The English language is an amazing thing. It is always evolving. Even marketing terms take on new meaning over time. Some 30 years ago I often would get in to discussions with friends and colleagues about “Flanker” products. At that time, a flanker generally referred to a brand that was perhaps number three in its category. In order to stand out and prosper, it usually had to move in to an uncontested area. The element of surprise was important so often very little test marketing was done. Examples used by many but often attributed to the talented Trout & Ries of Atlanta were National Rent A Car, Heineken, and Wendy’s. National could not take Hertz and Avis head on, so they staked their claim to being the low cost provider in car rentals. Heineken let Budweiser and Schlitz duke it out in round one of the beer wars and became the number one imported beer in the U.S. appealing to a select audience and hitting them with lots of marketing support. Wendy’s let McDonald’s and Burger King go after the kids and they focused on an adult message.
As the years have passed, you do not hear the term “flanker” used in that context. Nowadays, the definition of a flanker in marketing and advertising texts and glossaries is “a new product introduced by a company in addition to its existing brand in a particular market category.” To me that is what we always called a line extension or brand extension.
My belief is that we are going to see a lot more flanker products or line extensions in our future. The main reason up to now is that it allows a major player to protect itself against small upstarts and changing consumer tastes. So Coca-Cola brings out Vanilla Coke and Cherry Coke and then caffeine free Cherry Coke. Such entries probably do not hurt the flagship Classic Coke very much but they do build up their own small base of aficionados, get instant trial and acceptance with the Coke name on the product, and they beat back smaller players trying to get a foothold in the category.
Another reason for the likely growth of flankers is media. As media fragmentation continues to grow, the cost of entry in to the world of brands gets higher and higher for a fledgling producer. A major package goods player can get the distribution easily and piggyback on its high existing awareness and strong advertising campaigns. If all else fails, they can buy out a small player who seems to be making inroads. This is happening all over the developing world and makes sense for global brands.
One recurring theme in media realism over the last couple of years has been that big players will get bigger and it will be increasingly hard for someone with a great idea and a great product to break through the consumer consciousness and succeed. As savvy global players keep grinding out new flanker products and trading on their enormous goodwill and name recognition plus their muscular advertising and promotion budgets, this trend should only accelerate.
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