Facebook Company was struggling in a similar way, because of the direct link with Facebook the product. The company even made the mistake to bring the company brand Facebook into the UI of Instagram and WhatsApp. Visually showing the Facebook brand impacted clarity of all brands involved- imagine the screens with ‘From Microsoft’ or ‘From Google’.
Not only did the clarity of Instagram and WhatsApp start to dilute, but also that of Facebook and Facebook Company. If a brand tries to be everything to everybody, it will ultimately become nothing to no one.
So on the 28th of October 2021, Facebook “did an Alphabet” – and changed the company name from Facebook Company to Meta. A brilliant move and name. By disconnecting the Company from Facebook it gives all products room to expand. The Meta products:
The name Meta is directly linked to Metaverse – the virtual reality-based successor to the Internet. Perceptually Meta and Metaverse might become the same.
“Metaverse was originally coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, where humans, as avatars, interact with each other and software agents, in a three-dimensional virtual space that uses the metaphor of the real world. Stephenson used the term to describe a virtual reality-based successor to the Internet.” (wikipedia)
Under the new corporate brand Meta the company can align all product brands and efforts under the strong mission “help to bring the metaverse to life“. The mission can now be executed with focus and without diluting the Facebook product brand or the other product brands.
Mercedes-Benz moves into electric using the ‘half-pregnant’ EQ sub-brand approach. The company misses the point that buyers first and foremost need portfolio clarity.
Whenever there are ground-breaking developments, the incumbent businesses need to watch out. Category shifting breakthroughs are most of the time developed by new companies. They can be so impactful that complete new categories are established and make today’s brands look old and obsolete. Bad news for existing brands!
In the past, we saw it was Nokia versus iPhone, and today it is in the car business Tesla versus the rest. It was not Mercedes-Benz who established the new electric car category globally – it was Tesla. Interestingly, it was Karl Benz who invented the first gas-powered automobile already in 1886. Quite a few years later, in 1901, the Daimler Motors Corporation began selling cars.
Often when a category shift happens, and your brand represents or is a significant player in the old category, the brand will eventually follow the faith of the category. As a brand owner, you need to do everything you can to prevent a downfall.
At Mercedes-Benz, they saw the change to electric coming as well. The company was clearly not ready, and it took time to adapt. For the company, it was vital to continue selling the old gasoline cars to not go out of business. The ‘half pregnant’ business strategy translates directly to the product portfolio strategy. The current Mercedes-Benz portfolio visualizes a company in transition, and it is far from the Mercedez-Benz slogan “The Best or Nothing.”
what is the car type? (small family, business, SUV, etc.)
what is the ranking of the car inside the overall portfolio (good, better, best)
what are the electric cars
what do all the letters and combinations of letters mean?
None of it is clear.
To make things worse, Mercedes-Benz applied a strange form of sub & endorsed branding with the electric range.
Headlines in car magazines said “Mercedes-Benz’s EQ Sub-Brand Aims to Launch a New Electric Model Every Year” (Car and Driver in 2016) or just as recently as 14 Oct 2021 “Mercedes EQ subbrand to launch in U.S. with electric variant of S-Class sedan” (Automotive News).
What happened at the marketing department at the Mercedes-Benz headquarters? A sub-brand, really? Master-brands and sub-brands are all marketing talk, and they do not exist in the buyer’s mind. People are not shopping for sub-brands or master-brands. They shop for brands and might look for a product within a range.
The basic rule is that people think and buy in the following order:
Brand -> Product range -> Model not Brand –> Brand -> Product range or Model
It is Mercedes-Benz (brand) -> EQ (range) -> Model and not ‘Model by Range’ as the Mercedes-Benz Me Lifestyle magazine wants the reader to believe.
So what could Mercedes-Benz have done differently? There would have been two ways to transition the company Mercedes-Benz into the new category or electric.
1. Conquer and Switch
The Geely Holding / Volvo Corporation strategy. The company repurposed the Polestar brand for just electric cars to compete (conquer) in the electric car segment, while Volvo can switch to electric at its own pace. For the Mercedes-Benz Company, a new brand (not EQ!) would take on electric while Mercedes-Benz could transition at its own pace.
2. Fix the portfolio outside-in and Switch Let’s face it; the current portfolio is a complete mess with cars inside and outside classes (ranges). This does not help navigate the portfolio and does not help buyers relate or understand the order in the portfolio.
Mercedes-Benz should first create ranges that make sense to the buyer or already have meaning, like the A, B, C, G, M, S and V class ranges. Then slot all cars inside the ranges. No exceptions.
The GLB would move into the G class, and so would the electric EQB. To create clarity, the car model would be renamed GLB EQ.
Then the brand can Switch at its own pace into electric, eventually letting go of all the gasoline models.
Mercedes-Benz in executing a Switch strategy without clarifying the portfolio to buyers. At this stage option 2 is the route to go. Does it come without risk? Not at all. It is all about the ‘old’ gasoline car brands versus the ‘new’ electric car brands in a category shift. To compete in electric, Mercedes-Benz will need to be more convincing in the buyer’s mind than the perceived leader in electric. This means that when a consumer is in the market for an electric luxury SUV, the Tesla Model X has the leadership perception in terms of the technology over the Mercedes-Benz EQC. Internally there will be a division between those who work on the cool new models and those who need to maintain the old – till the last old gasoline car is sold.
Generally the Conquer strategy is the safest and cleanest route to execute company transition into electric. The Switch strategy involves perception risks and can be complicated to execute internally.
Happy Socks is going back to its core of selling socks. The website is restructured around Socks. The Happy Socks Underwear is gone.
The brand’s core idea, to bring happiness and color to every corner of the world, can be replicated to other categories as well – but in the case of Happy Socks, the brand name will forever be limiting.
Back in 2018, I wrote a post discussing the brand stretch of Happy Socks into underwear, swimming gear, and much more. I did not see a future for Happy Socks Underwear,Happy Socks Swimsuits, or Happy Socks Pool Sliders. Strategically I saw two options for the Happy Socks company:
Stick with the category of socks – and take more market share
Bring the other products under a different brand
It seems that Happy Socks company is moving into the direction of option 1. The website is reworked, and the homepage has a clear focus on Socks.
The web menu makes the distinction even more clear. It is all about Socks and Not Socks.
The Not Socks section cover face masks and swimming gear. By positioning the products clearly as “Not Socks” it feels these products are more like accessories, not part of the brand’s core. This positioning gives Happy Socks Company more freedom to make changes to the portfolio. For example, if a line does not work, the company can easily replace it without hurting the core Socks offering. Of course, it is still weird to walk around in Happy Socks Swim shorts.
But how did the company get here?
Happy Socks got famous for its colorful socks. When the company was founded in 2008, most of the socks in the market were plain. The founders decided to change that and bring more color and design to our feet. Something remarkable happened: they made a boring accessory item (socks) into a hip fashion statement and succeeded.
The mix of focus on colorful socks, decent quality, and a brand name that boozes energy in a boring category worked well. Happy Socks are truly happy compared to traditional socks.
In 2017 the company sold most of the shares to a private equity firm – usually one of the warning signs that growth needs to be accelerated. The shareholders must have been thinking: the company knows about color and design, there are contracts with factories that can produce socks. Why not do some clothing? Happy Socks quickly expanded the product portfolio to underwear and swimwear.
Today the company seems to be getting more and more back to its core: socks. By positioning everything else as “Not Socks” it allows for freedom to experiment with the portfolio – without hurting the core.
The car category is already for some time in turmoil because of the change to electric. On top of that, in the conventional car category the Volvo brand is struggling because of changes in positioning. The owner of Volvo Corporation, Geely Holding has determined that Polestar will be the brand to compete in electric. Is it the right move?
The change to electric genuine for car owners and drivers as they need to change the way they think about driving and “refueling” cars. Consumers experience, therefore, electric cars as a different category. There are conventional cars, and then there are electric cars – both require a different way to interact with driving and moving you from A to B.
When something so impactful happens in any category, we will likely experience a change of brands. There will be brands that only focus on the “new” electric category. There will be existing brands trying to extend from conventional to the electric category. When a category changes so profound, some of the car brands of today will need to make space for the electric car brands of tomorrow.
The impact to the current brand owners has everything to do with whether the existing car brands can compete with electric cars – at least on a level to be on par with the perceived leader in the category. In other words, if you are in the market for an electric luxury SUV, then it is easy to go for the Tesla Model X because the perception is that it is the best in electric and in-car technology. The Mercedes-Benz EQC would come close, but it needs to deliver more to change the perception of Mercedes-Benz and that of the perceived leader Tesla.
