Brand architecture: Starter kit for complex decisions
Normally, as an institution grows, so does the number of brands it owns. In itself, this is neither good nor bad. The key point is to have a solid structure that organizes these brands. For this reason, in this article we are going to review a key concept: brand architecture.
The term may sound a bit intimidating, perhaps because the word “architecture” has a somewhat technical ring to it (how lucky we are that it is not “brand engineering”!). But don’t be scared, the theory is simple: brand architecture is the combination of all the relationships between the brands of an institution. This applies both to the relationships between the corporate brand and the brands of its different business units (macro architecture), and to the relationships between the latter with the brands of the products and services they offer (micro architecture). Broadly speaking, the more brands and relationships thereof, the more complex the architecture will be.
But what do we mean by “the relationships between brands”? Good question. The relationship between two brands is determined by the degree of brand equity that is transferred between them. In other words, the type of relationship depends on the ability of the image of one of our brands to affect the image of other brands we own, either positively or negatively.
A useful way to classify the different types of relationships that exist is to do it based on the degree to which a “mother brand” (the corporate brand, for example) is present in our other brands. When the mother brand is on its own, we call it monolithic (e.g. Nestle), while the addition of a descriptor makes it a modified monolithic (e.g. Nestle FoodServices). In cases where the mother brand is only partially present (e.g. Nescafe, Nesquik) we talk about sub-brands, and when the mother brand provides validation (e.g. Savory by Nestle), the brand is said to be endorsed (Savory is endorsed by Nestle). Finally, when there is no presence of a mother brand (e.g. Purina), we have a case of an independent or stand-alone brand.
Looking at the brand identifiers (logos, isotypes, etc.) in the example above, it is simple to recognize the relationships between Nestle brands. However, it is important to understand that a brand identifier is only an expression of the brand’s positioning. Therefore, when designing a brand architecture, one must go beyond visual and verbal traits, and analyze the cases in which differentiation in positioning creates value.
So… What do we use each type of relationship for?
- Monolithic: used when the positioning of a mother brand is suitable for the target audience and in cases where you want to communicate a large market presence through a robust portfolio (as is the case of 3M, for example).
- Modified monolithic: similar to the case of a monolithic, but a descriptor is added to provide more clarity to the target audience, ensuring communicational effectiveness. The multinational conglomerate Virgin does this with all its divisions (Virgin Records, Virgin Galatic, Virgin Atlantic, etc.).
- Sub-brand: used when a different positioning is needed, but without losing the relationship with the mother brand in its entirety. It is ideal when you want brand equity to flow between both sides of the equation in a balanced way.
- Endorsed: required when the brand’s positioning needs to be substantially different and you want to build a brand that eventually has the potential to detach itself completely from the mother brand but needs a push in the beginning. Frequently, endorsed brands are used when a company launches an alternative product line (e.g. DoubleTree by Hilton).
- Independent: ideal when the audience or the value proposition is completely different. In this case, the brand remains almost completely isolated from any influence—positive or negative—that the mother brand may have, and vice versa. It is also ideal when a high-risk product is launched and, therefore, you want to prevent a potential failure from “spreading” to the rest of the institution.
From the point of view of pure branding, positioning is the main factor to consider when designing brand architecture. However, an executive who evaluates adding a brand to the company’s portfolio should consider other variables. On the one hand, as we mentioned, there is the risk of a failure spreading. In addition, the launch and maintenance of a brand comes with a substantial investment of resources. On the other hand, a new brand can serve to revitalize a product that had been presumed to be in decline or as a vehicle to venture into a new category in which the company has no presence.
For all this, brand architecture is a simple concept in theory that in practice requires performing heavy analysis and complex decisions. In other words, brand architecture is highly motivating and constantly presents new projects!