How far can you stretch? - Brand extension and the risk of dilution

October 31, 2013

I recently came across a web banner ad for chicken coops from Williams-Sonoma and was left a bit puzzled. I hadn't been searching online for chicken coops and I've never actually purchased anything from the prominent kitchenware brand. These chicken coops and other gardening supplies are technically sold under Williams-Sonoma's new spinoff gardening 'Agrarian' sub brand, but as you can see in the ad below, the "Williams-Sonoma" name is directly tied to a photo of chicken coops. Even on the Williams-Sonoma site, where the coops are sold, the Agrarian sub brand, represented by a subtle gray wordmark, is easily overlooked.

WS web banner ad

Naturally my first question was "is this problematic for the brand?" I think it's debatable.

It's fair to argue that the Williams–Sonoma brand is very strong and that it could easily stretch into this area of the gardening category. Tide is another strong brand that has been able to successfully stretch into new categories. Starting from its humble laundry detergent roots it has achieved enormous success through its 'Tide To Go' Instant Stain Remover Pen and has even opened a series of Tide Dry Cleaners.

Yet, while Williams-Sonoma has a great deal of equity in the 'home' space, it runs the risk of stretching too far away from the brand's core: kitchenware. If William-Sonoma also stands for chicken coops, what doesn't it stand for? This may sound overly dramatic, but making numerous leaps like this can potentially dilute the meaning of the brand. This is especially apparent when a company licenses its brand for bizarre extensions like Harley-Davidson’s birthday cake kit or the brand's stuffed 'Road Hog' animals.

Is it so far-fetched that a consumer will read the headline in the ad – 'Grow. Cook. Eat.' – and think that there should be a greater separation between their kitchen and livestock? Most brands are typically limited to play in a space where they have already built credibility. Over time, customers can allow a brand to stretch – to some extent – into new areas. Yet, that 'extent' is unknown. Likely the safest way to stretch is through taking a series of smaller steps, instead of a leap. Facebook is an example of a brand that has sequentially stretched into new spaces. Starting as a social network, the brand has been moving into e-mail – from its original messaging application – and into search, leveraging its wealth of user-generated content. 

It's possible that the Williams–Sonoma brand has been able to effectively stretch as a home-focused brand, and that chicken coops aren't too far to stretch. Yet, a safer route for the brand would be to make the Agrarian sub brand more prominent, while also including an endorsement line from its parent brand. In other words, putting the Agrarian sub brand front and center accompanied by something like "from the Williams-Sonoma family" to provide a boost from the parent brand, while also creating more of a separation between kitchenware and chickens.

Do you think Williams–Sonoma is taking a risk? Can you think of other examples of brands that have made a big leap? Share your examples in the comments section below.

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