A brand may be successful, but if it doesn't change and grow, it can easily stagnate. How far can you stretch the boundaries of your brand into new products and markets without overstepping?

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It's a "delicate balancing act," says Mitch Duckler, brand expert and founder of FullSurge. If you play it too safe, you'll fail in the marketplace and ultimately disappoint people. But if you go too far, customers can be alienated.

"Ideas farther from the center can still work for the brand. When implementing those ideas, brands will just need to connect the dots for customers. In other words, help them understand how this new offer represents a good fit for the brand even though consumers may not necessarily see that connection," he says on the latest episode of Marketing Smarts.

The idea of brand-inspired growth is to go as far as possible without contradicting your brand values. And the more successful an extension is in the marketplace, the more open customers will be to future extensions and stretches.

Mitch and host George B. Thomas also dive into four simple one-word questions for differentiation, a new way to look at market research, and why Mr. Clean is a prime example of a brand stretch success story.

Listen to the entire show now from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode.


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Full Transcript: Developing an Indispensable B2B Brand-Inspired Growth Strategy

George Thomas: Are you ready for a conversation? That’s what we’re going to get into with Mitch Duckler. I am super excited because we are going to actually talk about this topic that I think is so important for you to start thinking about from a B2B perspective and your company. We’re going to talk about tips, tricks, hurdles, words of wisdom, all the good things that you’re used to, but first let’s learn a little bit more about Mitch Duckler.

Mitch is founder and managing partner of Full Surge, a brand and marketing strategy consultancy based in Chicago, Illinois. He has over 30 years of line management and strategy consulting experience in branding and marketing, customer and consumer insights, and innovation. His Amazon bestselling book The Indispensable Brand guides readers on how to build a brand strategy that rises above the noise and monotony, transforming brands from indistinguishable into indispensable.

Mitch is also a frequent speaker on key topics related to brand and marketing strategy. In 2021, he delivered a TEDx talk, Discover Your Differentiator at the Cal State TEDx event. Yes, the cat is out of the bag, the conversation today is about brand. Let’s get into the good stuff with Mitch Duckler.

Mitch, let’s build a foundation for the listeners with our first question and really get them started. When we say in the title B2B brand inspired growth strategy, what the heck are we really saying here?

Mitch Duckler: That’s a fair question. As you might imagine, there are a number of different sources any company can tap into for inspiration when it comes to new product development and overall business growth, for that matter. Customer insights is probably the most obvious and important source for inspiration. Looking into category and marketplace dynamics is another. Societal trends, in other words, what’s going on in the world around us are also a logical source for inspiration.

It may also be worth looking inward as well. If you have a well-positioned and meaningfully differentiated brand, it too can be a source for innovation. What this entails is merely understanding the intangible and the emotional equities, as opposed to the more tangible product attributes that are unique to your brand and letting that drive ideation for new product and service ideas.

For example, if you are a sneaker brand and you let running shoes define your frame of reference, you will inherently limit yourself to brand extensions that are incremental, in other words very closed in. However, if one of your brand equities is perseverance, for example, think about the world of opportunity that opens up versus a more limited and tangible product attribute like shoe. It is in this way that I think strong brands can inspire company growth strategy.

That’s not to say this is the only source for inspiration, but rather that it’s one that is less obvious and often overlooked.

George: I love that direction and the information there is very valuable. It’s interesting, the way that I work is I like to pull pieces apart and I use words on purpose. One of the other words we used in that title was developing. When you think about using that word developing, how can the Marketing Smarts listeners get started in developing an indispensable B2B brand inspired growth strategy as they move forward?

Mitch: It begins first and foremost with having a meaningfully differentiated brand positioning and understanding of what those key intangible attributes are that define your brand. In the book, I suggest that there are four simple one-word questions that can help you determine the ways in which your brand is unique. Specifically, ask yourself; What? How? Why? Who?

What is simply the benefit your brand offers or the utility it provides. How answers the way in which that benefit or utility is provided, the manner in which it is delivered. Why is an underlying purpose for your brand, or the reason it exists in the first place. Think of the concept of purpose branding, and that’s really what why answers. The final is who, the target audience the brand is intended to serve.

