has also launched Doritos Latinos, which are heavier than the original tortilla chips.

Although Frito-Lay, which holds Walkers’ trademarks, has applied to register Skinfulls in the UK, Walkers denies it is planning to launch a product called Skinfulls. “It is incorrect, it is not a Walkers product,” says a spokeswoman.

As if to counter suggestions that it is neglecting its roots, Walkers relaunched its core range earlier this year (MW November 27, 2003). It now uses healthier cooking oil and is focusing on five key flavours, including cheese and onion.

But Andy Knowles, a director of packaging design agency JKR, believes Walkers risks damaging its brand-leading position by bringing out new variants. There is a lot to be said for brands staying within their areas of expertise rather than diluting the proposition by launching into adjacent areas, he says.

While Knowles accepts that Sensations has been successful, he wonders whether the company is taking its eye off its core crisps market, relaunch notwithstanding. He says: “There is a temptation for marketers to think that the grass is always greener in another market. In two years’ time, we will look back at Sensations and think it is another example of this malaise.”

He points to Kit Kat, which started its extension programme by bringing out the Kit Kat Chunky bar. Knowles says this had relevance to the original values of the brand, but Nestlé Rowntree began “chasing a different market”when it took on Maltesers with Kit Kat Kubes. Further developments have included Kit Kat Lemon & Yoghurt and a low-carbohydrate version.

Still, Nestlé insists that its brand extensions have substantially improved Kit Kat sales. Jon Lambert, marketing manager for Kit Kat, says sales of the Kit Kat brand have grown from &£177m in 1990 to &£258m in 2003, as a result of the launch of new formats and flavours. “This &£81m (46 per cent) growth shows clearly a brand expanding and not one suffering innoflation. The next phase of innovation will push Kit Kat over the &£300m barrier,” he adds.

There have been extreme examples of brand extensions going far beyond the values of the parent brand. Williams Murray Hamm director Richard Murray recalls being asked to work on the development of a hot fruit drink version of Bovril. He also thinks that, while cereal brand Special K was justified in launching cereal bars, it has gone too far from its roots in bringing out Special K Lite Bites in flavours such as tomato and basil, and tikka.

“Lots of marketing people think it is easier to do brand extensions than to do something really new. This can have an insidious long-term effect: Kit Kat is a great iconic brand that is being pulled to pieces,” says Murray.

Former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren lambasted contemporary branding at a Marketing Society dinner in 2002, bemoaning “karaoke marketing”, as brands try to emulate somebody else’s original idea. Based on this view, Sensations could be seen as mass-market Kettle Chips and Kit Kat Kubes as a pale imitation of Maltesers.

Still, at least one supermarket buyer believes that Walkers’ success has been driven by genuine innovation. “It has to keep innovating, because that’s what brings people into the stores,” he says.

But for convenience stores and corner shops, new Walkers products coming in can mean retailers do not have enough room to stock all of Walkers’ core crisp range, so some of the flavours may be delisted. The supermarket buyer is doubtful whether many snack-food brand extensions are sufficiently distinctive from what is already on offer to make them a real success. “They may be better quality, but will people buy them rather than the standard products?” he wonders. It’s a good question.


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