How to lead "MEGA-BRANDS" to success across categories - 10 Key Principles

OBJECTIVES:

The objective of this essay is two-fold;

(a) to outline the dynamics behind the emergence of MEGA-BRANDS;

(b) to propose a set of key principles / building blocks that will help brand-owners to lead their MEGA-BRANDS to sustained, consistent, healthy growth.

 

BACKGROUND - why and how MEGA-BRANDS are created:

In his invaluable work "How Brands Grow:  What Marketers Don't Know", Professor Byron Sharp proves through empirical evidence and scientific method that brands are built through SALIENCE (physical and mental salience).

In this age and time of fierce global competition and intense information flow to the point of "information bombardment", building salience is no easy task...  This is particularly true for "brand-new brands" that are launched from scratch:  Building availability and top-of-mind-awareness of a brand-new brand literally from zero requires significant amounts of investment sustained over long periods, and therefore comes with hefty amounts of financial risk...  This is the key reason why we see more companies choosing to employ their existing brands _ with their already available salience _ to enter into new categories, through a practice commonly called as brand-stretch.  In essence, brand-stretch is taking an existing brand in a particular category, and launching this brand in another _ usually adjacent _ category.  For instance, Dove was originally launched into the bar-soap category as a "beauty cleansing bar", and built its equity and heritage in that category.  Later on, Dove stretched its brand footprint into multiple other categories like emolients, body washes, hair-care, deodorants; hence brand-stretch.  Or, for instance, Virgin was first launched as a mail-order record sales business, and now its footprint cuts across many diverse categories such as airlines, life insurance, interactive games, holidays, mobile, media, space-travel, etc; hence brand-stretch.

Importantly, stretching a brand into another category should automatically create more salience for the brand, simply because there are more shelves featuring the brand, there are more in-store displays / promotions / coupons / advertising behind the brand, there are more occasions where the brand is consumed, there are more NPD's and related "new news", there is more PR, there is more momentum, so on and so forth...  Accordingly, it should follow that the more a brand is stretched into multiple categories, the more salient the brand should become, and therefore the more likely the brand should be able to successfully compete across all the categories.  Net, there should be a self-feeding and synergistic multiplier effect of brand-stretch.

Increasingly, owners of brands see this...  This is why they progressively do brand-stretch, gradually creating _ what I would like to call _ MEGA-BRANDS; i.e. brands that enter into / compete  across multiple-categories.  However, there is also a catch:  As brands transform into MEGA-BRANDS, they don't become just much bigger, they also become much more complex...  And the increased complexity is not merely of "operational nature"; i.e. complexity related to many more sku's, many more variants, many more promotions, much more advertising, much more variance in profitability, more people working on the brand, etc.  In fact, the real challenge related to increased complexity of a MEGA-BRAND is of "strategic nature".  For instance, how will a MEGA-BRAND stay consistent and coherent to its brand-footprint and equity, while trying to compete across multiple different categories with different dynamics and different competition?  How will a MEGA-BRAND preserve the same look, feel, tonality, character across multiple categories?  How will a MEGA-BRAND determine its strategic priorities across multiple categories and accordingly allocate its resources; ultimately to manage the entirety of the brand in an optimal way?...

 

CONCLUSION - how best to lead MEGA-BRANDs to sustained healthy growth:

"Brand first!":  The optimal way to manage a MEGA-BRAND that spans across multiple-categories is to focus first on managing the brand as "an integral entity with an integral purpose", rather than trying to manage its different product ranges, categories, segments, NPD's, communication campaigns, ultimately businesses as separate entities.

 

10 KEY PRINCIPLES / BUILDING BLOCKS:

It sounds like "common sense" to state the "Brand first!" motto as a key conclusion...  However, in the hectic agendas of business life, not a day goes by without a new NPD idea, or a new competitive move to be counter-acted, or a new stretch performance target coming down from top-management, or another "urgent" request from a trading partner to promote a particular category, a segment or category "too big to overlook"; so on and so forth...  In the middle of this intense hustle & bustle, the "Brand first!" motto is easier said than consciously and consistently done within a systematic framework.  So, based on my own personal experience of leading MEGA-BRANDS across a number of countries, let me propose a framework of "principles" to employ in order to lead MEGA-BRANDS to sustained, consistent, healthy growth: 