If you’re lucky, several of these questions may lead to differentiation for your brand, but you need to be able to point to at least one of those as a meaningful point of difference versus all other competitive brands in your category. Once you have this starting point, this basis of what your brand stands for and how it’s different, you can then begin the process I mentioned a moment ago, determining what new marketplace opportunities exist that are consistent with those equities.

George: I love that you went in this direction of the who, what, why, where, how, all the questions. It kind of leads me into in the book, or in trainings or conversations that you may have as you move forward, is there a matrix or a formula for success around the idea of having or leveraging, once you’ve started and have it built, this indispensable B2B brand inspired growth strategy, especially in this digital world that we live in now?

Mitch: That’s a fair question. I’m not sure there is a formula per se, but there is a framework that I propose in the book which could be helpful. It’s called the brand credibility footprint. Think of this as essentially a spiderweb with lines that extend from the center of the web outward towards its edges. Each line on that web represents a particular dimension that pertains to that product’s category. The closer to any potential idea, whether it’s a product, a service, or what have you, is to the center of that diagram, the closer into the center of the web, the closer its fit is with your brand positioning.

Conversely, the farther an idea extends into its periphery, the greater the stretch it would represent and the more questionable its adoption becomes. It’s important to note that ideas farther from the center can still work for the brand. When implementing those ideas, brands will just need to connect the dots for customers. In other words, help them understand how this new offer represents a good fit for the brand even though consumers may not necessarily see that connection.

George: I like that. It’s interesting because you kind of started to map out this spiderweb, and you talked about the closer to the center and further away. That actually got my brain going in this direction of the further away might actually equal hurdles, although even with the close items we might have some hurdles that we’re facing along the way. Just so the Marketing Smarts listeners can kind of grasp the journey ahead of them around this brand inspired growth strategy, what are some hurdles that might get in the way of this that we could say watch out for this?

Mitch: You hit the nail right on the head with your examples, because I think there really are hurdles at both ends of that web, in the very center, as well as in the outer reaches. I like to think of brand extendibility as a delicate balancing act. Most brand managers struggle with how far can they stretch their brand’s boundaries. Let’s look at those two examples.

If they play it too safe, are too far into the center of that web, ho-hum line extensions result, they disappoint customers, they fail in the marketplace. Conversely, if they stray too far from the brand’s core positioning, a couple of things can happen. They either risk diluting the brand or they can even cause irreversible damage to the brand’s valuable equity. I’d say the key is to find that comfortable push, to push the brand into new areas as far as possible, but without contradicting or fighting the essence of the brand, something so far out that it would be dangerous and potentially harmful to the brand.

Along these lines, another thing to think about in the line of hurdles, as you mention, is think about time horizon. What might seem like an ill-advised bridge too far for a brand today may be a comfortable stretch at some point in the future. This is because as brands grow and they mature, especially through new product introductions, the what I call bounds of extendibility in what’s permissible change. Namely, consumers will give them permission to extend more liberally as they see evidence of successful extension in the marketplace.

This really gets back to why this is, to your point, developing a plan. This is something that you want to map out strategically over time. Incremental steps that take the brand further and further away from the center of that web in a way that is comfortable and logical to consumers.

George: It’s interesting. I want to go off the beaten path for a second. As I heard you talk on that last point, you dipped into diluting the brand. While this might seem like a very basic question to some, to others it might actually be something they don’t think about a lot, so I’d like to just get your thought on it. Mitch, you wrote the book about it. I want to get your thought on how important is it to have this powerful brand, if you will, and how dangerous or how bad can it affect when you fall into that erosion or dilution of the brand?

Mitch: There’s no one answer to that. What I would say is that there is some common sense here. I think one is clearly the more well-known high profile and valuable your brand is, obviously the more you have to lose, the stakes are higher. If you start to consistently contradict your brand’s positioning with extensions that just don’t make sense with it, over time that’s going to denigrate the brand and ruin that valuable equity.

Others might say because it is such a strong brand that it might be able to weather the storm and consumers will give it a pass for a while because they do think so highly of the brand, even if an extension doesn’t make sense. The stakes are high, it can be damaging, but if you lean into what is central to your brand and use that as a guidepost for evaluating whether opportunities make sense or not, more often than not, you really can’t go wrong.

