Lost in translation

It can take years to create a successful brand, so owners should think carefully before making forays into new media territory, says David Bernstein

Brand extension is complex. It is undertaken for different, often conflicting, reasons – to build the brand, leverage it in ‘adjacent’ areas, change its image or supplement the company’s income. Any such exercise must begin with an honest definition of purpose.

Extension has become more complex with new media. Brands can extend not only into different product areas, but also different channels, living perhaps different lives in alternative universes: online, mobile, video, viral. Also, media themselves can move into new media.

The World Magazine Congress last month (DW 14 May) examined how magazine brands should expand. The conference of ‘global magazine magnates’ provided ‘a client’seye view of what brand guardians in a rapidly evolving and recession-hit industry see as their key priorities’.

I can tell them there is but one key priority, to do what that term implies – guard the brand. The temptation in recession is to sacrifice brand values for short-term benefit, whereas the guardian’s role is to understand the brand, itemise its values and what it represents in the current climate; to communicate all that to those who work for and with the brand; and to ensure that any venture doesn’t de-value [sic] the brand for any sort of buck, fast or slow.

The guardian must be careful dealing with those who want the brand to be something else or go into areas that are not coherent. I was surprised to discover that speakers advised the audience to ‘move your brands on to the platform advertisers want you on’. This isn’t brand guardianship but base surrender to opportunism.

Before going into a new field two questions need to be answered: what does the brand bring to the field, and will it be damaged by this new endeavour? For, have no doubt, every extension risks diminishing the brand.

For a conventional brand, extending into new media is less of a gamble than extending into new product areas, since you can tell the brand story virtually anywhere, but you can’t be sure that the brand’s values are appropriate to any product area. To put it simplistically, it’s easier to promote a Mars bar online than to launch Mars health foods.

For a magazine, moving into a new media area can be tricky. Playboy boss Christie Hefner advises magazine owners to ensure brand values aren’t ‘eroded as they move into new territories’. There is another danger, however, one that is specific to media brands, namely being seen to be out of their element.

The shift to new media takes time. Some online brand promotion reminds me of the mid-1950s and early awkward TV ads, products of a creative ad fraternity wed to print — word-heavy body copy rather than audio, and pictures that would have been happier being still. But young advertising wannabes of the period, who had grown up on movies and TV, found that creating TV was as natural as writing print. I am sure, for the young today, talk of a tough transition from print to digital media is a no-brainer.

For the more mature, the gap is bridgeable, but new skills have to be learned and old skills consciously parked. Working in a new medium is a paradigm shift, a change not of degree but of kind. It is not simply a matter of doing an adaptation of what you have always done but, holding on to the brand’s values, of totally rethinking their presentation in terms of the new medium.

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  • Renee November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Some great points and words of caution on translating brands on to new media. Thanks for the keen insights on branding.

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