Does Your Brand Portfolio Suffer From the “Ship of Theseus” Problem?

Does Your Brand Portfolio Suffer From the “Ship of Theseus” Problem?

The Ship of Theseus Problem was first raised by Plutarch and discussed by philosophers throughout the ages.  The question refers to the preservation of the fabled Ship of Theseus in Athens.  As the story goes, once Theseus slayed the Minotaur and returned to Athens, his ship was forever immortalized as a monument.  Being a ship, and therefore made of wood, the Ship of Theseus eventually began to decay.  As the boards decayed they were replaced with new ones by the Athenians.  This led to the question, “Is it still the same ship if all of the boards have been replaced?”  Given the demand of “SKU’s for News” and the churning career progression of CPG marketers, this could also be a pertinent question for your brand portfolio.

If You Constantly Change the Products in Your Brand Portfolio, is it Still the Same Brand?

As we have discussed in a previous article, it is hard to get incremental distribution.  If your brand has a prolific R&D team, this can be especially problematic.  Every item that gets added to your brand portfolio needs to live somewhere on the shelf.  This is easy for R&D and marketing to forget since they are not as close to the shelf as Category Managers.

It is also easy for the sales managers to forget how finite shelf-space is.  Sales teams love “SKUs for News.”  It gives them something to talk to retailers about.  New innovation often brings with it the promise of growth, and sales managers need a healthy pipeline of growth-driving ideas.  Unfortunately, those new innovations must go somewhere.  Whether self-driven or handed-down to the sales team, requests to get all new innovation on the shelf often come at the price of the legacy brand portfolio.

If your business falls into a cycle of launching “SKU’s for news,” how long will it take before you’ve swapped out most of your legacy products?  If you do, is your brand still the same?  How long will it take before all of the facings are replaced like the boards on the ship of Theseus?

If You Constantly Change the Copy Messages for Your Brand Portfolio, is it Still the Same Brand?

There is a running joke in the CPG industry about marketing.  It goes, “Every time a Marketing Director changes, it means the brand will launch a new ad campaign.”  OK.  It’s not that funny.  Unfortunately, it is mostly true.  Gone are the days where Mr. Whipple appeared in 500 commercials between 1964 and 1985.  As marketing leadership churns, so does a brand’s message.  In light of the Ship of Theseus problem, we have to ask ourselves, “Is this good?”  Can our consumers recognize our brand if what it stands for changes every couple of years?

Similarly, when a brand gets acquired, there is often a desire to see what the new organization can “do with it.”  This often means making changes to packaging and the assortment within the brand portfolio.  If the new organization changes the package, the assortment, the formula, and the copy message every couple of years, is it still the same brand?


Strategically managing a brand portfolio is a big task.  There are many pressures to constantly re-stage and upgrade.  The same is true as people turn-over and new ones want to “make their mark” on the brand.  As these things occur, you need to ask your organization, “Is this right for our brand portfolio?”

The Ship of Theseus problem has been debated for millennia.  I’m not going to solve it in this blog post.  It is, however, and important thought-experiment for marketers and market researchers to consider as they manage their brand portfolio.

1 thought on “Does Your Brand Portfolio Suffer From the “Ship of Theseus” Problem?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *