Special Report

Brand Sprawl

Must consumers always be a step or two behind producers? Is capitalism losing its mind?

By 10.8.04

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Two weeks ago, both my boys caught colds. When bedtime came, I looked for some medicine to give them. We have lots of medicines. Heaps. I have a whole shelf in a kitchen cupboard that we call "the medicine chest" where you can hardly reach for one bottle without another falling out.

So I found plenty of cold meds for kids. I found nine bottles of the CVS knockoff of Robitussin. Not one was the same. Not one was the kind I was looking for, for colds at night. Just now I went looking for those nine bottles, and I see my wife has either thrown six of them away or done what I threatened to do at the time and simply poured them all together into a couple of big bottles and said the heck with it. Take my word. We had Tussin DM, Tussin Wide-Awake, Tussin 3.0, Tussin Sport Utility, Tussin Luxus, we had nine fully different kinds of Tussin.

This confusion comes to us courtesy of the "high-mix, low-volume" revolution in manufacturing. Henry Ford used to say you could have any color Model T you wanted as long as it was black. About 1980, a man from then-Arthur Andersen Consulting explained to me that computer-aided design and manufacture (CAD and CAM) made it possible to "give people exactly what they wanted." You could configure a manufacturing line to produce dozens of variants of the same thing, from computer printers to eyeglass frames, virtually without regard to quantity or economies of scale.

The advertising guys said, "Wow! Let's show people how many things they could want!" And the marketing gurus thought, "My, my, my. Let's eat up our competitors' shelf space." And so it came to pass, and the market looked upon it and said, This is good.

Except when you shop for deodorant, say, and all you want is to smell the same way you smelled last time, and find out you can't anymore, because your old one, you know, it was orange with a green stripe, has morphed into a dozen slightly varying demi-clones. Maybe clones don't morph. Never mind. You know what I mean. Brand sprawl.

Laundry detergent, okay? How many different kinds are there of just a single brand? The official website of Procter and Gamble's Tide (www.tide.com; be sure to visit, it's a jaw-dropper) lists Tide Liquid, Tide Powder, Tide With Bleach, Tide With Bleach Alternative, Tide HE, Tick Kick, Tide Stainbrush, and Tide Buzz. (Do you smoke it or snort it?) I know there are more, because I've seen them. Tide unscented is available, for example, in both liquid and powder versions.

I buy the cheapest, biggest bottle of liquid detergent I find at any given time. Lots of people probably do the same. It makes me wonder if the overall effect of all that choice is to make us refuse to choose: Screw it, I'll buy the biggest. A significant number of consumers may well have been moved out of the most desirable of advertising research categories, brand preference and brand insistence. (B.P.: "I want Pepsi. No Pepsi? Well, okay, Coke." B.I.: "No Pepsi? Okay, I'll go someplace else to get it.") And into that advertising limbo, brand indifference.

What's more, burgeoning variety could move some buyers into categories like brand aversion or brand rejection. Some commercials, like those for Vehix.com, suggest that advertisers worry about that.

Brand sprawl, in other words, may have begun to erode brand differentiation, that most cherished objective of the imperfect art known as advertising. ("I know half my ad dollar is wasted; I just don't know which half.") And I'm sure the busy brains at ad agency research departments run studies about it all the time.

Not that brand sprawl shows any sign of stopping. Nor will it, so long is there's shelf space to dominate. And "mind share" for agencies to sell to advertisers.

Unfortunate fallout prevails at places like Dunkin' Donuts. There, a profusion of bagel and croissant sandwiches and fancy drinks like Chocolate Coolatta and Butterscotch Cappucino suggest a high-mix low-volume factory behind it all. But no. Just "mind share" competition with Starbucks. And increasingly frazzled counter people, running to put together orders like Henry Ford's old Model T assembly men while the rest of us wait for fast food which is no longer fast at all.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.