Debugging the Bayer Brand

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that Bayer’s corporate history included no mention of Nazis whatsoever. Even under such a scenario, isn’t it still a little weird for a company best known for making aspirin to expect its name will have cachet with purchasers of bug spray? (For thoughts on the wisdom of Bayer, or any other company whose history does include dealings with the Third Reich, running commercials that revolve around killing with deadly chemicals, see “Chatterbox.”)

Bayer obviously does have a good name with health-care consumers. And the company’s “consumer care” business also produces Alka-Seltzer, One-A-Day Vitamins, and various other health products that you probably didn’t know were made by Bayer. Bayer Advanced Home, an insecticide, is different in that it carries the Bayer name prominently. If you like our aspirin, the company seems to be saying, you’ll love our bug spray.

Companies with solid brand names are constantly testing their “brand elasticity” with this sort of specious logic. Just today at my local Whole Foods, I noticed that Sierra Nevada, the brewery, has slapped its name onto three varieties of mustard. Why?

Silly brand extensions happen for two reasons, neither of which should be very surprising. The first reason is that companies need to grow. A company that isn’t growing is either shrinking or stagnant. Unacceptable. So, when a flagship product isn’t growing as fast as it used to, someone in marketing starts dreaming up new “revenue streams.” And that brings up the second reason: A lot of people in marketing have ideas for new revenue streams that don’t really make sense.

Companies that have a successful brand often seem to have unrealistic expectations for the breadth of its appeal. Coca-Cola is, without question, a powerful brand name. But attempts to “leverage” that brand into a line of popular clothing, for instance, went pretty much nowhere. Some of the best examples of entertainingly ridiculous attempts to stretch brands were cataloged in a 1997 book called What Were They Thinking?, by Robert McMath. McMath operates the New Product Showcase and Learning Center, which, despite its optimistic name, is most notable for being probably the world’s greatest warehouse of stupid product ideas. 

Bengay Aspirin, for example. Bengay has a perfectly good name among health-care consumers, even among those specifically searching for pain relief. The problem, McMath observed, was that Bengay users associate the product with a cream that “sears your skin,” he wrote. “Can you imagine swallowing it?” Frito-Lay Lemonade had a similar problem. So did Cracker Jack Cereal, Smucker’s Premium Ketchup, Fruit of the Loom Laundry Detergent. Even the best of brand names can be stretched only so far. As McMath pointed out elsewhere in his book, brand extensions often have more to do with the wants and needs of marketers and brand managers than those of consumers.

Interestingly, Bayer had a cameo in McMath’s book as well. McMath argued that even its attempt to branch out into ibuprofen-based products in the mid-1990s was a mistake, and that the company was wise to subsequently refocus on aspirin. Now, of course, Bayer is a mammoth company, and in addition to consumer health products, it has large presences in agriculture, polymers, and chemicals. Again, though, you probably didn’t know that, and that’s probably OK by Bayer.

One interesting footnote to all of this, however, is that just yesterday Reuters reported that Bayer plans to develop an anti-impotence drug to compete with Viagra by mid-2002. I suppose this way Bayer can corner the entire pillow-talk segment–those who have headaches … and those who don’t.