(1) Crystallize & manifest the purpose of the MEGA-BRAND:  In order to thrive and flourish across time and space in this "information age" where any person can readily access pretty much any piece of information, I postulate that MEGA-BRANDS need a compelling purpose that serves "the greater good".  By definition, this purpose is much bigger than just building the brand's market share, revenue, profitability, etc.  It's an inspiring purpose that can engage and galvanize not just the organizations of the companies that own these brands, but also other key stakeholders like consumers, trade partners, opinion leaders, governments, and even NGO's...  It's also a purpose that can naturally be linked to the heritage, equity, and values of the brand; so it doesn't look artificial or awkward when the brand leaps forward to own and fulfill that purpose.  When defined well, the purpose of the brand also becomes "the guiding light" for the strategic choices of the brand, particularly as the brand-owners look to stretch the brand further into adjacent categories.  For instance, if stretching the brand into a particular category is naturally congruent with the purpose of the brand, if it will help the brand to fulfill its purpose, then entry into that particular category is likely to succeed (...just the opposite is also true).  In the final analysis, the never-ending struggle of fulfilling its purpose becomes the "raison d'etre" of the MEGA-BRAND...

To illustrate with a great example, Dettol's brand-purpose is to "save lives _ through providing healthy hygiene products in relevant categories and through instilling healthy hygiene practices in our communities".  It's a purpose that is clearly defined.  It's a purpose that is "noble" in its nature, and bigger than just selling products.  It's a purpose that galvanizes not just Dettol brand and sales teams, but the whole community.  And it's a purpose that can serve as a guiding light to help with key strategic decisions on where and how to stretch the brand further.

(2) Distill the footprint of the MEGA-BRAND into its core essence:

In the modern era of "brand management", brands usually have 1- or 2-page documents called "brand footprints".  These documents are supposed to frame the "strategic essence" and the "equity" of the brand, and usually have components like benefit, reason-to-believe, character, values, vision, etc..  The problem, however, is that these documents are usually like literary artifacts full of too many fancy words and concepts...  So different people interpret these documents in different ways, which ultimately lead to confusion... 

It is absolutely vital to simplify the brand-footprints to a bear-minimum number of words, and very carefully choose those words used in the footprint, so that everyone interprets the footprint in very much the same way.  It is just as vital to work with a creative agency to develop a "motion picture" that brings the brand footprint to life, in a way that everyone can clearly understand.  In my experience, a motion picture with consciously chosen visuals, music, and sound effects conveys the essence of the brand in a much clearer and compelling way than a bunch of words written on a piece of paper.

When done well, this will ultimately lead to total clarity and common understanding on the core essence of the brand, and thereby help with the evolvement of further stretch of the brand.

(3) Define the "executional equities" of the MEGA-BRAND:

Professor Byron Sharp proposes that "distinctiveness" is much more important than "differentiation" in building salience, and therefore in building brands.  He then goes on to suggest that brands must create "distinctive memory structures" to build "mental salience".

In order to build "distinctiveness", one must first define the elements of a brand that will make the brand distinctly recognizable.  Often, these elements are called "executional equities"; i.e. the distinctive executional assets the brand wants to own (e.g. Pantene's 'Pro-V capsule', McDonald’s 'yellow arches', Dettol's 'clouding visual', Intel's 'Intel-inside jingle', Gaviscon's 'firemen', Coca Cola's 'glass-hour shaped bottle', Dove's 'moisture drop' visual, Kawasaki's 'Lime Green Color', Bounty's 'Quicker Picker Upper', Vodafone's 'Red Color', Andrex's 'puppy' etc.).

The crucial thing here is to separate the wheat from the chaff, i.e. sharply focus on the few assets that most matter to the recognition of the brand, and align these through the organization including creative agencies.

(4)  Clearly depict the specific applications of the executional equities across platforms / media / categories the MEGA-BRAND participates in, and deploy these depictions as "mandatory guidelines" through the organization:

Once the list of executional equities are defined, then it is imperative that these assets are consistently deployed across platforms / media / categories / segments / product ranges of the MEGA-BRAND with "military-discipline".  Consistency in the application / executions of these executional equities over time is the only way to build a "distinctive memory structure" for the MEGA-BRAND.  In order to ensure this absolute consistency, the applications of these assets in different platforms / media / categories / segments / product ranges must clearly be depicted, defined, and captured in a brief "guidelines document".  This document must cover all critical applications of all chosen executional equities, and it must use the appropriate visual / audio / sensorial examples to illustrate various applications in various platforms.  For instance, it must cover the "packaging guidelines" including the implementation of the brand logo across different packs of different segments / categories; it must cover various POSM applications; it must cover the selling line and the mnemonics / jingles in TV copy applications; it must cover the digital applications in different digital platforms; it must cover the stylizing of the print advertising applications; so on and so forth.

Importantly, the job of depicting and defining how the executional equities will be applied across different platforms / segments / categories is essentially a creative challenge.  This is why your "Creative Agency" must be given this challenge _ and the relative freedom... _ with a very clear brief.  Once the creative process yields its final output and the final "guidelines document" is put together, then it must be enthusiastically deployed through the organization.   Any new Brand Manager, or Agency Creative Team, or Sales Manager who may be assigned to lead a certain part of the MEGA-BRAND in a certain category, must have the absolute clarity on the applications of these executional equities as of the first day on the job.