George: We’ve talked about the hurdles and we’ve talked about the erosion or dilution of the brand potential. I’m more of a positive type guy, so I want to lean into the question of what is a success story. By the way, it could be two, totally up to you. When we think about success around this B2B brand inspired growth, are there one or two success stories that you like to share?

Mitch: Yes. One I love to talk about, and it is an example I talk about in the book, it’s kind of a case study, and one that hopefully everybody has at least heard of, is the consumer product Mr. Clean. Mr. Clean is a brand that first made its mark in the kitchen, it offered consumers a reliable solution for cleaning kitchen floors and kitchen walls. This was back in the 1950s when the brand was originally launched.

In the 1990s, the company set out to own more than just one room in the house. Again, it didn’t want to so narrowly define its brand around a room, the kitchen. It debuted a toilet cleaner and liquid bathroom cleaner in 1992. A year later, it expanded further with a glass and surface cleaner. Importantly, it didn’t stop there. In the 2000s, the brand became even bolder by moving beyond the interior of the home, Mr. Clean introduced the Magic Eraser, which is a surface cleaning pad that I think a lot of people are probably familiar with.

That helped extend the brand’s application and its relevance to include exterior surfaces. Think vinyl siding, garage doors, patio furniture, grills. It even reached outside of the home all together with products that allowed you to clean car wheel rims, sports equipment, etcetera. Then to top it off, the granddaddy of it all in 2007, it went out of the house and launched a line of carwashes.

One of the reasons why I like this example, I think there are two things to point out here. One is the brand was able to accomplish this because, as I mentioned earlier, it didn’t narrowly define itself or think of itself as a product solely for the kitchen floor, but rather as a brand that is unparalleled in cleaning, which opened up a wealth of other opportunities that wouldn’t have been available to it if it hadn’t thought that way. Second, it didn’t immediately leave from kitchen floors to carwashes. It gradually went to other rooms in the house, other surfaces, and then even outside of the house in a gradual and logical progression that consumers were able to grasp onto over time and make sense of.

George: I love that story. I’ll tell you, my wife loves that little scrubby. Last year, we were over at our friend’s house, and the lady literally pulled out one of those Magic Erasers to clean the side of her pool. I was like this thing has grown legs past probably what they thought it would. I love this story of growth over time.

It’s funny because my brain immediately goes to strategy. Past that, and something that I don’t think we talk a lot about that story really paints, is the idea of strategic timeframe and how progressively they did this next thing and the next thing. Just because you know where you want to go doesn’t mean you have to be there tomorrow. I think that’s an amazing thing.

Mitch: The other thing I would add there is, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that Proctor & Gamble, which is the owner of Mr. Clean, had that vision in mind. They may have or they may not have. Regardless, the way it unfolded is a way that was very logical and rational. In a perfect world, yes, you map that out to say here is how we’re going to grow this brand over a time horizon. If not, it still can be done. Just do so in a way that just gradually and logically builds one extension on top of another.

George: I love that. Maybe they didn’t know, but at the end of the day, success leaves clues, and it worked.

Something came to mind. I feel like I’m supposed to ask this question. Obviously, there’s a book, which in a minute I’m going to ask you if people want to connect, where you want to send them, all that kind of stuff, so you can mention the book and your socials, and whatever you mention. Around this topic, are there podcasts, are there books? If somebody wanted a next action item to learn more about this conversation we’ve been having around B2B brand inspired growth, where have you seen that they might find a good watering hole for that topic?

Mitch: I think it’s really all of the above. When I’m able to find the time, I love to go to conferences, brand and marketing related conferences. I think there are a number of podcasts out there that talk about brand and talk about growth, and that intersection. Obviously, on the internet there a lot of articles. I don’t necessarily subscribe to one title or publication over the others, but there are a lot of sources out there for ideas, guiding principles, and best practices on the topic.

George: I’ll ask this way, too. If they’re looking for a podcast, if they’re looking for articles, because you’re so close to this and expert, what should they be searching that will enable them to dive deeper into the conversation?

