Till Death Do Us Part

By Curtis, James | Marketing, July 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

Till Death Do Us Part


Curtis, James, Marketing


Is it time to put sub-brands out of their misery or can they be allowed to survive on their own merits? James Curtis reports

When Arnould Thirion, marketing director of Birds Eye Wall's, explained his decision to phase out all eight of the company's sub-brands, he said "they don't stand for anything any more - they are like parasites". Although Thirion is not the first to cull unprofitable sub-brands, the decisiveness of his action has struck a chord in the industry. What do sub-brands stand for? Is it time for the sub-brand to be killed off and buried?

Marketing-led companies that know the importance of maximising brand equity are asking themselves urgent questions. They need to know when a sub-brand is a brand in its own right and when is it a line extension. Also, when does a sub-brand become a parasite and when does it add value? Retaining weak brands can diminish the power of the company as a whole, but killing off brands with a rich heritage can be even more damaging.

That so many companies are re-evaluating their sub-brands is a hangover from the 80s, when brand extensions seemed a cheap way of gaining more shelf space. Brand managers churned out line extensions which had little consumer fit and bore little relation to the 'mother' brand.

As Andrew Marsden, marketing director of HP Foods, says: "In the 80s, NPD was substituted by line extensions which diluted the equity of the brand."

Now there are fewer brand managers, the range of brands has expanded, but there is less money to support them. In addition, consumers are faced with more products and are less able to distinguish between products in the same category. It has become an issue of simple economics. Do you spread your budget over 12 sub-brands or focus on the mother? Thirion clearly thought the [pounds]700m Birds Eye mother brand was worth more than supporting four offshoots in the ready meals category.

According to Marsden: "Companies end up spending time and money to protect their weaker brands. If this is disproportionate to what they are worth, then it's time to drop them. You have to ask if they genuinely generate additional profit." HP has dropped regional brands Titbits and Tiger and is preparing to de-list children's sauce Daddy's Sonic.

"Most of our surgery has been done. It's good business and good marketing but you need nerve to do it. The trust surrounding your brands is going to be built around a smaller amount of products, so you have to be very careful," Marsden adds.

Although the economic arguments are compelling, clarity of communications is an important issue. The line extensions of the 80s have crowded the market, leaving the consumer confused because there are too many layers of meaning. Dominic Box, marketing manager of Nestle's Crosse & Blackwell, says: "A key issue for big firms such as Nestle is how to communicate clearly in a way which motivates consumers in so many markets and categories."

Nestle was one of the earliest to look at rationalising its brand portfolio and concentrate its spending on a smaller number of mega-brands. This saw it axe the Chambourcy yoghurt brand in 1995, replacing it with a Nestle-branded product. Since then, it has invested heavily in its 'proprietor' brands and strengthened the corporate name, including Crosse & Blackwell. It is only supporting sub-brands where a more specialised brand personality is needed in that category. "Branston says more than the proprietor, in a way that is specific to the category, because it has its own set of brand values and around 75 years of heritage and strength," says Box.

In the second stage of the relaunch of Crosse & Blackwell, Nestle is spending [pounds]15m on advertising and promotion. The ads, featuring the line 'Now there's a thought', aim to show how Crosse & Blackwell products provide the answer to eating questions, rather than splitting the message up between individual brands. …

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