Too. Many. Choices. Yes, Over-Branding Is a Thing.

over-branding is a thing

I walked into my favorite hair and body care store last week, looking for my usual hair product — you know, the one that protects hair before you heat-style it. I couldn’t remember the name of the product but I figured I’d easily recognize it once in the store. I couldn’t have been more wrong. As it turns out, the product I use is just one member of a family of products prone to over-branding that all have adjacent but different uses.

The family has a common name but each sub-product has a distinct name to indicate its use. Easy, right? No, not easy. A knowledgeable and patient sales associate took five minutes to walk me through the products and explain how they differ. It went something like this: ‘If you want to straighten your hair quickly, and also get some heat protection, but not up to 450 degrees, choose X. Now, if you want your hair to straighten slowly, but progressively every day, but don’t need the heat protection, choose Y. If you want it straight some days, and curly others, but need maximum heat protection on Wednesdays and Saturdays, choose Z.”

Clearly, the last one is made up, but for all the clarity she was able to provide, she might as well have said something similarly convoluted. I felt more confused than ever as I stared at the glut of products on the shelf, each sure of its own individual worth. Determined to get the upper hand on the situation, I pretended I knew exactly what was important to me and boldly opted for option Y. I mean, who doesn’t want progressive straightening?

Proliferation of choices. This may be one of the greatest afflictions of the modern economy. We have, as a society, found ourselves spoiled for choices. From hair styling products to sous vide cookers, to home gym apparatus, to car model options, choices are endless and the impact of the choices we make, usually rather opaque. A free-market economy on the supply side, and a broadly held sense of entitlement on the demand side, have created this problem. But even branding as a discipline has exacerbated the problem, sometimes through intentional over-branding, and sometimes through neglectful, lazy branding. Let’s dig in.

Over-Branding as a Key Contributor To Overwhelm

There are many definitions of branding, but perhaps at its most simplistic level, branding is a tool for matchmaking – between products and customers. Branding creates a line of sight between what a product offers and what a customer needs (or thinks she needs). In this respect, the primary responsibility of a brand (and those who manage it) is to clearly and compellingly communicate its value proposition so that buyers can find what they want or need, and make the right choice.

Over-branding happens when brand managers get greedy. In an attempt to create a brand that is all things to all people, they cram too many ideas into one offering, leaving customers overwhelmed and confused. (Think of the hair care product situation I shared.) In other instances, brand managers fail to heed the warning signs of a saturated market. I’m reminded of a story my mentor used to recount about a trip to the hardware store in search of a hammer. When she was shown to the correct aisle, she was greeted by a display of 25 hammers, the differences between them imperceptible. As she would say “All I needed was one hammer, what could possibly justify the glut of choices in this category?” Brands need to work hard to justify their existence and not simply exist because there is room on the shelf.

Lazy Branding Can Be Just As Damaging

Everyone loves to brand their product. Everyone loves to give their product a trademark and to justify putting money behind it to promote it. Not every product or program or initiative needs to be branded, and sometimes doing so is more a reflection of not wanting to do the work to determine whether a particular brand is warranted. If we agree that branding needs to be 100% focused on helping customers navigate choices and find what they need, then brand managers need to be more judicious about what gets branded and how well it serves and communicates the ‘cause.’ If you determine that a brand is additive to existing options, you better be sure that it meets the needs of the marketplace instead of some other agenda. Of course, these kinds of decisions need to be made much further upstream using tools like Portfolio Architecture and Nomenclature Strategy – both designed to rationalize and organize products within a portfolio through the lens of customer need states.

In case you’re thinking this is all very consumer-centric, don’t be fooled. B2B brands can fall prey to the lure of over-branding and lazy branding. There are stand-out brands with complicated portfolios that have done a great job of responsibly ‘justifying’ the existence of each of the members of the portfolio. Adobe is a great example of just such responsible branding. Each of its tools is organized at the highest level by the needs of its customers, creatives, or marketers, and focused on its key benefit to the audience to which it’s designed to cater.

At the risk of pushing the metaphor too far, I’ll end by saying that matchmaking between people bears a high degree of responsibility. You can’t, and shouldn’t, put two people together simply because they both desire companionship. Similarly, you can’t put every product or brand in front of just anyone and hope to elicit affinity or choice. Think carefully about what your customers really need, believe in, hope for, aspire to. Decide whether your product can deliver on these things and, if so, carefully craft your brand messaging to connect your brand with its rightful customer.

Emotive is an Oakland-based brand strategy and design studio.

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