The art of brand architecture: Definitions and models to help you create clarity out of chaos 


(September 12, 2020)



 


My friend lived in a poorly renovated home in Fremantle, Western Australia. Like many houses in the area, it was built in the early 20th century.

So the original structure—an adorable shack with limestone cladding,  jarrah floorboards and ornate cornices—was beautiful.

But, in the 70s, the owners at the time built another room onto the back which was made out of red brick and, curiously, had a dome entrance and carpeted floors.

The next renovation, by the next owners, saw a kitchen with linoleum floors and green walls.

Many more owners and distasteful changes later, the once charming limestone cottage became a bizarre amalgamation of subsequent owners’ preferences.

The structure had an identity crisis and, in turn, looked like a shambles. 

Let’s call that House A. 

Next to this home is another, an exact replica of the early 20th-century limestone cottage.

Let’s call this House B.

House B had a few makeovers too. But they were evidently aligned with the original design.

The renovations and additions had similar details, quirks and materials. In fact, in the backyard (shhh, I just peeped once), there was a new granny flat made out the same limestone of the original house. 

Unlike House A, House B was an architectural marvel—all because the owners took the time to understand how the home could evolve and change with the times while continuing to stay true to the original identity.

As you may have guessed, in the business world, the art of creating Brand Architecture is similar to that of creating House B. Or, if you do a haphazard job, like House A.

After all, like old houses, companies change with the context of the times and with the people who own and run them. They expand, merge, reposition, and acquire other businesses.

In turn, there can be a lot of clutter and confusion, both externally (in the eyes of the market) and internally (how teams work with each other and streamline processes). This usually leads to the following challenges:

  • Customers don’t understand your full list of services or products
  • You have one product that vastly out-performs your other suite of products. Or vice versa (you have an underperforming one).
  • You don’t know how to create efficient processes across various in-house teams.
  • Your marketing strategy is all over the place
  • You’ve recently acquired a business and you’re struggling to seamlessly integrate the product or service into your existing portfolio of offerings.
  • You’re restructuring and you’re unclear about what is wise to cut loose and what to keep.
  • The company’s identity is becoming diluted in a competitive market.


The list, of course, goes on. Top-level confusion filters down to countless issues around mismanagement, inefficiency, and an inability to communicate your value in the market with clarity, purpose, and oomph.


When you’re able to zoom out and get a birds-eye-view of what’s going on, your life gets a lot easier. You can:

  • Stay organized internally
  • Manage perception
  • Clarify positioning and messaging
  • Reduce marketing costs
  • Create harmony across every moving part


To achieve that, you need to know the different types of Brand Architecture and choose the type of structure that suits your company.  Before we go into how to do that, though, let’s define a few things.

Brand architecture, a definition

Brand architecture is the organisational structure of a company’s portfolio. Almost like a family tree. But with companies. It includes three elements (most of the time)

  • The master brand: This is the top-level corporate brand of which all the brands, products, services sit under.
  • Sub-brand: The product or service that is in the same family tree as the master brand but has its own name and identity.
  • Brand extension: The process of using an established brand name on a new product




An artfully design brand architecture, then, is a structured system of names, symbols, colours, and brand voices that are informed by your overarching company’s identity (mission, purpose, promise, values, personality, expertise) as well as who your consumers. It defines the breadth and depth of your company’s offerings. 


Brand architecture types

The presumption is you’ve already established your company’s identity and have a clear understanding of how each sub-brand or brand extension fits under that larger narrative.

So, given you already know that, let’s look at the (main) four categories of brand architecture:

Branded house or monolithic

The branded house is the classic model where every aspect of the company is led by the same identity. Each brand, division, product and/or service follows the master brand’s lead.




The branded house capitalises on customer loyalty where the emphasis is less on the specific features or benefits and more on the overarching brand mission, purpose, promise, and values. 

Seeing as everything is under the same banner, you can create an all-encompassing marketing strategy that spills over across your suite of offerings and, in turn, save on advertising.

But there are downfalls. If you screw up and your brand is associated with negative connotations, everything suffers.

