How to Branch Out with Brand and Line Extensions

Jonathan Kenyon, Co-Founder

Jonathan Kenyon, Co-Founder


Would you brush your teeth with your sneakers (Supreme toothpaste)? Are you enticed to buy yogurt because of its association with sex and glamour (Cosmopolitan dairy products)? Have you ever longed to spray yourself with the scent of lighter fluid (Zippo perfume)?

Yep, these are all real brand/line extensions, and in truth, I would love to get my hands on Supreme toothpaste. This was a much better brand collaboration with Colgate than the ill-fated trial of Colgate Lasagne (it’s not a good idea for a brand associated with ‘spitting out’ to enter the food industry).

It has been said that a brand name is like a rubber band: the more you stretch it, the weaker it becomes. But with today’s versatile brands and adventurous consumers, that’s no longer a truism. Now more than ever, a successful extension is subjective to brand strengths and perceptions, rather than the vision of one brand, one product.

In a previous article, I explored how limited-edition packs (LEPs) can help expand your brand, build momentum, and unlock substantial growth in the process.

To be successful, you must protect your core by establishing strong yet flexible brand guardrails. By defining your brand strategy at a portfolio level, you can give individual variants enough expressive freedom to stand out without undermining the parent brand.

LEPs can drive growth very effectively, but here I’ll tackle one of the more ambitious options available to your brand: brand extensions and line extensions. While much of the same advice applies, this is a more complex challenge to master and the risks are greater.

Baileys Portfolio

So, what’s the most effective way to branch out in this way? I’ve used three successful brand extension innovations for our longstanding client Baileys to demonstrate. But first, it’s important to understand the difference between a brand extension and a line extension.

Brand extension vs line extension

It can be confusing since both clients and agencies can be loose with their use of these phrases. At Vault49 we define a brand extension to mean taking an existing brand name and using it on a new product or service within a market that is different from the original.

For Baileys, this would include canned iced coffee, ice cream, and coffee creamer – all brand extensions that have their anchor in a core product benefit. Each allows Baileys the opportunity to leverage its existing brand equity in a meaningful way.

Baileys Caramel Ice Cream

On the other hand, we consider line extensions to be a subset of brand extensions, referring to a new permanent variety, flavor, or adjustment of ingredients such as ‘diet.’ For Baileys, this would include our developments of Baileys Almande (dairy-free), Salted Caramel (flavor), and Strawberries & Cream (originally a limited edition flavor that became a permanent extension due to record sales).

Identify a brand truth

Thorough research is critical before investing the time, money, and creative energy in this kind of expansion. You have to take the time to make sure you really understand what has been built in the minds of consumers over time, and what rational product benefits and emotional values have been retained. This will be your starting point.

The Pursuit of Pleasure

For Baileys, the unlock came from the key brand positioning of being ‘part cake, part booze.’ These four simple yet ingenious words revealed the world in which a successful Baileys brand or line extension could exist.

For other brands, a starting point might begin with a consistent key ingredient, a particular technology expertise, a unique recipe, a brand purpose.

Any extension should build on a singular core value that is already firmly embedded in the mind of consumers. It ensures quick recognition and helps ensure that existing brand equity is not damaged.

Define an unmet need

You need to identify a clear product-driven or emotional ‘unmet need’ that aligns with your brand.

A few years back we worked on the concept for Baileys Almande, a dairy-free alternative that taps into the huge surge of interest in veganism. The line extension preserves Baileys’ distinctive creaminess without any, well, cream.

Baileys Almande

Briefed by Diageo to find the perfect balance between the refreshing lightness of almond milk and the hallmark decadence of the parent brand, we used the opportunity to push Baileys’ key brand assets (KBAs) in fresh and exciting directions.

This included replacing the distinctive black bottle with a tactile, natural white version, and disrupting the brand’s standard symmetrical label architecture with a sleeve that enabled a playful watercolor motif to wrap around the bottle.

See old ideas with fresh eyes

A decade ago, Baileys Almande may well have failed entirely as a line extension. But in 2017, riding a tide of burgeoning demand for nut-milk alternatives, it became an important driver in the parent brand’s growth.

There’s a lesson there for innovation departments: don’t be afraid to revisit workshop ideas that were left on the cutting-room floor. Those ideas might be substantial even if the initial execution failed, or the internal appetite to pursue them wasn’t there at the time.

You may find a kernel of an idea that a fresh perspective could bring to life, or the appetite within the market may have changed and a concept that would have failed one year could gain traction in another. In my experience, the best innovations are often hidden in plain sight.

Seek new occasions

A second line extension opportunity that we helped unlock for Baileys was a simple but effective small-format play: Baileys Minis. Providing 100ml of ‘drinkable dessert’ in a bottle, these innovative miniatures tapped into confectionary semiotics and helped support the wider brand strategy for the portfolio, and firmly establish Baileys in the ‘indulgent treat’ space.

Baileys Minis

Developing a successful line extension can be a wonderfully fulfilling — and profitable — mission for your brand. The success of Baileys Minis shows how effective it can be to introduce extensions that expand the occasion during which your product is consumed or engaged with.

It used to be that Baileys was considered the ‘Christmas drink.’ Now, through the effective use of extensions that have expanded the drinking occasion, the brand now has a portfolio that is consumed all year long. This led to phenomenal year-on-year revenue growth as well as a deepened brand loyalty.

Look beyond your aisle

One of the beautiful things about line extensions is that they can unlock a totally new audience for your brand – either by targeting a different demographic, such as Coca-Cola’s enormously successful Diet Coke variant or by moving into new categories altogether with an even more radical deviation from the parent brand.

Our final example for Baileys is an ambitious brand extension: launched in the UK market in 2017, Baileys Iced Coffee sits in a different supermarket aisle, expanding the reach of the brand outside of the wine, beer, and spirits category altogether.

Available in Latte and Mocha flavors in a single-serve 200ml can, Baileys Iced Coffee broke new ground in terms of both format and product – helping create a whole new category of chilled blended alcoholic beverages.

Do it for the right reasons

Remember, there’s no sense in launching a brand extension purely for the sake of introducing some variety. This is also true with LEPs, of course, but the point is even more crucial here.

You must weigh up the potential benefits of a sales uplift and increased brand awareness with the risk of a public misstep damaging the parent brand’s credibility for years to come.

Don’t follow in the footsteps of Cosmopolitan cream cheese and become a similar footnote in brand extension history. Put the proper groundwork in, and you can grasp the exciting opportunities that extensions afford with both hands – without getting burned in the process.

This is part two of our series on expanding your brand successfully: see our guide to launching successful limited-edition products for more useful advice.

Jonathan Kenyon, Co-Founder