(5)  Develop concepts that help drive the purpose of the MEGA-BRAND, and activate them holistically and simultaneously across ALL components / categories / segments / ranges / platforms of the MEGA-BRAND in a unified way:

By definition, MEGA-BRANDS compete in multiple-categories.  Given that each category has different consumer needs, different dynamics, and mostly different sets of competition; the tendency of each Brand Manager overseeing each category of the MEGA-BRAND would naturally be "to do his / her own thing"...  However, such an approach would not only result in inefficiencies, it could also result in "total chaos" for the MEGA-BRAND...  On the other hand, given that each category the MEGA-BRAND participates in is a "category in its own right" (i.e. with its own product range, set of competition, pricing/promo/placement dynamics, etc.), is it really conceivable to synergistically bring the different categories of the MEGA-BRAND under one integrated activation?...

Well, the only way to activate the MEGA-BRAND as one integral entity is to come up with concepts / ideas that can truly help serve the purpose of the MEGA-BRAND; i.e. "MEGA-BRAND Activation Ideas"...  Once those concepts / ideas are found, then ALL components / categories / segments / businesses of the MEGA-BRAND can be activated in a holistic, simultaneous, and synergistic way...   Importantly, one way to sense-check whether an idea you / your team have come up with really has the potential to serve as a "MEGA-BRAND Activation Idea" is to ask yourself if the particular idea really has the strength to drive the brand-purpose forward, ultimately to serve "the greater good".  Indeed, a true "MEGA-BRAND Activation Idea" will serve "the greater good", and therefore galvanize not only brand and sales teams, but also other stakeholders like trading partners, key opinion leaders, governments, NGO's, consumers...

On Dettol MEGA-BRAND, amongst other successful ideas, my team and I had the pleasure of developing the "Cold & Flu Season Activation" as a "MEGA-BRAND Activation Idea".  We enlisted the support of a broad range of key stakeholders (e.g. key opinion leaders, trading partners, and ministries of health and education, consumers, media) behind this activation idea; we developed and kicked off a holistic exploitation plot with TV, digital, radio, advertorials, etc.; we landed disruptive cross-segment "mega-displays" in-store; and consequently we managed to increase our sales and market share across all the categories our MEGA-BRAND was participating in...  Above all, we succeeded in driving awareness around the Cold & Flu viruses and how one can protect her family from them, and therefore we managed to serve our brand-purpose of "saving lives"...

(6)  Develop and field "grass roots programs" that will help drive the brand-purpose:

As previously mentioned, the purpose of the MEGA-BRAND is its "guiding light"...  Anything and everything the brand does should be guided towards that purpose.  This is the only way to ensure that the MEGA-BRAND has sustainable growth and long-term success across the breadth & depth of its portfolio; not just in one particular category that it competes in...  In this context, well-planned and well-executed "grass roots programs" are a sure way to drive forward towards fulfilling the purpose of the MEGA-BRAND; and thereby drive the entire spectrum of the MEGA-BRAND with synergies.

On Dettol MEGA-BRAND, amongst other successful "grass roots programs", my team and I developed and fielded "School Education Programs", reaching more than 1 million primary school students across Middle East and Africa every year.  Through these programs, we taught the younglings the importance of protection against illness-causing germs and the fundamental healthy hygiene habits and practices.  Perhaps even more importantly, we instilled in their young minds the absolutely significant link between "hygiene" and "health", and thereby managed to create "hygiene advocates" for their families, communities, and the new-generations-to-come.  These are the kind of programs that helped us drive not only our brand-purpose of "saving lives", but also the entire spectrum of our MEGA-BRAND portfolio of products...

(7) Define the "inner core" of the MEGA-BRAND, and disproportionately invest in those categories that form the "inner core" of the MEGA-BRAND:

By definition, a MEGA-BRAND has multiple businesses in multiple categories under its umbrella.  Once the first 6 fundamentals above have been "saturated", there is still the question of how best to allocate funds across the portfolio of businesses of the MEGA-BRAND.  To that end, what is the "right criteria" to make the right choices?

Here again, the purpose of the brand is our "guiding light".  Amongst the various categories / businesses the MEGA-BRAND owns, some will be much more naturally linked to driving the purpose of the brand forward, and much more closely associated with the core of the MEGA-BRAND's equity.  These are the categories / businesses that form the "inner core" of a MEGA-BRAND, and these are the categories / businesses that should be given the priority in dedicated investment.

