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The importance of brand architecture to business success

Written by Nick Dormon on Wednesday, 10 November 2021. Posted in Insight, Audience, Analysis, Sales & Marketing

Many start-ups will offer one product on launch as having more would be complex, risky and expensive.

The importance of brand architecture to business success

Many start-ups will offer one product on launch as having more would be complex, risky and expensive. But, from this simple starting point, it’s worth planning for future brand ambitions and complications as this will help build a robust relationship between your brands and will help your business grow.  

Brand architecture, in this early form, is straightforward as it relates to a singular product. Think of Coca-Cola, which launched in 1886. For a long time, it was ‘one-brand-one product’ with a very close connection between the ingredients and the name: Cola from kola nuts, Coca from coca leaves. Over time, this became so tightly interrelated in the consumer’s mind that it was difficult to expand the portfolio by capitalising on the brand equity earned. Brand equity is highly valuable as it builds credibility, understanding and loyalty in the consumer’s mind, so that launching something new has a head start.

Whilst the Coca-Cola brand is huge, their success – founded on this singularity – is also a weakness. If it wanted to launch new brands, it had to start from scratch with zero equity to work from. Fanta and Sprite became successful but, by example, the long forgotten Simba, launched in 1969, failed commercially despite the advantage of having such an extensive distribution network. The Coca-Cola company has therefore only been able to launch a limited number of product variants under the same brand. Diet Coke launched in 1982 and Coke Life launched in 2014. 

Thus, careful management of brand equity across your present and future portfolio is vital to future growth.

If you are focused on one product, as Coca-Cola was originally set out to do, or want to offer a varied set of products, you must invest all your efforts into building the masterbrand equity though design and communications.

Take banking businesses, Barclays or HSBC: each has a complex mix of services which would, with a few exceptions, be pointless to brand. All the investment goes into the overarching corporate brand so, when presented with a product or service, it imbues that offer with a relatable set of values and qualities. 

Apple is another (although slightly different) example. The brand does have many product lines: iPhone, iTunes and iPad are just a few to name in a vast portfolio, but each tends to share the same masterbrand values, personality and identity. In this sense, each could therefore be perceived as just products – not brands. I’m sure others will have different interpretations, but the point here is that Apple didn’t have to change any of its brand DNA to accommodate each product line.

A sub-brand structure is useful when you have a collective business ethos, but there are different expressions of this ethos through varied product offerings. This might be due to different price points, or products targeted at different consumers. We, ourselves, work on such a brand: deodorant Sure is a masterbrand which captures the overarching ideas of performance and freshness, but within its range it has a specialist sub-brand called Clinical that is targeted at consumers with a heavy sweating problem. Sub-brands must include professional aspects in its DNA alongside the core performance, but in this case, it is less about freshness. 

Mercedes is another example with a very broad portfolio ranging from the S-class models targeted at executives to builder’s vans. These products all share Mercedes’ values of quality and functionality but have very different product attributes and different emotional connections. The former needs to express luxury and exclusivity whilst the latter needs to express reliability and practicality. 

A third option is using the masterbrand as a support rather than a lead to a brand. This would be the case if the brand offer is quite different from the masterbrand, but the masterbrand here offers some credibility or trust. Unilever and Nestlé, whilst both being a ‘House of Brands’, have started to raise the presence of their corporate brand alongside product brands with corporate logos appearing at the end of adverts or on the back of packs. This often has a dual purpose. For example, Unilever’s CSR initiatives can migrate across to, and support, product brands but also the collective brands themselves build credibility in the corporate world with their breadth, recognition and commercial success. 

It is worth deciding from the start what your brand architecture is going to be in the future so you can carefully build the equities you want. You can also avoid the trap of building too much connection between your first product and the master brand if you are intending to increase your range later. Take WD40: like Coca-Cola, it is a one-product-one-brand example, living on its own on shelf since 1953. It wanted to expand beyond this single product and use some of the WD40 equity without dilution of the core brand equities. The creation of its Specialist range allowed it to circumnavigate this challenge, carefully employing its established visual equities alongside new and more targeted performance cues that would not question the broader performance of the original brand. The Specialist name, whilst a sub-brand, did not take too much attention away from the masterbrand, but just enough to define it in its own right. 

Organising you brand architecture should be an integral part of your business plan as it has huge implications on the development and exploitation of your brand equity, impact on investment in design and communication, and ultimately the value of your business. 

About the Author

Nick Dormon

Nick Dormon

Nick Dormon is managing director of brand design and innovation agency Echo

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