Line extensions: Less is more

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Want a Coke? Not so easy-pick from 16 varieties. A Bud? Seven flavors for your taste, buds. Crest? More versions of toothpaste (35) than you have teeth (32, give or take). Marketers risk damage to the central brand when they run amok with line extensions. There's an opportunity for marketers: Edit the line and demand that each brand and extension have a clear reason for being.

Product extensions work when they complement a strong mother brand. Diet Coke and Bud Light, introduced in 1982, were logical additions to century-old icons. Procter & Gamble was justified in moving Crest into toothbrushes, whitening products and dental floss.

Diet Coke and Bud Light went on to lead their categories even though rivals (Diet Pepsi, Miller Lite) got there first. Gingivitis-fighting Colgate Total (1997) was the last significant advance in toothpaste, yet Crest has closed the sales gap against Colgate with a shelf full of toothpaste variants.

But marketers risk confusing consumers. What's really different among such family Crest offspring as Whitening Expressions, MultiCare Whitening, Dual Action Whitening or Extra Whitening?

Product parsing at Coca-Cola created such fizzling fare as half-calorie C2. Budweiser Select, introduced nationally last week, promises "a new kind of beer brewed for a crisp taste that finishes clean." Clever move, Anheuser-Busch: By positioning new Bud as more select, you're implying flagship Bud is less select and, by extension, an inferior beer.

Extensions carry other risks: sullying the mother brand if the product goes down in flames (and new-product successes are rare); annoying consumers if their flavor gets bounced at Wal-Mart. The big issue, though, is that marketers can lose focus on the mother brand if they are consumed by flanker lines. Barry Schwartz's "The Paradox of Choice" made the case that consumers are overwhelmed by choice. For both consumers and marketers, less choice could make great brands more appealing.

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