The premise here is that when the purpose of the brand and the core-equity of the brand are driven harder, then the entirety of the MEGA-BRAND is driven harder thanks to the synergistic halo effect over the other parts / categories of the MEGA-BRAND...

(8)  Drive the "outer fringes" of the MEGA-BRAND through making MEGA-BRAND's core equity relevant in the fringe categories:

As a MEGA-BRAND stretches further and further into categories at the "outer fringes" of its core equity, it becomes more difficult for it to make its primary proposition "relevant".  This is because every category has its own primary benefit, and the further "out at the fringe" a category is for the MEGA-BRAND, the less "natural overlap" there is between the primary benefit of the category and that of the MEGA-BRAND.  So, the MEGA-BRAND faces a challenge - how to stay consistent with its own core-equity, while still managing to be "relevant" in the fringe category that it stretches into...

To propose a way forward, let's take Dove as a case-study:  At a somewhat dry 'functional benefit' level, Dove is all about "moisturizing".  At a 'brand purpose' level, Dove is about "celebrating 'real beauty' as a source of confidence".  As Dove stretches into _ say _ deodorants category where the fundamental category benefit is perspiration and body-odour control, Dove faces the challenge of making its MEGA-BRAND promise "relevant".  How does Dove go about facing this challenge?  Through a 3-step approach:

(a) Find an insightful angle to make the brand's core benefit relevant in the category - "reveal beautiful underarms, thanks to Dove's deep-mouisturizing effect that remedies all the stress shaving and waxing causes on your underarms";

(b) Put the dramatic focus of the brand's communication on this insightful angle - Dove deodorant commercials dramatize first and foremost the need for "soft smooth beautiful underarms";

(c) Give reassurance of the category-generic benefit at a "secondary level" - Dove deodorant commercials give reassurance on the category-generic benefit of "odor protection", but only at a secondary level.

NET, Dove consciously chooses not to be completely swayed into the category-generic benefit of "odor-control".  Instead, Dove finds a relevant angle to make its core benefit relevant in the deodorants category.  Gradually, and with consistent and focused investment, Dove is altering the importance ranking of benefits / attributes in the deodorants category; i.e. reshaping the deodorants category... (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5_0QLOVMW0)

(9)  Find tactical ways to use each part of the MEGA-BRAND to drive all parts of the MEGA-BRAND:

Let me try and clarify upfront that here I'd like to talk about "tactical" ways of creating synergies amongst different parts of the MEGA-BRAND, i.e. what I will propose here is different than what I have already covered in principle number 5 above.

Sometimes, the obvious opportunity of using one part of the MEGA-BRAND to drive other parts of the MEGA-BRAND may be overlooked...  In my experience, I've found it quite useful to engage a broad team to "brainstorm" and come up with ideas to create "tactical synergies".  Amongst other obvious "tactical synergy" ideas, I can share a few from my own personal experience as thought-starters:  Cross-category merchandizing displays featuring different parts of the MEGA-BRAND altogether to instigate cross-purchasing, cross-category product references across all packs of all categories of the MEGA-BRAND, cross-couponing and cross-promotions to use a high-penetration segment/category of the MEGA-BRAND to drive the lower-penetration segments/categories of the MEGA-BRAND, so on and so forth...

(10)  Facilitate total and absolute collaboration between different Brand Teams that manage different categories of a MEGA-BRAND:

As mentioned before, every category a MEGA-BRAND competes in is a category in its own right, with its own consumer / shopper / trade / competitive dynamics, its own norms, its own daily pressures, etc.  Inevitably, each Brand Manager that works on a particular category of the MEGA-BRAND will focus on his/her first priority of managing this brand in that particular category.  Often, however, the very nature of this focus may cause "silos" to form amongst Brand Teams working on different categories of the same MEGA-BRAND.  Needless to say, working in silos would be a barrier to creating synergies, to finding and implementing great ideas that serve the entirety of the MEGA-BRAND, to bringing "Brand first!" spirit to life...  So the task here is to facilitate total and absolute collaboration between different Brand Teams that manage different categories of a MEGA-BRAND, and prevent any silos at all costs.

In my view, this is the job of a senior leader who oversees the entirety of the MEGA-BRAND.  He/she is responsible in creating and fostering an environment of open and continuous collaboration.  He/she may choose to facilitate this through periodic "MEGA-BRAND health check meetings", through "off site strategic review meetings", even through arranging the facilities to ensure all Brand Teams that work on different parts of a MEGA-BRAND sit in close proximity to each other as one integrated MEGA-BRAND Team...

 

NOTA BENE:  

Thank you for investing your time into reading my essay.  If you would like to comment on this essay and share your builds, please refer to the bottom of this page, or send me a message on LinkedIn.  If you would like to share this essay with your network, please feel free to do so.

 

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