The Dangers of Brand Dilution

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The Dangers of Brand Dilution

One of my favorite definitions of brand is by artist and comedian Ze Frank, who defines brand as:

An emotional aftertaste from a set of experiences.

Brand is identity, true, but it’s also how that identity feels, how it resonates with us. When we think about our favorite brands, we don’t consider those brands dispassionately. We don’t see brands as merely a collection of data points. Our reactions to brands are emotional – how the brands make us feel. Brand is emotion because emotion is what triggers recognition.

If brand is an emotional aftertaste, then brand dilution is when we spread that taste too thin, like too little butter on toast. We can spread a brand too thin by using it everywhere for everything, or by applying it to things that don’t live up to their promise.

For example, one of the worst cases of brand dilution I can think of is Wolfgang Puck. The famous TV chef licenses his name to just about everything food-related, even food that’s terrible quality. Here’s an example of his brand at an airport food kiosk which serves terrible food:

Social Fresh Tampa

If you put the famous chef in front of the case bearing his name, what are the chances he’d say that the recipes were his own and were being displayed in the way he wants to be known? Probably zero.

What are the chances, if you were able to invite him to your kitchen, that he’d cook exactly what’s in the case if asked to produce that dish? Also probably zero.

What are the chances that, if you put his name-branded food on a plate in front of him, unlabeled, he’d think it were anything other than mediocre? Still probably zero.

Yet, he permits his brand – and a personal brand at that – to be used for things which are clearly out of alignment with what his brand stands for.

What happens when a brand dilutes itself? Our brand anchors, the memories that create the emotional aftertaste, change. They shift. They become anchored to the majority of the experiences we have with the brand, a new aftertaste. My anchor to Puck’s brand has shifted over the years. When I see Wolfgang Puck’s name on a product, the feeling it conjures up isn’t the sensual power of food his publicist is probably hoping for. It instead summons up crappy quality goods at very high prices, like the airport sandwich bar or crappy hotel room coffee, laughably billed as “Wolfgang Puck’s Chef’s Reserve”.

What does your brand stand for?

What emotions do you want associated with your brand?

Be very careful who you lend your brand to, who may use your name. If the product or service doesn’t fulfill your promise, your brand will suffer until the only emotional aftertaste left is bitterness.

Be doubly careful with your personal brand! It’s relatively easy to switch companies. Ruining your personal brand is just as easy and takes far longer and far more work to repair.

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9 responses to “The Dangers of Brand Dilution”

  1. Excellent article on brand dilution..

  2. That looks like the Tampa airport. = )

    How would you describe the TEDx events in relation to brand dilution?

    1. I’d argue that TEDx events aren’t diluting the TED brand. First, there’s no misconceptions that TEDx events aren’t the real TED. Though I’m sure nobody thinks they’re dining on Wolfgang Puck originals when they buy a bottle of water from that to-go case. However, the issue with the to-go case is that there’s nothing uniquely Wolfgang Puck about it. Those items could be bought anywhere. It’s confusing as to what the connection between WP and the products in the case are.

      When you go to a TEDx event (disclosure: I haven’t been) the content, look and feel are very much related to and the content is similar (though not the same) as the original TED event. It’s a way to spread the value of the brand in a way that’s not possible with the original TED (it’s valuable because it’s rare). Also, TED has reps that work with TEDx hosts to ensure the event runs smoothly and is on-brand. I don’t think there’s a Wolfgang Puck apprentice chef working with this to-go case.

      Just my two cents.


      1. Great answer Jon. Since I brought up events. Let’s throw another model in the discussion. WordCamp. WordCamp has one large impressive event in SanFran and then user generated versions all over the country, with limited support and guidance.

    2. On TED, I think there is some brand dilution, to be sure, because outside of the fishbowl, the average person (assuming they even know what TED is) isn’t likely to differentiate between TED and TEDx. They are definitely two different brands under one umbrella, but there is definitely potential for confusion. That said, if TEDx continues to do a good job of finding people that are excellent idea sources, that brand may continue to grow in strength as well.

  3. I’m so glad you called out Mr. Puck. I think I throw up a little bit every time I see his name on something. “Wolfgang Puck” means absolutely nothing anymore. More like “Wolfgang Schmuck” now.

    Anyway, this is where most brands seem to go. They start down the road of brand extensions, but extend it way too far.


  4. Excellent article, as always. Let me throw this out there. What about a series of commercials or blog posts that are inconsistent with the brand. I think of law firms in particular where they have gone overboard cheesy and the brand is completely diluted to the point where admitting that they were your counsel would be embarrassing and also about Doritos with their superbowl challenge with the public making the commercials. Of course they were viewed by execs and have performed well but what if they did not? Would this be diluting the brand in such a way that revenues would suffer. Or is this something entirely different?

    When a blogger starts to stray from their normal tone, style, etc is their brand being diluted to their current audience (of course this tone, style, etc would have to be consistent off the blog as well) or can they remain as they are generating a new audience?

    I am not sure on this but I do know that a brand is in jeopardy of dilution like Wolfgang Puck as at one time it was the elite restaurant. It now is meh as there is nothing so special about it anymore. Emeril started facing this as well but not as much as Wolfgang Puck. The demand for the better airport food is there however slapping a big name does not equate to better food. At the airport a sub is a sub; possibly packaged differently but it still tastes the same if it had CS Penn as the brand or Wolfgang Puck.

    1. I think I’d market airport food under a brand called Injurious Failure, in which I try to make it as bad as possible while staying within health regulations. By setting the bar so low, I’d hope that my competing brand next door, Moderately Successful, would be perceived as stellar by comparison.

  5. […] Penn of the Marketing Over Coffee podcast uses Wolfgang Puck as an example of brand dilution, but this can be applied to more of the food entertainment celebrities. Rachel Ray, Jamie Oliver, […]

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