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Making a Name for Your Product

December 25, 1997|GREG JOHNSON

Label-conscious consumers can don their Polo Ralph Lauren Inc. pants, shirt, socks and shoes, dab on the designer's latest fragrance and sit on a Ralph Lauren chair while using their Lauren-designed glasses to study Ralph Lauren paint chips for just the right hue of Ralph Lauren paint to cover the living room walls.

The designer's continuing expansion into new products and geographic locations--stores soon will open in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Kuwait City--recently prompted an online pundit to quip that Lauren has opened the world's first fashion theme park--Ralph Lauren Land--which "will be open banker's hours, Monday through Friday, and during brunch on Saturday and Sunday."

Branding has become the mantra of the 1990s, with businesses in every industry looking for ways to turn products into broadly accepted brands.

"That's branding--giving your name recognition on an international basis," said Rainforest Cafe founder and Executive Vice President Steven Schussler, who expects his Minneapolis-based chain to double its size to 32 locations during 1998 and have 100 locations within five years.

The 3-year-old restaurant chain that recently opened locations in Cancun, Mexico, and London already offers its own branded toys, apparel and scented candles--and is negotiating a movie, a cartoon strip and children's books.

ESPN and Nickelodeon are opening retail stores, Martha Stewart has turned her lifestyle into a brand that can be purchased at Kmart Corp., and ABC is trying to brand its network with an ad campaign.

But caretakers for some of the nation's best-known brands acknowledge the potential for backlash: Nike Inc. has been raked over the coals in Doonesbury for its omnipresent "swoosh," and Starbucks Corp. founder and Chairman Howard Schultz acknowledges that his company risks alienating some consumers simply because it's grown so big.

Brands must "move cautiously because there's a balancing act involved," Schussler said. "We don't want to dilute the brand. There is a point of saturation when people get tired of the brand."

For proof, consider the hole that Levi Strauss & Co. has dug itself into. In October, the San Francisco-based company with the world-famous name said it would lay off 6,400 workers and close 11 plants in a bid to get production in sync with consumer demand.

Brand consultants say that Levi forgot the crucial difference between simply manufacturing products and taking the steps needed to safeguard the brand.

That's something that won't change during the coming year. Brand managers must continue to listen to consumers to ensure that goods being produced meet consumer expectations.

Experts say that as brands go global, managers can make the process easier by delivering a consistent, focused message.

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