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Helicopter Branding: Why It’s Bad And How To Avoid It

Just because a brand may feel like your baby, doesn’t mean you should become an overbearing parent. Here’s how to let go of the reins, for long-term benefit.

A famous piece of wisdom from child-rearing expert Dr. Benjamin Spock is making the rounds again: "Better to relax and make a few mistakes than to try too hard to be perfect … Children are driven from within themselves to grow, explore, experience, learn, and build relationships with other people. A lot of good parenting lies in simply allowing your child to go with these powerful drives."

It’s refreshing to see the parental pendulum swinging to the point where mistakes are now considered a key aspect of growth. Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long for this trend to trickle into the world of brand innovation. Unfortunately, it seems that "helicopter branding" still continues to thrive in corporate America, as companies hover protectively over their successful brands, sometimes stifling growth in the process.

Like helicopter parenting, helicopter branding actually comes from a positive space: The deep love for—and, therefore, drive to protect—a successful brand. Counterintuitive to any "brand parent" is a willingness to set their "brand child" up for potential innovation failure. Often we hear that it’s an overall low appetite for risk that’s to blame. But a brand’s crash can also stem from its company’s inability to give that brand the freedom to grow.

Here are four Dr. Spock-esque ways to loosen the parenting reigns to raise healthy, growing brands and foster innovation:

1. Remember that every child brand is driven to explore boundaries

Manufacturers who deliver one specific offering might not realize that there are plenty of in-between ways to stretch the brand and push the boundaries of that core product or service. Developing adjacent product ideas that align with brand and business models can breed creativity within existing capability and unlock ideas that not only are doable but also change the game for a brand.

Look at Tide, for example. Expanding from laundry clean to fabric care through form and function innovation, the company stretched its one key offering—detergent—into several things: pods, sprays, stain sticks, and more. In doing so, Tide changed consumer perceptions of their own idea of what doing laundry means.

2. Let your child brand negotiate the landscape

Allow a toddler innovation to find its own road, while sticking around for course correcting. Sometimes brands surprise us by slipping into our behavior unannounced—and sometimes the brands surprise themselves (who knew we’d be running our homes with iPads?). Sometimes a parent notices an opportunity and gives the brand a little push in the right direction.

We can see this through the lens of Instagram. The photosharing sensation started out as a Foursquare-esque app called Burbn, until the business noticed that the photosharing capability was getting all the action. So the brand insta-evolved into what it is today, and hasn’t looked back since (certainly not after it was purchased by Facebook for a cool $1 billion).

3. Nurture your child brand through all developmental stages

Parental guidance is invaluable as innovation passes through subsequent growth stages. Needs may change depending on the stage, but continuing to nurture breakthroughs through transitions, post-commercialization, is part of the process. Don’t let poor marketing strategy and execution errors or distribution challenges curtail development. Test, analyze, guide, and re-tack in real time.

That’s what happened with Dr. Scholl’s, which launched its Custom Fit Orthotic products in retail kiosks equipped with diagnostic foot-mapping technology that can "see" through stockinged feet. Unfortunately, in test markets, a merchandising flaw came to light: When people took off their shoes, there was nothing to stabilize them in the kiosk space. Dr. Scholl’s went back and overhauled the units to rectify the problem and make the kiosks more consumer-friendly. The company also raised the pricing by 30%, to reflect the premium nature of its offering, without losing volume—a literal return on nurturing investment.

4. Allow your child brand to skip math finance class occasionally

Know what the innovation goals are for your brand, apart from profit targets, and calibrate financial expectations against important metrics that will affect brand growth over the long haul. Maybe it’s a door-opener in a new category, maybe it’s sexy flypaper in a merchandising brand block, maybe it’s a way to slowly take over the universe. Whatever the tactic, it may very well lead to big money down the road, if not in the immediate future.

Red Bull has been back on people’s lips again, thanks to its Red Bull Media House. This business model departure into content has a finger on the pulse of sports and culture. Red Bull Stratos dropped a guy from outer space and became the most buzzed-about brand in the social-networking stratosphere. Is Media House turning a profit? Not yet. But is it garnering attention for the brand? Absolutely.

Sure, these are the success stories, but we’ve all seen how helicopter parenting can get in the way of growth. The fear associated with loss of control keeps some brand folks up at night (much like a newborn would keep up first-time parents) and makes them hesitant to do anything at all. Unfortunately, this can lead to the creation of disastrous offspring. Whether supporting ideas for growth or supporting mistakes, letting go of the reins a little—and supporting the brand-child as it naturally evolves—is essential for long-term success.

[Image: Helicopter via Shutterstock]

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  • Pete Iorns

    Nicely written but I think the premise is bogus. The article tries to state that helicopter branding is intrinsically bad. Bad helicopter branding is bad, but a good brand is a good brand no matter what, and can more often suffer with loss of control. Eg #4: Red bull media house is a self funded advertising co for Red Bull (self as in Red Bull funded). It is not a departure from a focus on finance. In fact the opposite. Their goal is to sell more Red-Bull and this is simply lateral thinking applied to advertising. It's totally consistent with the way the RedBull brand has always acted, not a departure. You could say they were actually Helicopter Brand specialists, and extending the control over the facets of it's business. It works because their brand is extremely well conceived, controlled and expressed.

  • Martin Sjöman

    Interesting article. In my research into life-style product brands, the design manager at a fast-growing Swedish company told me a similar story:
    "You make all those fine plans for your brand (child), and it's future success, but one day the brand must move out and create a life of it's own. The brand needs to keep growing, developing and get filled with live content. You create products, people will take to them, and what the brand stands for will change. There are all these strategy documents, but each product must keep growing from there.”

    Products are important carriers of brands, and how people take to them is hard to forsee. They may bring your brand to unexpected places, and this is the time to lean back a bit.
    A well known swedish outdoor sports brand once found out that their polar jackets had become popular life-style items in American hip hop street culture. Management reacted fast and commissioned a new series of street style polar jackets, which flopped miserably ;-)

  • Peterljoseph

    I read this article expecting it to address a problem I run into a more and more lately: small no-profits who feel the need to brand. Although it didn't directly, the same principal applies: the structure of a brand often gets in the way of the flexibility that these organizations rely on to come up with creative solutions to problems they encounter. Working with a branding consultant may make them feel like "grown ups," but they don't realize that strict adherence to the branding guidelines which will never be intuitive, which often look like generic corporate brands, and which they will never have the resources of a larger organization to disseminate, cause the "brand" to become more a liability than a asset.

  • MTee78

    they mean like "helicopter parents"--  hovering and suffocating and being a general Pain in the a.....

  • Corianton

    Searching for an actual definition of "Helicoper Branding." The article assumes we are down with the lingo. Please help?

  • Tomas Hrivnak

    Christina, I couldn't disagree more. Brands are not human beings. They are signs. I got your point but I think the metaphor with child upbringing is extremely unfortunate.

  • Edwin Rooseman

    Thanks! As a brand designer I read this article at the exact moment that I have these issues with my grow up daughter... nice tips. Although Dr. Spock has had some critics as well ;-)