Meaning Structure of Brand Names and Extensions

ABSTRACT - In this paper, meaning structure analysis is applied to brand names and the strategy of brand extension. Brand names form hierarchies in two respects. The first hierarchy is the brand with its endorser, subbrand and subtype. The second hierarchy is the means-end meaning structure. Successful brand extensions should be limited to the (three) levels of the meaning structure: attributes, benefits, and values for original brands that have built up a strong association schema on one or more of these levels.


W. Fred van Raaij and Wim M. Schoonderbeek (1993) ,"Meaning Structure of Brand Names and Extensions", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 479-484.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 479-484


W. Fred van Raaij, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Wim M. Schoonderbeek, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands


In this paper, meaning structure analysis is applied to brand names and the strategy of brand extension. Brand names form hierarchies in two respects. The first hierarchy is the brand with its endorser, subbrand and subtype. The second hierarchy is the means-end meaning structure. Successful brand extensions should be limited to the (three) levels of the meaning structure: attributes, benefits, and values for original brands that have built up a strong association schema on one or more of these levels.


A brand name serves various functions. It is often a trade mark of a producer, making himself known to consumers. It is a recognition sign for consumers looking for a specific product or brand. As the brand name becomes better known, it becomes a chunk of information and it stands for a certain quality level, for a certain performance and possibly for other characteristics. A brand develops a schema of associations for consumers.

A product is an consumption object as it leaves the factory. Marketing and advertising may make a brand out of a product. Based on usage experiences and advertising, brands become associated with meanings, with a schema, a network of associations. Traditional brands as Coca Cola have a rich and well developed schema. Many consumers associate Coca Cola with fun, happiness and social contacts. This brand ahs gained a position high in the means-end hierarchy. Brands get meanings and brands become means to an end. The choice of a brand has psychosocial and value consequences, e.g., expressive value.

In this chapter, brand names are categorized according to the meaning structure, as the names pertain to product attributes, consequences, values and lifestyle. This does not imply that a brand name based on a product attribute cannot obtain associated meanings at other levels. Obviously, the meaning structures of umbrella and endorsed brand names are closely connected with the producer.

Meaning structure analysis is also useful for the evaluation of brand extensions, marketing new products under an existing brand name. Brand extensions are more successful, if the original brand already has a positive schema and the extension fits in this schema. Brand extensions may be based on attributes, consequences and values. Extensions based on technical attributes are often successful, if the products have a large set of similar attributes. Extensions based on consequences may have dissimilar attributes, but are similar for one or more consequences or benefits, e.g., quality. Extensions based on values and lifestyle may be completely dissimilar in a technical sense, but similar in values and lifestyle for the target group and for usage situations.


2.1. Introduction

Corporate names and trade marks are not necessarily the brand names on the consumer market. Some companies, such as Philips, General Electric and Shell, use their company name on nearly all their products. These (umbrella) brands are widely extended. It facilitates the generalization of existing favorable evaluations. A consumer with a favorable experience with a Philips ironer may be more favorable toward a Philips personal computer. But the disadvantage is that unfavorable evaluations also spread over the other products under the same umbrella brand name.

Umbrella brand names, e.g., General Electric, Mitsubishi, and Philips, are used for thousands of products. The brand schema must thus be very general and refer to 'electrical appliances', 'electronics' or 'machinery'. These brand names have the risk to be seen as generalists over a broad range, and not as specialists on specific product categories. Consumers may see Miele as a specialist of washers, and perceive a Miele washing machine as superior to a General Electric or Philips washer. In a similar way, Dole is the specialist on tinned pineapple, whereas Del Monte is a brand for all types of tinned fruit and vegetables. Consumers may thus prefer Dole pineapple over Del Monte's. If Dole should also market Dole tinned corn, Dole would lose this consumer preference for Dole pineapple.

The alternative hypothesis is that the carry-over effect of the umbrella brand name becomes stronger as products converge. If washers get more electronic elements and 'computer-controlled' washing programs, Philips may be at an advantage as a company already strong in electronics.

The problem of being perceived as too general to be a specialist in certain product categories, can be solved by using separate brand names or subnames. Philips keeps the separate brands of Grundig and B&O, and employs subnames such as Philips Matchline for TV sets and Philishave for shavers. Subnaming may evoke more specific associations for the product category. These associations may come close to the associations connected with specialists. On the other hand, the umbrella name may create attractive carry-over effects.

