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Brand licensing: a deliberate policy of brandicide?

Opinion, 30 March 2011

The great gardener and creator of Sissinghurst in the south-eastern UK country of Kent, Vita Sackville West, was said to keep a cemetery noting the plants that died in her care: a constant reminder that living things need proper attention. Brand watchers amongst us typically have the same concern for the brands we nourish and grow. But although plants do die, disappear into the soil and come back as compost, brands, even when badly treated can be revived.

Jeremy Bullmore used to encourage clients to see if they had what he called 'attic brands' in their portfolios; brands which had lain untended for years or had been overtaken by trends that could possibly be given the kiss of life. Remember the inspired re-invention of Lucozade from an illness drink to a life giving energy drink. Camilo Panne, CEO of Reckitt Benckiser recently described how a young graduate found a profitable new life for Goddards silver polish in cleaning computer and iPod screens. Examples abound. Good brands are resilient and can often sustain long periods of neglect.

But a deliberate policy of 'brandicide' seems a little foolhardy. A colleague invented this game years ago at a seminar where young trainees were tested on their ability to grasp the psychology of branding by being asked to name products that would add or subtract value from existing brands. As I recall, the 'brandicide' prize went to 'After Eight Bubble Gum'.

So what are we to make of the recent announcement that, in pursuit of extra revenue, major fmcg brand owners are considering franchising their precious brand names for use on other products. Unilever, Diageo, and Britvic were mentioned, along with a dreaded new job title - Licensing Manager. This may sound like a good idea to stimulate sluggish sales but I wouldn't count on it doing any more than chipping away at the valuable equity of the core brand. To call a brand 'iconic', as did one of the marketing directors involved, is not to assume permanence. Brands gain or lose equity every day and the potentially careless licensing of this precious asset seems a hostage to fortune.

Laurie Young, in his article in the latest issue of Market Leader, provides a wonderful insight into the potential longevity of brands. Incensed by the notion of product life cycle, he has been collecting brand birthdays for many years. The article lists several hundred, the earliest being Enos Salts, born 1850.

The full list - which space prevented our publishing - was even more impressive. Young's first recorded brand was Brie de Meaux (mentioned in the diaries of Charlemagne) in 774. The earliest UK brands he has located are whisky brands (Bushmills, 1608 and Haig, 1627). The earliest beer brand which first saw the light of day in 1366 and is still going strong to this very day is IPA Effectiveness Award winner, Stella Artois. My guess is that very few of these ancient properties were ever franchised.

About the author

Judie Lannon is a world-recognised expert in the field of market research and marketing strategy. She was appointed by J. Walter Thompson (JWT) London to establish their Consumer Research Department, then appointed to the Board of J Walter Thompson as its Director, Research and Planning. In l989, she became Research & Development Director for JWT Europe. She is extremely experienced in all aspects of consumer research and brand communications strategies through work with major international companies.

She established her own planning and research consultancy in l991, and in addition to this consultancy work, Judie designs senior management courses in the marketing communications, brand positioning and market research realms. She is particularly interested in the evolution of brands and the development of communications beyond advertising.

Judie Lannon is also a recognised writer, editor and speaker in the field of marketing. She serves as Editor of the Strategic Marketing Journal and Market Leader magazine (the Journal of the Marketing Society, Great Britain) and is Features Editor of the International Journal of Advertising.