Inside Business: We don't care who you are

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The Independent Online
THIS weekend, Hasbro has been unveiling its new worldwide image to visitors at the International Toy Fair in London's Olympia.

Presumably Hasbro's management thought it was sitting on some under- utilised asset in the name, because it has decided to put its corporate brand - "a smile with universal appeal and reflecting the company's core values of fun" - on all its products in all its markets.

"It is a major change in the way the company presents itself to stakeholder audiences," gush PR advisers to this huge US-based corporation, "and marks its transition from a traditional toy and game company to an all-encompassing entertainment/leisure provider."

That sounds enough to make any parent reach for their Tomb Raider or Game Boy. More important, it would appear to be a fundamental misunderstanding of marketing. Though a higher-profile company name may help in recruiting staff, it must be open to question whether it will provoke any substantial increase in sales.

In all but a few circumstances, people do not make their buying decisions on the basis that a product or service comes from a huge corporation; something makes them want to buy a particular thing.

So, in the case of Hasbro, many people will buy Monopoly oblivious of the fact that it is owned by the makers of Action Man, Mr Potato Head and the rest. In fact, if pressed to name Monopoly's makers, most would opt for Waddington, which was acquired by Hasbro some years ago. In other words, the brand in question is Monopoly, not Hasbro.

Of course, Hasbro is not the only organisation falling for this line. The financial services industry is rife with examples. The most obvious is HSBC, which has set about ridding Britain's high streets of the Midland Bank name in the cause of promoting itself as an international financial services powerhouse.

But this is simplistic stuff. Not only is such a move unlikely to make Midland customers feel any more secure than they did before, it is debatable whether the other great aim of such exercises - knock-on sales - will be achieved.

The management guru Gary Hamel has proclaimed cross-selling one of the great myths of business. And it is difficult to argue with him. After all, how many of us are really so lazy that we feel that we have to do all our banking, pension planning, home-loan borrowing and all the rest with the same organisation?

But there is another, more subtle, reason why these corporate branding exercises are a bad idea. In a world in which big corporations seem intent on getting bigger, consumers do not want to be reminded of their lack of choice. Keeping old brand names in big letters, and holding company names in the background, is a way of giving all but the sophisticated a sense that there is a lot more competition out there than is really the case.

Nobody knows this better than Unilever. Few companies so dominate the shelves of the typical supermarket. But you would be hard pressed to discover this just from perusing those shelves. In the cold cabinet, for example, there are any number of margarine brands; it is not readily apparent that many of them are ultimately owned by Unilever.

And in that case, the parent company's reward is to be a hugely successful operation that provides the support and the glue holding all these well- known brands together. It has not made the mistake of thinking it is the brand.