Some companies give their products different brand names, but endorse these names with their company name: Courtyard by Marriott, Cup-a-Soup by Lipton or Fine Arts by Grundig. Evaluation generalization is less strongly with these endorsed brand names.

Other companies separate the brand names of their products completely. Procter and Gamble and Unilever are examples. Food products and detergents do not mix very well. The associations with detergents, such as the Unilever brands Ajax and All, do not fit with food brands such as Iglo and Lipton, two other Unilever brands. Note, however that the brand name Lipton is extended within a range of food products, from tea to soup.

2.2. Brand hierarchies

Brand names often form a hierarchy, such as Peugeot 205 Lacoste, Ford Scorpio Ghia 24V, Philips Matchline, and Johnnie Walker Black Label (Franzen, 1991). Peugeot as an automobile company names the products with numbers (205, 209, 305, etc.) and these types are sometimes subnamed with limited series names such as Accent, Lacoste, and Green. A Peugeot 205 Accent has some of the general associations of Peugeot, specific associations connected with the subbrand 205, and even more specific associations connected with Accent. In figure 1 examples are given of these hierarchies: 'Opel Corsa City tranporter' by General Motors, and Unilever's Elida Gibbs Vaseline Intensive Care Hand & Nail Formula lotion.

At the lowest level are labels or product descriptions. 'Transporter' and 'lotion' are not subbrands but labels with a product description, indicating the type of product. Magie Noire is a brand of LancGme, with the label 'eau de toilette.' A label is not a brand name but a product class, description or function indication. Brand names, however, may become labels or generic names. Asperin, a Bayer brand, became a label for pain reliever. The brand name Spa may become a generic name for mineral water, just as Kleenex, Scotch, and Xerox may become labels for facial tissues, transparant tape, and photo copies, respectively.




3.1. Meaning structure

Meaning structure analysis may provide a useful categorization to describe brand names. In meaning structure analysis, a means-end chain of attributes leading to consequences and consequences leading to values is assumed. Brand names may thus refer to product attributes, to product consequences or benefits, or to values and lifestyles associated with products. A modified meaning structure hierarchy derived from Vyncke (1991) is given in Figure 2.

A brand signal is the brand name, logo, typography (Coca Cola), package design (e.g., the square bottle of Bokma gin), or the unique color(s) of a brand package (e.g., the name Kodak in red type on the yellow box). The brand signal is needed for recognizing the brand in the store and with usage.

Good brand signals should be (Visser, 1988) easy to read (Omo versus Callissarronne), easy to recognize, easy to pronounce (Disney versus 2nd Debut), easy to remember (Ambizz versus P3143 S), easy and attractive to visualize (Camel and Shell versus Bull's Blood), easy to register in brand name registers (Levi's versus Radio), original (Kodak and Rolex versus Euro Light and Automatic), not easy to confuse, and easy to extend to other languages (Exxon versus Schwarzkopf).

Even nonsense words have their primary associations (Peterson and Ross, 1972). Whumies, Quax and Dics fit better for breakfast cereal than for laundry detergent. On the other hand, Dehax, Vade, Jaf and Vig fit better for detergents than for cereals. Words and word sounds seem to fit specific product categories.

Physical and psychosocial product attributes are distinguished. Physical attributes are the concrete, often technical attributes such as ingredients, characteristics, and price. Psychosocial attributes are more subjective, such as quality and design. These attributes give rise to functional and psychosocial consequences or benefits for the consumer. In this model it is assumed that two separate linkages lead to values: On the one hand the physical attributes and functional consequences, on the other hand the psychosocial attributes and consequences.

Psychosocial consequences are caused by both physical attributes and by psychosocial consequences or benefits. Not only a nice car (psychosocial attribute) but also a well performing car (functional consequence) may cause satisfaction and other psychosocial consequences. Gutman (1991) also states that interactions and recursive links may be present in the meaning structure.

Consumers may hold values and norms within consumption domains such as vacation, recreation, clothing, work, caring for children, household work, and education (Van Raaij and Verhallen, 1991). These values are related to instrumental and terminal values and lifestyle at a higher order.

3.2. Brand names in the meaning structure

Brand names may be descriptive with regard to the attributes, functions, and values of the product. This makes it easier for consumers to recognize the functions of the product. Zaichkowsky and Vipat (1992) found that, under conditions of low involvement, descriptive brand names are rated higher than nondescriptive brand names. A descriptive brand name faciliatates the low-involvement choice process. Under conditions of high involvement, descriptive brand names are not rated higher than nondescriptive names. Brand names may be descriptive with regard to all levels of the meaning structure.



