The other day I was sent a press release about a new kitchen. It was unremarkable except for the name associated with it: Lamborghini. I found it difficult to suppress a giggle; I would have thought Lamborghini owners were too busy affecting noisy gear changes in tangerine-colored sports cars to be interested in brewing coffee.
Sadly, when I looked into it a bit further I found that the coffeemaker had nothing to do with the carmaker, or at least not in the way you might think. Tonino Lamborghini is the son of the eponymous tractor-maker turned car builder, and it is he who sells such non-automotive products as coffee and umbrellas. It is the Audi-owned Automobili Lamborghini—which is no longer affiliated with the family that founded it—that makes the snarling supercars, the vehicle of choice for those who find a Ferrari, well, just a bit too discreet. Nevertheless, it prompted me to think about how much brand extension a name can stand before it loses its elasticity.
I have driven various Lamborghinis over the years and they are thrilling cars. I love the idea of Tonino's father, the truculent tractor-maker Ferruccio, complaining to Enzo Ferrari that his gearboxes could be improved. "You stick to the tractors and let me worry about the sports cars," was the gist of Ferrari's reply. So Lamborghini came out with his own automotive marque. A few years later he designed the Miura, a revolutionary vehicle that looks as exciting, audacious and desirable today as it did in the late 1960s. Although he might not have realized it, with that product Lamborghini had created a brand.
There is a misconception that once one develops a brand, it is enough to make—or stick the brand's name on—any old object. Not so. It helps to have a product that also conforms to the 25-meter rule: the idea that consumers can tell what it is long before they get close enough to read the name. Rolex is a great example of this rule; the world is full of watches, but only Rolex makes the Oyster, a product so strongly recognizable that it has enabled the brand to flourish for a century.
However, my favorite 25-meter product is one that's not only seen, but heard. The Dupont lighter makes a distinctive "ping" sound when opened. Indeed, I was lucky enough to be in Davidoff of London once when I saw a man who was purchasing a Dupont on behalf of his employer get his boss on the phone and open a range of lighters near the handset so that a proper decision could be reached.
In the old days, it used to be that entrepreneurial artisans were happy to make things that might eventually become signature products. Take Louis Cartier's tank watch. Though it is about 90 years old, it is instantly identifiable and exemplifies another rule of the brand-defining product: it looks as good now as it did when it was first made, and is even more desirable. I hate the term "brand DNA," but I can tolerate it when applied to products like this, which really do seem to have a genetic code that renders them extinction proof.
However, like it or not, ours is a world in which brands are leveraged and extended. Indeed, we live in the age of the branding bonanza. Ferrari has made arrangements allowing its prancing horse to be slapped on such products as computers and cameras. But brand extension is not always a bad thing; I have a pair of 1970s-era Ferrari-signed sunglasses, which I know I shouldn't like—but I do. As I see it, Ferrari is strong enough to support almost any amount of brand extension, provided it continues to make fast, desirable and expensive cars.
Brand extension is also permissible if it comes from the right emotional and artistic place, which is why I applaud Cavalli wine and vodka. Roberto Cavalli brings a sense of fun to all things, and the Italian fashion wizard understands his brand: he is a good-time guy who makes good-time products. To be sure, a certain amount of licensing helps protect a brand and increase awareness; but it is a delicate balancing act, weighing respect for your core customer against the advantages of diversification. And, in this, it helps to display a certain amount of wit.
Automobili Lamborghini may not make the kitchen I was so excited to learn about, but it does have a hefty catalog of fashion items and accessories. Some of them (T shirts, key chains, wallets) seem harmless, while others (like the beach towel) are a bit much. However, the company is saved from the risk of crass brand overextension by the self-deprecating wit of the way in which the company presents its products. When I checked out the section of branded goods on the Web site, the first thing I saw was a Lamborghini sick-bag. Here it is: a paper bag that at once punctures pretension (intellectualizing is the last thing on your mind if you are using this product) and is also right "on brand." The subliminal message I came away with was that if you went any faster, you would be airborne.