How Spin-Off Brands Survive In the Supermarket Serengeti

Our Brandthropologist studies “brand bloodlines”: How brand families perform in the wilds of the grocery shelves.


Next time you go to the grocery store imagine you are in a retail wilderness–let’s call it the Supermarket Serengeti. Its a lush habitat of overlapping ecosystems each populated with brands, like species, trying to survive and perpetuate their kind into the future where success is measured with sale figures.


On the shelf, the way that established brands enable product line extensions is analogous to the natural laws that govern parental invest in the survivability of their children. Visually, the parent or sibling brand bestows favor and influence upon its fledgling product lines. Simply stated, children would look most like their parents while cousins, who have fewer functional similarities, would naturally receive less investment from their aunt and uncles.

The sharing of visual equities should be a proud demonstration of brand paternity. Some brands effectively hand out cigars while others seem to invest nothing more than a birthmark and the hope that their young can survive in the category on their own. Therefore, to the brands that pass on only a miniscule logo endorsement, I have to ask, wouldn’t it have been better not to get pregnant in the first place? To be worthy of an established brand’s family crest, the introduction of the product line extension should promise some reward to the parent measurable as brand value. To deliver success, even the endorsement strategy must deliver a win/win for both the parent brand and the fledgling product line.


Endorsement strategies must have appeared to be the cure-all for Mars, Cadbury Adams USA when faced with plummeting sales of the Snickers. In each case, the line extensions were designed befitting their representative categories. Snickers brandmark as endorsement appears relegated to lower order of confidence and then shoehorned into foreign aesthetic surroundings. The new look is so visually dissonant, that it undermines the trust that consumers had with the parent brand. It may be a risk to the success of the line extension if its impression on consumers does not summon rewarding memories of Snickers.


Sub-branded offspring that stray too far from the nest are seen as suspicious and self-serving. More than ever consumers are likely to regard this as a manipulation as they increasingly seek, conspicuous proof of brand trust and investment.


With True Delights, Quaker has followed the playbook on how to do the premium adult indulgence. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Best known as a virtuous agrarian, Quaker seen here in a dark corner of the package, only adds to suspicion by parenting sub-brand in a way inconsistent with the heart of the portfolio.


Brand endorsement must be regarded, as something of a cure-all–on the surface it appears to allow brand portfolios to grow endlessly via acquisitions and R&D inventions. There are certainly financial efficiencies to slotting sub-brands into endorsement scenarios. However, what marketers may be forgetting is that growing a brand by introducing extensions is as much about defending the entirety of the portfolio and its distribution of equities as it is about making the consumer aware that there is something new from a source they know and trust.


The Quaker endorsement had forever assumed the role of quiet, proud parent. But in the midst of the private label onslaught, the ease and efficiency of the endorsement strategy appears to have been reconsidered. As seen here, the preeminence of Life Cereal (along with all of the other brands in the portfolio) has been overruled—further confirmation that, when the going gets tough, being a standout star is just not as important as being a team player.

A high level of visual consistency within a portfolio is dramatically on the rise. It’s a defensive response and an effective tactic for warding of private label brand encroachment and other competitive threats.


Crest creates a sanctuary. Deep color and marquee logo resound across a diverse portfolio. Impactful and meaningful brand elements create a strong base for the delivery of benefits and segmentation. All product variations speak with the parent brand tone of voice in order to maintain the overarching brand impression. The hope is that store brands will be less likely to get away with such blatant mimicry if juxtaposed against a well-cloistered brand portfolio. In turn, the private label brands will appear to be conspicuous deliverers of cost-of-entry quality and manipulative intent.


Could it be that the purveyors of traditional name brands are now on the offensive, testing private label brands and their willingness to ante up to a higher level of value add? Enter the House of Brands–throwing its weight around by knitting together multiple brands within a common look.


For as long as there has been a ‘house of brands’, they have been the silent, well-behaved puppeteers following in-store convention. It’s arguable whether or not consumers know (or even care) if each brandmark represents a distinct company pulling its own crop from the fields and using its own trucks for distribution. But in the age of retailer labels, it’s clear that consumer packaged goods companies are beginning to throw their weight around, testing the relationships that consumers have with their heritage brands.


Of course, the conditions for success in the Supermarket Serengeti are currently in a state of rapid evolution. Behavioral patterns indicate that now is the time to shore up the portfolio, not extend it. “White space opportunities” occupy the hands of the foolish. The lesson? Protect and strengthen what you have. Turn inwards towards core or parent brand equities and consider how to amplify the resonance of existing brand equities.

Michael Bensinger-Colton is director of design strategy at Brandimage.