debating the brand ultimatum

Joe Pine — author of the several best-selling business books including the recently published Authenticity, consultant, former TED speaker, cigar-aficionado, and a really smart guy — opened a friendly debate with me that I thought others might want to weigh in on.

The back story: The Brand Ultimatum is an article I recently wrote for the American Marketing Association’s Marketing Management magazine.  It argues that a deep brand identity – one with rich, multiple layers of associations – fuels successful brand extensions the way a deep hero character like Jason Bourne or Harry Potter fuels a successful movie franchise.

My POV: In the article I reference a few brands that don’t have a deep enough brand identity to warrant extensions into new categories — one of the examples I use is Harley-Davidson.  I explain, “the Harley brand is already completely understood; there is no more brand story to tell.  It has a rich and powerful identity but, colloquially speaking, there is no more ‘more’ there.  Seeking out novel categories into which to extend the brand (like cake decorating kits) ultimately makes the new products seem formulaic and forced.”

Joe’s POV: “Loved your article, Denise, on brand narratives — but I’m not sure I agree that there’s no more “more” at Harley.”

Your POV: ???  we’d love to hear what you think — does the Harley brand have rich, multiple layers of associations conveyed by a deep brand identity that provide the fodder for extensions?

OR, does Harley belong in the company of brands like Southwest Airlines, Target, and Volvo which enjoy strong brand equity built from unaffected, sophisticatedly simple identities, and therefore shouldn’t be extended?

Let us know your POV.

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  • Mary Jo Hatch

    Hi Denise,

    Enjoyed your article and Joe Pine’s response about Harley. Good idea to gather more ideas and here is mine. The issue of keeping brands in their categories is not the right issue in my view. Categories, like brands themselves, shift with the meanings that consumers and other stakeholders give to them. While a Harley cake decorating kit might not work right now, who is to say what the future may hold? One way to test an idea like this one would be to ask, not whether cake decorating is a Harley-like activity, but what sort of cake decorating kit would Harley make? My point is not that I think Harley should get into cake decorating kits but rather that I don’t think category thinking works all that well. Being imaginative with brands sometimes means crossing category boundaries that do not immediately appear obvious and brands demand incessant creative thinking.

    Mary Jo Hatch
    Co-author of Taking Brand Initiative: How to Align Strategy, Culture and Identity Through Corporate Branding (Jossey-Bass/Wiley 2008)

  • Mona Lentz

    I must say that I agree with Mary Jo Hatch. Who is to say how a brand might evolve?

    HD is a lifestyle brand, attracting people who share a certain passion. If any brand could take their audience into new territory, they would seem to have an edge. Remember the case of Caterpillar who moved their brand from heavy duty earth moving equipment into mens apparel with great success.

  • @Mona and @Mary Jo:
    You’re right – brands evolve in unexpected ways – of course they do. But Denise isn’t discussing evolution here, she’s discussing extension, which is really quite different. Pabst Blue Ribbon beer brand EVOLVED from a working man’s brew into a hipster accessory, but it didn’t EXTEND there. The scenester cred has eclipsed the previous meaning of the brand, rather than embellishing or growing it. The meaning has changed, not expanded.

    This is properly germane to the Harley discussion. The infamous cake decorating kit would be a change, rather than an outgrowth, of the Harley brand.* Denise isn’t asking, “is the Harley brand carved in stone,” but can the Harley brand grow to embrace more nuanced meanings while retaining its very established core?

    Denise, am I following you correctly? Am I off the mark?

    *I’ll keep my lips sealed about strong-selling Harley scrapbooking products.

  • Having spent some time in Milwaukee during the Harley Davidson reunion weekends, I have huge respect for the brand and the community that surrounds the Harley-Davidson imagery. At first blush, the cake decorating kit seems like a stretch but when you realize that they are bought by persons who are decorating a cake for someone whose life and passions may revolve around Harley-Davidson, you begin to understand how deep this brand permeates into its fans. Validating the association with Harley on a person’s birthday celebration is huge homage in my opinion. How many brands will the consumer allow to share the limelight with on their special day?

  • Having lived the majority of my life in Milwaukee (home of Harley) I feel somewhat qualified to weigh in on this topic. I think that the answer to the more “more” question lies in what people believe that the brand stands for. Is the brand tightly associated with a product or an idea. Sure, Harley means “motorcycle”, but to people closely associated with the brand it means much more.

    Several years ago I sat in on a presentation by a Harley marketing exec. He showed us focus group film which completely changed my view of the Harley brand. The subjects were a group of hard core bikers, flesh versions of the biker stereotype. Their task was to cut out images from magazines and assemble a collage depicting what their Harley means to them. The presentations were incredible! Nearly every biker had images depicting freedom (doves, open landscapes), independence, and other concepts that I would have never associated with the Harley brand. For this group, the Harley brand could extend into other products/services serving the same deep needs.

  • thanks for all these great comments, folks!

    I don’t question the richness of the Harley brand and the deep emotional connection that owners have with it — but that isn’t the same thing as having a deep brand identity — one that we can and want to peel back the layers of (which extensions should do) — I would argue it doesn’t.

    plus, Matt Kirkland has articulated an important point — extension vs. evolution — Harley COULD evolve to a different identity, but given that it’s had the same one for 100+ years, I doubt it would and I don’t think it should — so the question is whether its current identity supports extensions — and here again I would argue it doesn’t.

    I love this dialogue — I’m learning so much and I really appreciate hearing from you — please keep the comments coming!

  • I’m over my head here – there’s smart comments by clearly accomplished brand thinkers above. So rather than commenting, perhaps I should ask. Here’s my question:

    It’s easy for me to accept deep Harley resonance with customers to the extent that those customers want to incorporate aspects of the brand into their birthday celebrations (to use the current example). But it’s less easy for me to accept that Harley Davidson therefore *should* manufacture such products (or allow them to be manufactured).

    There must be some point past which the brand, through attempts to speak to the deeply felt values of its customers, begins to actually challenge those values. Doesn’t the domesticity implied by cake baking challenge the freedom embodied by the Harley brand?

    So here’s the question I see at the heart of this discussion: At what point in a brand’s extension or evolution (They’re different, but both feed the question) does the brand begin to break apart, to lose its deeply felt meaning?

  • Hello Denise,

    Just because a brand can be extended, doesn’t necessarily mean it will succeed against first-move competition, supplier relationships, scale economies etc…


    Gabriel Rossi- Brazil