Emory Marketing Institute

Brand Hijack: When Unintended Segments Desire Your Brand
by Greg Thomas

The Puppet Masters
In managing brands it is the brand's manager job to develop and propagate their brand's identity. Brand identity is the core meaning that the brand managers want the brand to convey. However, it is the customer who has ownership of the brand image. The brand image is the representation of the brand in the consumer's mind. The brand image is created through penultimately through marketing communications, but ultimately through the consumer's experience with all the brand touchpoints. This experience includes the synergistic or atrophic effects the user has with other users of the brand. As such the ownership of the brand image is not totally under the control of the marketer, as brand image is the sum of the meaning that customers actually perceive in their relationship with the brand.

Sometimes brand identity and brand image are perfectly overlapping. That occurs when the customers perceived brand image is exactly what the brand managers intended when crafting the brand identity. Although this is the ideal, often the case is that brand identity and brand image are skewed. The degree of the skew can be minute, where the two are near identical or vast so little of the two overlap. In this sense, marketers are less like a typical marionetter pulling the strings of the brand, and more like Gepetto in crafting a brand that takes on a life of its own. As brand managers we design the core of the puppet, but the market breathes life into the brand and, like Pinocchio, it takes on its own character.

In the extreme case your brand image might not only be skewed from its identity, but it also can be desired by totally unintended market segments. Imagine you decide to throw a formal party and most of the people who show up are party crashers. Was your party a success or failure? Well, the answer is that depends on the intended purpose of party. Likewise, in brand management there are times when we craft a brand identity which targets a specific market segment and everything progresses smoothly until one day an unintended market segment decides to hijack your brand.

Is Brand Hijack A Blessing or A Curse?
Is brand hijack a blessing or a curse? The answer to just about every marketing question is "that depends." When does it matter whether your brand is hijacked or not? Let's explore this topic. For various market segments you can classify brands into aspirational brands and consumptive brands. Aspirational brands are those that are coveted by a certain set of customers, yet they are out of reach for them. Rappers often rap about things like Lamborghinis and Maybach cars, however these are simply brand dreams for most people as only a small percent of the population can afford one. Priced starting at $315,000 a Maybach is not quite affordable for most people not listed on the Fortune Richest People index. Maybach, a Mercedes-Benz division, estimates that there are only 200,000 thousand people with a net worth above $10 million in the US. The company has only sold 500 of the cars worldwide in 2004, with half of those sold in the US. This is a miniscule percentage of the overall car market, yet just about everyone that watches MTV knows the Maybach brand. Is this brand hijacking of the Maybach brand a precarious situation for Mercedes-Benz? Not quite. When it comes to ultra luxury there's usually no harm in having more people know your brand's customers have got the ultimate bling.

A consumptive brand, in contrast to an aspirational brand, is a brand that is actually consumed by a market segment. Consumptive brands can be categorized as being of either covert consumption or overt consumption. A brand that is covertly consumed is one where the brand usage is opaque to other consumers. Video games are usually covertly consumed. If you launch a brand of video game targeted at kids, but it is taken on by the young adult market there is usually no adverse effects for the kid market. The only kids that might be put off are the ones who would not be caught alive playing the same game as their parents.

Overt consumption of brands is found when a brand is used in a way where other consumers can see the usage of the brand. In this case the user identity become part of the brand image. When a certain market segment uses a brand the brand consumption may be either partitioned or unpartitioned. With partitioned consumption a brand is used in situations where other market segments are separated from the consumption experience. When Rap singers sang about Tanqueray gin, its popularity spread beyond the traditional anglo-saxon gin-and-tonic crowd. Since the consumption of Tanqueray at rap events is segmented from the aged stiff upper lip consumers the brand hijack is a more of a blessing than a curse. You have just extended into a new market with essential vitality, while retaining a hold on the original market.

For some brands the consumption of the brand is unpartitioned. That means that when one unintended market segment latches onto your brand its consumption is widely perceived by the traditional market segment that previously owned the consumption brand, as well as to other unpenetrated segments. With unpartitioned consumption the usage of the brand by the new market segment thereby attributes to a shift in the brand image for the original core market segments, due to the new user imagery evoked by the new users. Should new users of the brand be encouraged when there is unpartitioned consumption? This is a tricky question. The brand manager has the precarious job of deciding whether the consumption by this new group is attractive or not. The brand manager ultimately needs to determine which effects will occur through intersegment interaction, and subsequently what effects this will have on the financial performance of the firm. Part of the job is to figure out if the consumption pattern is faddish or not. Of course, if a new segment hijacks your brand, changes the brands image, and then drops it shortly thereafter for the next big thing it would be unwise to support the new market segment. However, this is not so simple a question as the faddishness or sustainability of the brand can be influenced by efforts the brand manager.

