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How Far Can The Marlboro Brand Stretch?



Today another question from the BSI Emailbag. Martin, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School asks this about brand extension…

“Dear Mr. VanAuken, before I ask my TWO questions (I hope I’m not being greedy) I’d like to thank you and your co-authors for Branding Strategy Insider – this is what I check first thing in the morning with the coffee (I read my emails on my Blackberry in the car). Here come the questions:

Question 1

“Is there a way for a brand such as Marlboro to extend to products that are socially acceptable? A line of outdoor lifestyle products probably? Would that create outrage? What would be the way to go about it?”

This is a very interesting question, Martin. Given its strong image and personality (masculine, rugged individualism, independent spirit, etc.), I suspect the Marlboro brand is capable of being extended into a variety of new product categories. For instance, I could imagine Marlboro jeans and hats and belts could be successful. There are several things I would consider before I pulled the trigger on this, however. First, I would perform typical brand extension research to understand how the brand’s associations transferred to the new product categories and vice versa.

I would also try to understand how current Marlboro consumers, the consumers of the intended new product categories and the general public felt about moving the Marlboro brand into those product categories. It would also be important to determine if extending the brand into new product categories would be perceived to be a move to market Marlboro tobacco products to youth, and if it would actually make the brand more appealing to youth. If so, there would likely be a public backlash, not to mention possible legal actions against such a move. I suspect that these brand extensions would be much more palatable should Phillip Morris decide to discontinue tobacco-related products under the Marlboro brand first. Having said all of this, I think the Marlboro brand is quite strong and could be extended into a variety of product categories for which Marlboro’s distinct brand image and personality would seem to be a draw.

Question 2

Muji, (translated from Japanese – “no brand”) recently opened a store in NY and plans to open a few more in the US but only in “trendy” cities such as Washington, DC, Miami, LA, Chicago etc. The store in Soho is popular among a segment of cult followers and also has shelf space in the MoMA store. In Japan, Muji is perceived as IKEA is perceived here – contemporary but by no means elite or “chick”. Is Muji :

a)      The latest branding fad

b)      Cream de la cream of the snobbism

c)       Just a company that chose to position itself differently in a different market

d)       None of the above

Martin, not having shopped at Muji myself, nor having seen its advertising, I do not think my opinion on this should count. I think Muji’s own consumer research would best provide the answer your question.  Absent that information however, I think it is plausible that any one or more of your proposed answers could be correct. By the way, “no brand” is in fact a very interesting brand concept/position that would appeal to some in today’s hyper-branded environment. In fact, “no brand” could be the ultimate self-expressive statement for some.

Perhaps Branding Strategy Insider readers will be able to add more.

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Damien Basile on July 07th, 2009 said

Muji is the ultimate in no-brand branding. It’s IKEA but made better with better materials. It’s minimalism at its finest. People who are classy enough to not broadcast what designer they’re wearing on their clothes appreciate Muji. These are the same people that wear those same designers but only a discerning eye can tell by the way the clothing looks not by what it says.

Muji’s positioning is along the lines of classy, classic, hip, cool, minimal and discreet while being affordable and sensible.

Bhavana Jaiswal on July 07th, 2009 said

Hi Brad/ Martin,

I believe it’s very much possible for brands like Marlboro to diversify into socially acceptable products. There are a number of examples of such brands in India, where alcohol & tobacco advertising is banned.

(1) Kingfisher (a popular alcohol brand) ventured into luxury airlines – and has the highest market share in India today, along with its low cost brand Kingfisher Red. Kingfisher also owns Kingfisher Mineral Water, and its calender is popular among the youth.

(2) ITC (a tobacco company) which owns the popular cigarette brand Wills has diversified into lifestyle. They own Wills Lifestyle, a popular high-end apparel chain. They have also diversified into body care with shampoos, conditioners, soaps, bodywashes, etc. with a range called Fiama de Wills, which are doing very well in the markets. They also own some biscuit brands. Mind you, the ads always specify ‘Fiama – from ITC’ so consumers are aware that the product comes from the tobacco company!

(3) White Mischief, another alcohol brand, has diversified into White Mischief Holidays.

Other than this, almost every alcoholic brand in India has its own brand of Mineral Water (McDowells) and even come out with CDs of popular dance tracks (Eg: Bacardi Blast)

Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear) on July 07th, 2009 said

Well first, I’m a bit miffed that Boston (where I live) is not considered hip enough to land a Muji of our own, but anyways:

I have shopped at Muji in London, Madrid, and NYC. I agree with Martin that Muji isn’t trying to be elite in its European outposts–though I’m not sure about the IKEA comparison given the vast differences in scale (Muji stores tend to be on the small side, IKEA as we know is HUGE).

I think the “no brand” approach is definitely part of what they try to do, but I would equate them as much with the US-based Container Store as I would with IKEA: a business model focused around a (very practical) slice of retail. Muji definitely has a bit more of a design element involved, but basically they’re out to sell basic, useful, attractive, and simple things.

As to the limited introduction to the US marketplace, the approach strikes me as similar to what Krispy Kreme did (before it stopped following its own pattern, overexpanded, and failed): create massive buzz through restricted access, and make the stores a destination. In Krispy Kreme’s case this drove up the point-of-purchase sales–people went out of their way to get there so they bought a dozen doughnuts when they’d normally only by one or two at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts.

Derek Chen on July 07th, 2009 said

BSI is an amazing blog that I too read every morning, but I have to say I especially enjoyed today’s post, which was great not in what it said, but in what it didn’t say. In other words, I love how you took a step back on Muji and acted transparently in stating what you did and did not know. All us readers already know you guys know your stuff, no need to over do it. So once again, great insight is to be found (and demonstrated) at Branding Strategy Insider.

Ramesh Tahiliani on July 09th, 2009 said

Hi! Ref. Marlboro above. Doesn’t this brand already sell outerwear fashion products through exclusive stores? I visited one such outlet in Dubai. The brand name is “Marlboro Classics” for this brand extension.

Martin Dimitrov on July 09th, 2009 said

Thank you very much for your answers! I too think that Marlboro brand can be extended. I don’t know what Phillip Morris’s global strategy is but for U.S. market they probably should take the risk and diversify (if not now, in 5 or 10 years they’ll have very little to lose) Their best bet would be to leverage the equity in the Marlboro brand – in my opinion a very exciting and delicate exercise because they’ll be leveraging the brand, not operational synergies, existing capacity or other tangibles. If they come to that point, I’m sure they’ll do their homework first, as you suggested – ZMET, focus groups – all the goodies.

jiggyjames on July 09th, 2009 said

Hi Martin,

In response to your first question regarding the brand Marlboro and “How Far Can The Marlboro Brand Stretch?”, well I’m not sure if it has launched in North America but the Marlboro Classics is an established brand in Asia and Europe. It was founded about two decades ago and in 2008 achieved sales over 170 million euros.


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