Volvo is executing two different strategies to conquer the electric car category. First, the company is moving the brand Volvo from a conventional to an electric car brand. At the same time, Volvo Corporation is following a conquer strategy with their new brand Polestar. Polestar is a standalone brand to focuses on electric cars.
The Polestar brand is not new to Volvo. It used the brand in the past for Performance upgrades of their vehicles. The real Volvo enthusiasts will know the brand with the desired perception of performance, technical advancements, etc. Unless you are a Volvo enthusiast, the Polestar brand will be new. As a bonus, the Polestar name has a nice Nordic / Scandinavian ring to it. Volvo bought Polestar in 2015. In 2017 Volvo Cars and their owner Geely Holding announced that Polestar would become a standalone to focus on electric cars.
Applying the earlier discussed Flip-test would indicate that Geely Holding made the right call to bet on two horses.
When we apply the Flip-test:
Current: Volvo gasoline cars
Extension: Volvo electric cars
Current: Tesla electric cars
Extension: Tesla gasoline cars
Does it make sense? Perhaps not so much. Geely Holding does the right thing to compete in electric with the new brand Polestar while not giving up on Volvo. It would be a shame if the Volvo brand will not make the transition to electric in the minds of buyers. The success of making the transition will depend on the number of cars at different price points from new electric car brands.
Personally I am very happy to see Volvo to take action. The brand has been in turmoil for years. I have written about Volvo in the Volvo Positioning series Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and a Reflection why successful companies change their positioning.
There are many logical reasons to line extend or stretch a brand. There could be an opportunity in a business domain close to your core business. In this case, extending the current brand into the new business area is often preferred over building a new brand, especially when budgets are tight. Perhaps the current core business is declining, and in order to survive, new business areas must be entered. Often the thinking is to save the brand in order to save the company.
Therefore, at some point most companies will think about stretching their brands. The assumption is that consumers can make the stretch too and will follow the brand into new areas, purchasing more along the way. “Consumers love our brand, so they will love our brand in the new product category too”. To prove this thinking, a healthy dose of consumer research is then conducted. And guess what? The consumers usually see an option for the brand to stretch! All good, so you think…
Unfortunately that is often not the case. In research situations, consumers are not actually buying the line-extended products. Rather, they are getting compensated to participate in the research. In reality, consumers do not always understand the extension and actually grab their wallets to make a purchase.
To find out if consumers will follow you and buy your brand in a new category, I suggest that you first try the “Line Extension Flip”. This test is a simple rule of thumb, and you don’t need any consumer research to do it. You just need a clear, open mind and lots of common sense.
First, think of your brand extended into the new target category. Then, imagine a brand already in the target category trying to extend into your current category. Finally, ask yourself, “Does this make sense?”.
I’ll try it with some examples:
Your current brand and category: Angry Birds mobile game
Your brand extended to the new category: Angry Birds children’s book
An established brand in the new category: Pip and Posy children’s book
That brand extended to your current category: Pip and Posy mobile game
Does it make sense? Yes!
Current: Angry Birds mobile game
Extension: Angry Birds HDMI connector
Current: BlueRigger HDMI connector
Extension: BlueRigger mobile game
Does it make sense? No!
Current: Fazer Blue chocolate bar
Extension: Fazer Blue chocolate drink
Current: Oatly chocolate drink
Extension: Oatly chocolate bar
Does it make sense? Yes! (Cannot wait!)
Current: SOL cleaning services
Extension: SOL security services
Current: Securitas security services
Extension: Securitas cleaning services
Does it make sense? No!
There are a couple of things to keep in mind before you start “Flipping”. First, only flip product brands. Remember, consumers buy products, not companies. Secondly, if the brand you want to extend is the current category leader, then it will have strong associations to that category in the consumer’s mind, and therefore you will find it is less likely to make the stretch. On the other hand, if your brand has no strong associations with anything in particular or has association with many things, it is more likely to be extendable. Finally, always Flip brands in the context of today’s market situation. Don’t use the Flip test to post-rationalise past decisions.
Now, try the Line Extension Flip test on your brand extension idea and let me know the outcome!