Even if the consumption is sustainable it is up to the brand manager to decide which market segment to pursue. And of course the right segment to pursue is an economic value added question. The brand manager needs to decide which segments are best to serve for the well being of the organization. The city of Cancun, a resort city on the Caribbean, has been facing these questions. The brand Cancun is becoming associated with wild and crazy Bacchanalian spring breakers overloaded with beer, tequila, clubbing and raging sex hormones. Although the Spring Break crowd represents only 1% of the visitors to Cancun, the image of Cancun is becoming dominated by the crazy collage crowd user imagery, which is disseminated widely on television shows. Cable channels providing in depth coverage of the revelry include MTV and E! Entertainment.

This has the powers-that-be in Cancun worried that these brand hijackers will adversely effect the choice of travel destination by the more lucrative newly-wed, golfer and eco-tourist segments. To counter this hijacking the city has launched a Civility Pact, which is a code of public behavior designed to limit the overindulgences by the spring break crowd. The police will patrol bar, clubs and elsewhere in the role of lion tamers. In doing so the city is hoping to reduce its attractiveness to the Spring Break crowd. With this new policy they are hoping to reduce its 40,000 spring breakers from 2004 to a more manageable 30,000 this year.

Conspicuous unpartitioned consumption is not always a bad thing. Corona beer was first brewed in 1925 by Ceveceria Modelo, and was first imported into the United States in 1979. Clearly between 1925 and 1979 Corona was a Mexican beer for Mexican people. As the story goes, surfers from California discovered Corona back in the 1970s while on surfaris. Usually served with a wedge of lime, the brand became associated with escape. It was instant beach in a bottle. This helped propel Corona's consumption in the US up since 1979 to surpass Heineken in 1997 as the number one imported beer. The beer can now be found in over 150 countries, and is the fifth-best selling beer in the world. Clearly, this hijacking by surfers in the 1970's was a blessing for Groupo Modelo, and Anheuser-Bursch which currently owns 50% of the company.

Ocean Pacific is another brand that got hijacked. This time the brand originated in the surfer market. Ocean Pacific, or Op for short, originated in the 1960s as a surfboard label. In 1972 the brand was extended into a line of clothing starting with surf trunks and walk shorts, and later with Hawaiian shirts. In 1977 Op started to sponsor the Association of Professional Surfers and its brand became not only synonymous with surf culture but also the clothing of professional surfers. In the 1980's with surf culture becoming mainstream, Op became a household name and was sought out by surfers, aspirational surfers, skaters, and snowboarders. Things went well for a while, but in its accelerated growth the brand managers lost the mystique of the brand when they started mainstreaming in distribution and selling through "uncool" places like Kmart. And while losing some of its mystique the market for surf clothes became populated with a plethora of competitive brands. As a result Op sales slumped for a decade. It wasn't until 1998 that a new management team revitalized the brand by reconstructing a promotional team of athletes, musicians and celebrities.

Going from Hijacked to a Smooth Landing
So, what have we learned? There are some simple rules when it comes to your brand being hijacked.

  • If your brand becomes an aspirational brand, let it be.
  • If your brand has concealed consumption, promote to the new segment.
  • If your brand has partitioned consumption, promote to the new segment.
  • If your brand has sustainable unpartitioned consumption, weight the benefits of supporting the new segment with impact on your original target segments. However, keep in mind that you do not totally control the brand. Unless you can enforce policies like the government did in Cancun, your potential for dissuading a new segment from desiring your brand could be as hard as keeping moths away from a bright light at night.

Remember if you decide to pursue the new market segment that you cannot force a round peg in a square hole. You will have to totally rethink your strategy, and quite possibly pursue new value propositions, distribution channels, communication and pricing strategies.

Greg Thomas is the Director of Research for the Zyman Institute of Brand Science (ZIBS). ZIBS is a collaborative organization based at Emory University's Goizueta Business School that leads the development of cutting-edge insights in branding for driving firm performance.

OP History, http://www.op.com/history/, Accessed 4, 18, 2005

Smith, Geri and Lauren Gard "Life's a Beach for Corona," BusinessWeek, Feb 7th, 2005

"A break from spring break," The Economist, March 10, 2005

Jette, Julie. "Selling Luxury to Everyone," http://hbswk.hbs.edu/pubitem.jhtml?id=4759&sid=-1&t=special_reports, Accessed April 18, 2005


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