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.

Developing adjacent product ideas can breed creativity.

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.

Know what the innovation goals are for your brand, apart from profit targets.

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.

WRITTEN BY:  Christina Papale