Behold the Shape-shifters: When Brands Overextend

If you were a fan of the TV series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, you might be familiar with the recurring character of Odo, played by actor René Auberjonois.Aw-ber-zhon-wah. Odo was an alien being, a gelatinous liquid in his natural state. But Odo was also a shape-shifter, capable of shifting his Jello into a human-like form. However, his facial features—a sunken mouth and eye sockets and preternatural nose—gave the impression of a project that some sculptor had abandoned halfway through.

Shape-shifting is more than mere science fiction. Recently, it’s all the rage in the music industry. At the end of last year, country music icon Dolly Parton released a rock album. And just last month, R&B megastar Beyoncé shifted into country. There’s a long history of musical artists trying on other genres with varying degrees of success. Dolly’s rock album hit Number One on both of Billboard’s Top Country and Top Rock and Alternative Album sales charts. And in line with the intergalactic theme we started out with, there’s always Christmas in The Stars: The Star Wars Christmas Album. This 1980 gem sported a playlist of Star Wars-themed holiday tunes and marked the first professional recording appearance of a young Jon Bon Jovi, who sings lead vocals on the track entitled, “R2-D2, We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”  

In marketing terms, this shape-shifting falls under the category called “brand extension.” Successful brands do it all the time. It starts with a simple belief: we can parlay our success from one thing to another. When these brand extensions succeed, it creates both buzz and revenue. But when they don’t, a condition known as “brand overextension” occurs. While there’s usually a lot of head shaking and finger pointing on the back end, out in Consumerland most of the misfires are soon forgotten.

Some of the most successful brand extensions are the ones that, if we’d been in on the ideation process, seem like no-brainers. Reese’s Puffs Cereal is one example. Reese’s, the candy company that made its fame combining peanut butter and chocolate, extended its keystone flavor profile into the breakfast cereal market. And what kid wouldn’t want candy for breakfast? In terms of market success, numbers don’t lie. Reese’s Puffs were introduced in the mid-1990s. A study done as recently as 2020 revealed that the annual Puffs consumption for over one and a half million Americans was ten portions or more.

Another no-brainer was Food Network’s launch of its nonstick ceramic cookware sets. Really not much of a reach. With more than ten million people watching their cooking shows, it stands to reason that consumers would believe these guys might know how to make a decent set of pots and pans. Food Network made another smart move in this venture. They partnered with Kohl’s, the American department store chain with more than a thousand locations across the country to ensure distribution.

But just as often, these brand extensions fail—primarily because they stick their noses in something that’s none of their business. One historic example is BIC’s brief (sorry) foray into the underwear market. The BIC ballpoint pen is so ubiquitous in American culture that it’s in the permanent design collection of the Museum of Modern Art. And for a brand that’s been around since 1950, it’s understandable that they might get a little bored now and then. I’d love to see the research that suggested that BIC selling underwear was a good idea—and I’m sure it exists. The few people who did buy BIC’s underwear complained that the fabric was cheap and uncomfortable. Probably not a lot of brand damage was done here, as BIC only test marketed its undies in Greece, Ireland, and Australia before discontinuing sales. Postmortem, the team that had come up with this less-than-bright idea was reassigned to BIC’s shaver unit—an extension of the brand that actually made sense.

Another example of brand overextension was Harley-Davidson’s cologne misadventure. This brand is no stranger to extensions. Harley Davidson’s customers have an affinity not only with their motorcycles but also with a unique set of lifestyle values. That intelligence fueled the launch of a variety of Harley accessories that included leather jackets, helmets, boots, and even key chains. Then in 1996, the company decided to veer off and produce a line of perfumes and colognes called “Hot Road,” with leathery, woodsy scent profiles intent on bottling the true Harley essence.

There may have been a good deal of brand arrogance around this initiative. Did Harley executives believe that people would buy anything with the Harley name on it, no matter how far afield it might seem? Well, consumers voted—as they usually do—with their wallets, many of which in this case were attached to a long chain and stayed put in their pants pockets. Few wanted to shell out up to $60 for a bottle of the woodsy, leathery stuff. Some even complained it was evidence that Harley-Davidson trying to “Disneyfy” itself, slapping its name on anything and everything without regard to the brand’s core values. Unlike the BIC ballpoint, today the Harley fragrance line resides at the Museum of Failure, an actual touring museum that first opened in Sweden and which has become the reliquary for product overextensions. The museum’s website informs us that it adds more than 200 failed products to its collection every year. On a quick visit to, I found seven different Harley fragrances for which you can join a waiting list, which in the world of online shopping usually translates to “no longer available.”

What’s the point here? More products do not necessarily mean more sales. To be successful, brand extensions still have to align with the spirit of the brand. And if current customers—as in Harley-Davidson’s fragrance case—aren’t keen on the idea, it’s likely that no one else will buy it, either. 

When considering brand extensions, the best advice might not come from some Madison Avenue giant at all but from the pen of William Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.”    

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