Outflanked: Product Extensions or Extended Confusion?

Outflanked: Product Extensions

As you stroll the grocery aisles in search of brands you are loyal to, you may find it ever more difficult to find that product on the shelf. Instead, you’ll find upwards of a dozen variants of the product. These variations on a theme are called product extensions, or in consumer packaged goods (CPG) lingo, “flankers.”

“Flankers” are product extensions that accrue shelf space around the original product. Today, you’ll find flankers in nearly every CPG category. Where once you could walk into the laundry detergent aisle and just grab a bottle of Tide, now you have to stop and spend a few minutes checking the labels and package designs. Is it “original” Tide, or one of those scented varieties? Is it for a top-load or an HE (high efficiency) front load washer? What does PurClean offer that regular Tide doesn’t? Do you want Pods or liquid? Wait, why is there now Tide in a yellow bottle…?

It’s worse in other categories, where generic or store brands are gaining shelf space and crowding out even big brands like General Mills. Try to buy a box of plain old Cheerios sometime. Or a box of crackers… or shampoo, pain medications, juice, even yogurt! Seriously, there are so many flanker products today, it takes twice as long to do a quick grocery run as it did ten years ago.

This is surprising, given research showing that too much choice confuses consumers, and makes the decision to buy more difficult.

Why Are There So Many Flankers?

As shopping habits change, consumer packaged goods brands are struggling to maintain market dominance, or even relevance. Where brand extensions were once a reliable way to stay on top of a category, now they add to the confusion, and may even be pushing more consumers to online shopping. Shoppers can enter the specific keywords into an online search window and almost immediately find exactly what they want… plus, free shipping! That is Amazon’s success model in a nutshell. CPG brands are developing more and more flanker products to compete, doubling down on an existing tactic that may no longer fit modern shoppers.

Some flanker brands are created in response to a competitor bringing to market a product idea the dominant brand overlooked. Other flankers are desperate attempts to stay on top of increasingly competitive categories. Still others are sneaky ways to prevent customers from figuring out which package is the best buy (see the ridiculous number of different ways paper towels are packaged).

Storming the Castle or Building a Moat?

Some brands that enjoy premium pricing and brand loyalty will introduce flanker brands to disrupt lower-priced competition. This is how Cheer laundry detergent came into being. Tide introduced the lower-priced Cheer brand to attract a cost-conscious market segment. Tide lost some customers, but the new sales gained from Cheer more than made up for that loss. And if a better low-price competitor gains ground on Cheer, Tide will enjoy protection; Cheer serves as a brand moat against assaults on Tide’s market position. 

Even challenger brands can use flankers to make inroads in a dominant brand’s market share, by offering value and new positioning that the brand leader has yet to offer.

As you work with consumer packaged good clients, discussion of product extensions is inevitable. Make sure the client has a clear strategy in mind, and isn’t simply depleting the dominance of its primary products. If you recommend a flanker product, make sure your recommendation is based on good research, and is formulated to recover market share from a challenger brand, or protect the client’s major products. 

Remember that customers may find too many flankers confusing. Do customer research to see if a product variation will be well received, or instead create new issues. Ask customers what they would like to see in a product extension. It is possible that the primary brand just needs a tweak in positioning, and new marketing, and flankers aren’t needed at all. Be a strategic and insightful guide to help clients steer a careful path between too few products and too many. You don’t want your clients to out-flank themselves.


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