Some brand names describe the physical attributes of products, e.g., Coca Cola, Milka, Nuts, NescafT, dBase, and Swatch. These brand names describe a basic technical characteristic of the product, e.g., ingredients such as cocaine, cola nuts, milk, nuts, coffee, or what the product actually is, e.g., a data base computer program or a watch made in Switserland.

Other brand names are related to psychosocial attributes, e.g., Aquafresh, Comforta, Crunchy, Dataflex, Fiat Tempra, and LStta (a light margarine).

Brand names are often derived from functional consequences, e.g., Becel (if consumers know the meaning 'blood cholesterol lowering'), Defend (by Colgate), Energence (hair conditioner), Finimal (pain reliever), Freedent (chewing gum), Kleenex, Kwik-Fit, Ray Ban, Wash & Go, and Word Perfect. This is understandable, because consumers buy products for their consequences or benefits. For instance, you buy a pain reliever to relieve pain, a shampoo for its convenience, sunglasses for eye protection, and a word processing program for getting perfectly printed texts.

Psychosocial consequences are very close to functional consequences and stress the convenience and comfort of using the product, e.g., Easy Rider, Joy, and Reliant.

Brand names may relate to domain-specific values, such as Personal Affair (fashion) and Range Rover (four-wheel drive car).

At a more general level brand names may refer to instrumental and terminal values, e.g., Freedom, Handsome, Passion, Proteq, Securicor, and Lux. Metaphors may be used to express the value. Lancia (spear) stands for speed. The computer program Lotus has buddhist associations of 'peace of mind' or speed associations with Lotus sports cars. Or it simply refers to the lotus flower with branches similar to the computer program (a physical metaphor that not very many users may know).

Related to values is lifestyle. Brand names such as AvantGarde, Elite, Fiesta, Miller High Life, Nomad (tents and rucksacks), Playboy and Yuppy refer to the (aspired) lifestyle of its target group.

3.3. Further development of brand names

Although brand names may find their origin at a specific level in the meaning structure hierarchy, they do not neccessarily stay there. The original meaning of the brand name Ray Ban is the protection of the eyes and is thus closely connected to the attribute of sunglasses. But over time its meaning structure developed to domain-specific and higher-order values. Transformational advertising of the brand is an important factor to move the brand up in the hierarchy (Wells, 1984). Ray Ban became associated with winter sports and an upper-class lifestyle. At a higher level in the meaning structure hierarchy, the brand name Ray Ban is now been used for skis and ski wear as well.

Many brand names do not have their origin in the meaning structure hierarchy. In the Middle Ages manufacturers tended to sign their work, often made on specification of the customer. Rembrandt van Rijn worked for several principals and signed his paintings. Cabinet and clock makers did the same and placed their initials on their products. During the Industrial Revolution, manufacturers placed their corporate name, and often their own name, on their products: Citrodn, Ford, Oldsmobile and Rolls Royce are examples.

Brands are often named after their founder, e.g. Giorgio Armani, Laura Ashley, Black & Decker, Hugo Boss, Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior, Alfred Dunhill, Malcolm Forbes, Ted Lapidus, Guy Laroche, EstTe Lauder, Michelin, Philips, Rolls Royce, Jil Sander, Yves Saint Laurent, and Vuitton. These brands obtained their meaning from the schema (association network) of their founder or assumed founder. These brands are often associated with attractive values and lifestyles.

Fancy brand names, e.g., Lexus (the brand name for luxury cars, endorsed by Toyota) have their own name as a starting point only. Associations have to be built up almost completely, except for primary associations and endorsement.

Brands low in the meaning structure hierarchy are still closely associated with product attributes and often have a functional image. The advertising is often informational (Wells, 1984). In the first stage of the product life cycle this may be needed to make the functional connections between the brand name and product category and product characteristics.

Brands high in the meaning structure hierarchy are associated with values and lifestyles and possess expressive values. This is often the case in the mature stage of the product and brand life cycle. The advertising is often transformational. See Wells (1984) and Rossiter and Percy (1987) for an explanation of these different approaches to advertising.




4.1. Introduction

Product planners have several options when introducing new products and new brands. They may introduce a new product under an existing brand name, or develop and communicate a new brand name. The options are given in table 1.

Line extensions are product modifications, such as new flavors or colors, under the same brand name. Flanker brands are technically similar products under a new brand name, e.g., a lower quality product, to appeal to specific market segments or to protect the core brand. A brand or franchise extension is the complete reverse of the flanker brand. It is the existing brand name for a new product.

