Consumer support of brand extensions depends on change philosophy

Would you like to see Nike concoct a sports drink? How about Apple selling shoes?

Established brands extend their core offerings all the time, in logical and less logical ways. Whether or not you view a brand extension favorably can come down to your stance on the age-old philosophical debate between nature and nurture, fate and free will.

This according to a series of new studies co-authored by Shailendra Jain, a professor of marketing at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. Jain examines how two segments of consumers respond to brand extensions. One segment, comprised of consumers who believe people are not capable of change, tends to support a brand extension that is a good fit with the parent brand. Another, comprised of consumers who believe we are capable of change, tends to support a brand extension that is a poor fit with its parent.

“Companies engage in both kind of extensions. And a lot of evidence and intuition suggest that a good fit is better than a poor fit,” Jain says. “But we are finding that some consumers may support a poor fit brand extension more than a good fit extension.”

Good brand fit, bad brand fit

Consumers have associations with brands, Jain explains, which leads them to hold brand personalities or traits: cool, conservative, serious, silly, rugged, sophisticated, etc.

Nike and Apple, for instance, are both popular brands with well-articulated personalities. But Nike’s hypothetical brand extension into a sports beverage is what Jain would term a “good fit,” or a product that might more naturally complement its parent product line of athletic footwear and apparel. Apple is known for computers and personal electronics. Although its design sense is much admired, extending the brand to sell shoes would be a major stretch to the brand’s perceived core associations, what Jain terms a “poor fit” extension.

Worthy or wasted effort?

In the studies, Jain and his co-authors Pragya Mathur and Durairaj Maheswaran compared assessments of a fictional brand with a well-defined personality before and after introducing brand extensions that represented good and poor fits.

It turns out that consumers’ philosophical views on human personality and its changeability apply to brand personality as well.

Jain says that consumers fall into one of two distinct categories as they consider their assessment of a brand extension. Those who believe that people, companies—and even brands—have personalities that are capable of change assess poor fit brand extensions higher on specific personality traits. Those who believe these personalities are fixed evaluate good fit extensions as superior on these traits.

“Supporters of poor fit extensions like the idea of a brand extending itself beyond its comfort zone. They reward the effort,” Jain explains. “Supporters of good fit extensions reject poor fit extensions as wasted effort. A differential focus on process and outcome guides these judgments.”

Poor fit extensions are mostly rejected in the United States—in research as well as in managerial practice. But Jain’s research points to the potential that poor fit extensions can work for at least a specific segment of consumers. He notes that findings of this research also converge with the success of innumerable poor fit extensions in many other parts of the world.

Jain’s latest in the series on brand extensions is the working paper, “The Influence of Consumers’ Implicit Theories and Brand Extensions on Brand Personality Impressions and Overall Brand Evaluations.”