While brands are often built around a specific product or service, marketers must consider how elastic the brand will need to be by balancing the near-term positioning priorities with the long-term requirements associated with future offerings.

Pictured: different colored rubber bands. The rubber bands symbolize brand elasticity, which refers to the number of products and services that can reasonably be covered by one brand – and the degree with which customers will consider a brand competing in new areas.Traditionally, a brand positioning strategy is developed to maximize the business potential for a new product or service – and building a brand often requires significant investment. Then, as a company expands into related offerings, a new brand and positioning strategy is developed: More significant investment, yet perceived as necessary to enable success. So why don’t more companies try to extend their brands into these new offerings?

The primary reason can be summed up in the following example – Colgate Kitchen Entrees. If the first thing that comes to mind upon reading that phrase is toothpaste flavored dinner, then you understand the difficulty extending a brand. Bic disposable underwear, Evian water-filled bra, Zippo perfume, Hooters Air(line) – as funny as these all sound, these were actual branded products that were vetted and launched. Each example demonstrates the challenge of building a strong brand position today that may limit your ability to leverage that brand in new offerings in the future. Striking this balance between current and future state highlights the importance of considering brand elasticity.

The key to brand elasticity and leveraging brand investment lies is in proactively planning vs. reacting once new products and services are developed. An exemplar would be Amazon, which from the beginning defined its brand purpose of being customer centric and delivering an exceptional customer experience – and has leveraged that brand strategy across one of the widest ranges of products and services in the world.

What is brand elasticity and why does it matter?

Brand elasticity refers to the number of products and services that can reasonably be covered by one brand – and the degree with which customers will consider a brand competing in new areas. The more elastic the brand, the more likely it can be to extend into new categories. There are many examples of highly elastic brands, such as Virgin and GE, that cover a variety of different products and industries, and these examples usually focus on a more abstract, emotional connection to customers. But other brands (Dove, Nike, IBM) are examples of brands rooted in more specific functional products/services that evolved over time and avoided limitations.

These examples highlight the main challenge of brand elasticity – building the strongest possible brand positioning strategy in your core product/service area (be it soap, running shoes, or technology) while considering where that brand may need to go in the future. The pharmaceutical industry often faces this challenge when medications achieve indications across multiple diseases with different physicians, patient types, competitive sets, and market dynamics. For example, while the optimal positioning for a medication in one medical condition may be the “safe option” that causes the fewest side effects, this approach may be limiting in other conditions, where the need is for an “aggressive” option to address patient symptoms.

Of course, not every brand needs to be elastic. In some competitive categories specific features and functions drive differentiation (such as consumer packaged goods brands) – and this need may limit the need or ability to extend a brand. And there are advantages to brands being more singularly focused on a narrower benefit (vs. broader emotional benefits), avoiding dilution in the face of strong competition. But for many companies, brand elasticity is important as it can enable growth in related offerings while maximizing brand investment.

How do you anticipate the need for brand elasticity?

In order to maximize the potential relevancy of a brand and ensure its elasticity, the following are four steps to consider:

1. Determine Optimal Positioning

The priority is to maximize your brand’s potential in the current state. So the first step is to determine a brand positioning that is compelling and relevant to target audiences, distinct from competitors, credible based on current capabilities, and aligned with the business objectives. This brand positioning provides the core promise to customers.

2. Envision the Future

After establishing the core positioning, envision what your business might look like in 5 – 10 years. What are the planned company initiatives, growth areas, new offerings, and other planned strategic goals? What are the target customer needs and decision factors in these new areas, and how are the expected experiences different? How might the competitors and competitive context change in light of these new areas, and what new competitors might enter these spaces? How might the overall market dynamics change (e.g. economic, political, regulatory) and how might that impact customer and competitive contexts? One suggestion is to develop a few potential scenarios of the future state and assess the likelihood of each of these scenarios. While no one has a crystal ball, make a best guess effort based on available information.

3. Identify Implications

Considering the future state scenarios and the likelihood of each scenario, identify the key implications for the core brand positioning strategy today. How will customer decision-drivers and needs change in the future? How, if at all, will this impact how the brand promise may need to evolve? How will new entrants impact the conversation with customers – how will the brand need to address these changes? And how will market dynamics impact the relevance and credibility of our brand promise?

Based upon answering these questions, identify the implications for the brand in one of three categories:

  • Conflicts: elements of the optimal brand positioning that will conflict with the customer, competitive and market factors in the next 3-5 years. These are issues that need to be addressed prior to launch to avoid creating unnecessary barriers in the future.
  • Evolution Points: elements of the optimal brand positioning that will need to evolve depending on specific market factors taking place. These are issues that do not pose conflicts and need to be addressed today, but potential issues that may require an evolution in the future.
  • Guardrails: depending on the conflicts/evolution points, determining where the brand needs to stay consistent – and identifying what elements should not evolve/change in order to maximize long term potential.

4. Monitor and Adjust

Once the optimal brand positioning has been adapted to address the future conflicts, you need to establish a review process to monitor not only how the brand is perceived in the market, but also to identify the evolution points and how well you are staying in the guardrails. This brand tracking involves identifying the key metrics that will measure the success or failure of your intended brand strategy. Most brands already have a brand tracking mechanism in place, so this step may involve augmenting that tracker to monitor the key potential conflicts, evolution points and guardrails so that the brand team can adapt over time. And as the customer and competitive set grows, so too should the brand tracking device to include the decision drivers, perceptions, marketing channels and customer touchpoints.

Brand building today requires not only considering the ways of optimizing the promise and experience in the current market, but also anticipating how the future may evolve customers, competitors and market dynamics. Following these steps may help ensure your brand stays elastic in the future and avoids conflicts that can limit the impact of your brand investment.