Brand extension is the technique of marketing new products under existing brand names. It has the advantage that the name is already known to consumers and that the new product takes the network of associations of the existing (core) product. This leverage or carry-over effect lowers the cost of new product introduction, creates efficiencies in advertising, and helps to gain shelf position in stores (Tauber, 1988). The core product is the existing product with the brand name. The new product is the extension with the same brand name. The relationship between the core product and the extended product may be based on technical attributes, benefits, values and lifestyle.

4.2. Type of extensions

4.2.1. Extension based on technical attributes

Products may be technically related, based on physical attributes. Tefal pans have the technical characteristic of not burning the food while cooking. Tefal ironers have the 'same' characteristic while ironing. A Tefal ladyshave would not obtain favorable associations. The core of these extensions is technical.

Line extensions are also based on technical similarity: Coca Cola Light and Cherry Coke are extensions of 'normal' Coke. Light and alcohol-free beers are extensions of 'normal' beers. Liquid Tide is an extension of 'normal' Tide. New colors, flavors, sizes, and applications are line extensions of existing products. A Honda lawn mower or tractor is an extension of Honda automobiles. The consumer may wonder whether the lawn mower and tractor also have 16-valve engines.

Products in line extensions are technically congruent, i.e., similar on many attributes. They belong to the same product category or a subclass. Light soft drinks may be seen as a subclass or subtype of 'normal' soft drinks (Sujan and Bettman, 1989). Thus, line extensions are restricted to the product class or subclass.

4.2.2. Extension based on consequences and benefits

The extension may be based on product consequences or benefits, if a brand offers clear and distinguishing benefits. The core of these extensions are the benefits. Unilever markets a series of products (margarine, cheese and meat) under the brand name Linera. These diet products have in common that they are low-calorie and 'healthy'. Nestle has a similar line of diet products in the U.K. under the brand name Lean Cuisine (by Findus by Nestle). Sunkist Vitamin C has the same benefits as Sunkist oranges. Cosmetics brands such as Nivea, Neutragena, or Chanel No 5, have extensions all based on mildness, skin care or fragrance.

4.2.3. Extensions based on values and lifestyle

Well-known brand names with a good reputation may extend to new products based on their associated values and lifestyle. The precondition is that the brand is already associated with a clear set of values. The core of these extensions is the set of values and the lifestyle of the target group. These brand names have often a connotation of high class, sports or luxury. Dunhill, Ralph Lauren, Cartier, Ray Ban, Swatch, and Lacoste are examples. The new products may be technically different from the core product. Dunhill started with cigarettes, and extended to accessories and juwelry. Lacoste started with tennis rackets and extended to shirts, eaux de toilette, and even cars. Swatch stands for Swiss watches, and will extend to juwelry and even cars.

Private labels of stores are another type of brand extensions. These extensions are not based on technical similarity, neither on consequences or values. In fact, the core is the positioning and image of the store, guaranteeing a certain price/quality position. These brands are only available in stores of a certain chain. A 'European' private label, such as O'Lacy's, available in stores of different chains, is thus neither serving its own image nor the store's image.

Brand extensions based on values and lifestyle may be preventive or pre-emptive as well. Marlboro developed a clothing collection. Peter Stuyvesant Travel is an extension of Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes. These extensions are based on values and lifestyle and may enrich the associations of the core product. These extensions may also keep the brand name in the evoked set of consumers, in case there will be a ban on tobacco advertising.

4.3. How far can the brand be stretched?

Brand extensions have the benefit that the introduction costs of a new product are lower if introduced as a brand extension than as a completely new brand. But how far should we extend the brand? For a long time, Mars was only associated with a specific candy bar. Now there are Mars Almond, Mars Hazelnut, and even Mars Ice Cream. Does this fit the original associations of the core product Mars?

The positioning of the original core brand can be altered by the strategy of brand extension. The introduction of Johnnie Walker Black Label is a quality-up extension of Johnnie Walker Red Label. The Packard Clipper was a quality-down extension of the traditional Packard in the thirties. Volkswagen started as a small car ('beetle'), but introduced larger cars under the same brand name. The Cadillac Cimarron is an example of the reverse: a small Cadillac (with negative consequences for the original brand).

The association network (schema) of the core product indicates, how far one could stretch the brand. If the schema of the core product is low in the hierarchy, i.e., only associated with technical and functional product attributes, one should not go beyond line extensions. Brands develop over time. The typical history of a brand is that it starts narrowly with a complete overlap with the product. The brand Tabasco is only Tabasco sauce. Then, line extensions of flavor and color variants may be developed. The brand becomes broader and obtains connotations of quality and other psychosocial attributes and benefits. Then, the brand may transcend the physical reality and become associated with values (Kapferer, 1991). This provides the richest opportunities for brand extensions. However, not all brands develop according these lines. Some are purposefully positioned at the functional or psychosocial level.

In the narrow stage, new products should be congruent to the core product and only differ on one or more attributes, e.g., flavor or color (Classic Coke, New Coke and Cherry Coke). These products are often substitutes. The Coca Cola schema restricts the soft drink extensions to those with a cola flavor. The cola flavor is an important attribute in the cola schema. It is unlikely that Coca Cola lemon-lime, Coke tonic or Coke beer will be accepted. Anyway, these extensions might harm or dilute the core values of the original product. But Coca Cola candy bars (with a cola flavor) could be acceptable. Because of the restriction of brand extensions to cola flavor, new brand names should be developed for soft drinks with other flavors, such as Fanta or Sprite.

However, the Coca Cola schema became broader and contains after decennia of advertising a lot of fun and leisure associations at the value level of the meaning structure. This makes it possible to use the brand name and logo for towels, bathing suits, and bags. In the technical sense, these products are completely unrelated to the core product. Boush and Loken (1991) explain this with a U-shaped curve. The best candidates for extension are either products that are technically similar to the original product or products that are completely dissimilar.

Based on meaning structure analysis it may be argued that extensions can be made at all three levels. The extensions of the Coca Cola brand name at the attribute level are line extensions to technically related soft drinks (with a cola flavor). At the consequence level, products with a stimulating cola flavor, e.g., a Coca Cola candy bar, could be designed. At the value level, completely different products with the same lifestyle and value connotations may be marketed with the Coca Cola brand name. Extensions without similar attributes, consequences or values, such as drinks without a cola flavor (Coca Cola tonic water), food (Coca Cola hamburgers), and Coca Cola fax machines seem to be unacceptable. The U-shaped curve hypothesis only explains that technically very similar and very dissimilar products can be marketed as brand extensions.

If the schema of the core product is high in the hierarchy, i.e., associated with values and lifestyle, one could extend further, to completely dissimilar products. The new products should, however, fit in the schema of the core product and appeal to the same values and lifestyle of the target group. Cross-selling is possible, because these products are often complementary for the same lifestyle: Porsche and Bugatti sports cars extended to Porsche sunglasses and Bugatti overcoats.

Endorsed brands are a special case. A new name is developed with a specific schema, and the name of the producer is added: Courtyard by Marriott, Cup-a-Soup by Lipton, or Pickwick Tea by Douwe Egberts. The producer is judged by its expertise and trustworthiness as source characteristics (Sternthal and Craig, 1982). Is Lipton more than an expert on tea and to be trusted with soup? Is Aunt Jemima an expert on maple syrup as well? The schema of the endorsing producer is crucial in this case. Betty Crocker bicycles are unlikely to be a success, because Betty Crocker is not perceived as an expert on bicycles.


Means-end chains provide a very useful and insightful contribution to brand strategy and brand extension decisions. The schemata of the original brand may be at three levels: attributes, benefits, and values. If the original brand has gained a strong position at one or more of these three levels, this is a sound basis for brand extension. Brand extensions should not be made across levels or without a strong position on the level involved.

A brand name cannot be stretched beyond the limits of the original schema. However, a gradual repositioning of the brand is possible through a gradual process of introducing brand extensions. One should be careful not to harm or to dilute the original brand schema.

There is a danger to develop a brand schema that is too far away from the original brand characteristics. While Benetton becomes associated with the value of interracial harmony, another brand of popular clothing might emphasize the practical benefits of comfort and fitting. While Pepsi Cola is associated with (post)modernity of the new generation, another brand of soft drinks might stress the benefit of thirst quencing. Brands should avoid to become only associated with values that are too far away from the original product benefits.

The option of brand extension forces producers to think about the market they are in or should be in. Railroads are in the market of transportation rather than trains and should emphasize the benefits of on-time delivery, dependability, and comfort. Bic ballpoint pens defines the market as 'disposables' rather than 'writing' and may introduce all types of disposable goods under the brand name Bic. This market definition determines the attributes, benefits, and values that should be emphasized and the brand extensions that are feasible.


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W. Fred van Raaij, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Wim M. Schoonderbeek, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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