Big brands a big deal once again

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After a brief flirtation with brand proliferation during the late 1990s, package-goods marketers have come rushing back to embrace their big existing brands as never before.

Given the recent successes of such billion-dollar-plus megabrands as Dove, Pampers, Crest and Clorox-don't expect to see many new brands in the years ahead.

But while flurries of brand extensions have helped such brands bulk up with, in many cases, $100 million-plus advertising outlays, they've also created some new strategic and creative dilemmas.

Marketing consultants and researchers say that some brands are carrying the weight of extra product baggage better than others. And even in the best situations, increasingly complex brands are creating tough creative challenges.

For Unilever's Dove, expansions in the past decade into body washes, facial cleansing cloths, antiperspirants, shampoo and conditioner, facial moisturizers, and in some overseas markets, hand and body lotions have turned a sleepy $200 million North American bar soap business into a $2.7 billion multiple-country megabrand.

"The beauty of Dove is that it is concentrated into a smaller number of categories than [some] competitor brands and thus has space to grow," Unilever Co-Chairman Niall FitzGerald said at a recent investor conference.

At the same time, Unilever's Suave value brand, after extending from haircare into body washes and antiperspirants, is taking a long look before what may its boldest leap-toothpaste.

toothpaste on hold

Suave tested toothpaste in stores last year, but wound up those tests by early 2003. After agreeing last month to sell its four existing North American oral-care brands-Mentadent, Aim, Pepsodent and Close-Up-to Church & Dwight Co., Unilever appears to have at least temporarily put Suave toothpaste plans on hold.

Still, the value of extensions is obvious. "If you have a consistent idea throughout the brand, then you can apply it in a lot of directions," says Al Ries, principal in the consultancy of Ries & Ries and a frequent critic of brand extensions. "Suave's idea is low price, so Suave could put its name on almost anything."

Likewise, he says Dove's moisturizing positioning has traveled well. Mr. Ries is less sure about Procter & Gamble Co.'s Crest, which, he says, "still stands for toothpaste."

Piling more products into existing brands wasn't always the rage. In the late 1990s, Unilever launched the new Thermasilk haircare brand rather than apply heat-activated technology to an existing brand, and P&G launched such new brands as Swiffer cleaners.

Mr. Clean swipes?

If Swiffer were launched today, executives close to P&G say, it might well have been a Mr. Clean extension. As it is, Mr. Clean is muscling up with new brand extensions, recently beginning online sales of AutoDry, a car-wash kit, at $29.99 in preparation for an early 2004 launch into stores priced at $19.99.

P&G's Crest has expanded its footprint too, as it transformed itself from a troubled No. 2 toothpaste brand to a fast-growing billion-dollar oral-care brand. Whitestrips and Night Effects whitening kits, and power toothbrushes with SpinBrush have propelled Crest's growth, and the recent acquisition of Glide dental floss brings yet another category soon to get the Crest name. While Crest's heritage was in cavity protection and toothpaste, the new positioning is "Healthy beautiful smiles for life."

But what the brand still lacks-and continues to work on with Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, New York-is an umbrella "equity campaign" to tie the disparate products together.

"It's not perfect," James R. Stengel, P&G global marketing officer and a 2003 Power Player, said of Crest's turnaround in an April talk at an alumni reunion in Cincinnati, citing lack of such a campaign.

The problem isn't limited to Crest. P&G's growing reliance on multifaceted brands has shifted focus from campaigns P&G has long been known for, said outside agency executives in a critique of the marketer's ad reel during the International Advertising Festival at Cannes last June.

Jean-Marie Dru, president-CEO of Omnicom Group's TBWA Worldwide, found "four or five" campaigns with memorable selling lines among P&G's top 15 brands. "But there should be seven or nine," he says. "What's missing is campaigns that are allowed to live over time."