Mitch: I would say things like brand extension, brand extendibility, brand driven growth. Things like that, that are very specific to brand. I’m not actually trying to diminish the importance of innovation that isn’t brand centric. Clearly, the majority of it is not.

If you’re looking specifically at how do I take a leading brand that is meaningfully differentiated, has a great deal of equity, and extend it, then I think what you want to do is make sure that you’re searching for sources that focus on brand, brand extensions. Again, not ones that are so limited in their scope that they’re basically just new flavors of the day, but how can you take your brand into entirely different, whether adjacent or not, product categories than they’re in at the current time.

George: I love that. The reason I dove that deep is because what I fear is that somebody would get done listening to this podcast episode – Marketing Smarts listeners, I love you enough to ask the hard questions – and they would just search brand. It’s not about colors, it’s not about logos. We’re talking about something totally different here today. I understand that most of you probably get that, but those keywords to search and then add those multipliers to what Mitch said are going to get you in the right place.

Mitch, if people want to connect with you, if they have questions, where do you want to send them if they want to get the book, all of the information, where do we want to people to head?

Mitch: There’s a few potential sources I’d refer them to. I should mention the book, The Indispensable Brand, the topic of brand extension or brand driven growth is only one chapter of 14 chapters, but in there is a chapter on brand inspired growth. The book is available on Amazon. It’s also available on my company’s website FullSurge.com, and on FullSurge.com there’s a wealth of information on not only brand extendibility, but brand overall. That contains a lot of information, best practices, guiding principles, case studies from our clients, not just in brand extendibility, but in branding overall.

George: Are there any socials, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, that people could head to and connect with you?

Mitch: Probably the best ones are LinkedIn and Twitter. Also, feel free to reach out to me directly via email, mduckler@fullsurge.com. The last thing, if I may mention it, if there is interest in what I talked about earlier in our discussion, the four means for achieving differentiation, the what, the how, the why, the who that I had mentioned, and positioning and differentiation, I delivered a TEDx talk on that topic last year, which is housed on the official TED website.

George: When you think about this B2B brand inspired growth, are there some words of wisdom that you want to leave the Marketing Smarts audience that are like you need to think about this, or make sure that this is your driving force, or just some words of wisdom that you would leave them?

Mitch: One thing that I would caution and encourage is to think about market research in a new way. I think it’s important to keep in mind that as human beings we are just naturally drawn to the familiar. As the saying goes, familiarity breeds comfort. In my experience, consumers tend to be very literal and very short-sighted when it comes to brand extendibility. In focus groups and other forms of market research, when they see brands in new unfamiliar applications, their natural reaction, their knee-jerk reaction is to reject the idea because it seems foreign. When this happens, it’s important to understand what the basis is for consumers not seeing a connection between your brand and a potential new product or service.

In some cases, their rationale may be very solid and well founded, in which case it’s probably safe to assume the new product would be a bad idea for your brand. In other cases, it’s conceivable that consumers may just need a little help to connect dots for them, and that a skillful product positioning and launch can help them suspend some of that disbelief and overcome that hurdle. Just watch out, if you’re too much of a slave to market research, it might limit you significantly in terms of the possibilities that you’re willing to consider for your brand.

George: What an interesting conversation around brand, brand stories, success, and hurdles, and all of the things that I hope started you on a journey around a different direction of the conversation around brand.

Marketing Smarts listeners, did you take lots of notes? I have to ask, what is your one thing, your number one execution opportunity after this podcast episode? Make sure you reach out and let us know in my inbox or on Twitter using the hashtag #MPB2B.

Also, I have to ask are you a free member of the MarketingProfs community yet? If not, head over to Mprofs.com/mptoday. You won’t regret the additional B2B marketing education that you’ll be adding to your life.

We’d like it if you could leave us a rating or review on your favorite podcast app, but we’d love it if you would share this episode with a coworker or friend. Until we meet in the next episode where we talk with Bob Wiesner about four steps to stronger case studies, I hope you do just a couple of things. One, reach out and let us know what conversation you’d like to listen in on next. Two, focus on getting 1% better at your craft each and every day. Finally, remember to be a happy, helpful, humble B2B human.

We’ll see you in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast.

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