Also, in some industries—specifically, the food and drink world—being a corporate giant isn’t necessarily an advantage anymore. People want local, small, family-owned. That’s why you might have noticed a lot of big beer companies buying up the little craft breweries in the last five years. 

Companies who have a branded house:
  • FedEx
  • Apple
  • John Deere
  • Harley Davidson
  • Virgin
  • London Science Museum


House of Brands

On the other hand, you have companies like Proctor and Gamble (P&G) who have a house of brands model. Here, you have a master brand that takes the backseat and is relatively unknown, except for investors. 


Instead, the emphasis is put on a collection of distinct, well-known, consumer-facing sub-brands.  In the case of P&G, think brands like Olay, Oral-B, Tide, Gillette, etc.

Similarly, the public audience isn’t really aware of LVMH (Louis Vitton Moet Hennessy). Yet, everyone is well aware of their suite of sub-brands which span over six industries, from wine to perfume.

The benefit of the house of brands model is that you can reach diverse and niche audiences with a hyper-specific brand story and value propositions.

But, unfortunately, you also need a big budget. The master brand has to create every sub-brand from scratch (unless they acquire an existing name) and, in turn, have to spend a lot of money on marketing to earn every sub-brand attention and trust in the market.

The other challenge with this model is that the master brand’s identity can become diluted, especially when there are a plethora of brands that stretch over several industries.

You can solve this by creating a clear narrative that runs through each industry. In the case of LMVH’s brands, there is a clear luxury narrative across every sub-brand, which is clearly summed up in The LMVH’s tagline: The world leader in luxury.

Companies who have a house of brands:
  • Newell
  • Procter & Gamble
  • Unilever
  • Nestle
  • General Motors

Endorsed

The endorsed model is where there are individual brands that are endorsed by the master brand. This way, you can create distinct brands that target niche audiences or stretch into different industries. But you can still leverage the master brand’s established name in the market.



Marriot is often a cited example of this architecture. The company has hotels, resorts, executive apartments, inns—all of which have a different name but have the Marriot logo underneath.

The Olympic Games is another one. Each event is location-specific and has everchanging cultural themes. But they’re all endorsed by those famous rings. 

The limitation is that you can’t diversify your offering as much. If you endorse products and services outside your niche and expertise you end up diluting your master brand’s identity.

Also, in some audience sectors, using the master brand logo might be a turn-off. In industries where people value local, boutique, homegrown, using a corporate banner can—in the eyes of the consumer—take the heart and soul out of a product or service.

Imagine if the Moet bottle had on the label, “Brought to you by LMVH.”

Ugh. That’s what.

Companies who have endorsed architecture:
  • Olympics
  • Nabisco
  • Kellogg
  • Ralph Lauren
  • Caterpillar
  • Nestle
  • Honda

Hybrid

As you may have guessed, this is a hybrid of the above models. The hybrid model is often born out of necessity. A company pursues a business opportunity and only after has to reconcile the product and service under the master brand’s overarching narrative and portfolio.



Take Alphabet (the master brand of Google). Google began with a Branded House approach with products like Google, Google Docs, Google Play, Google Maps, etc. But then the company acquired smaller brands like Lab, Calico and Nest, which run as independent organisations. To accommodate the restructure, Google rebranded the master brand as Alphabet. This way, they could buy and start other ambitious projects that don’t fall under the specialties (or even the industry) of Google.

Companies who have a hybrid:
  • Alphabet
  • Coca-Cola
  • Microsoft
  • Amazon
  • Marriott Bonvoy
  • Telstra

Applying brand architecture to small businesses


Brand architecture is traditionally considered a corporate thing. But it’s not, necessarily. It’s a structural framework that can be applied at a macro level (creating architecture around companies) or a micro-level (creating architecture around products and services.

Take a wine brand. They often have a number of product ranges. They will have, say, a premium range, an entry-level range, and maybe even an experimental range. So the different ranges can add to your overarching brand story (and not dilute your identity), you need to create clear brand architecture(or, maybe in this case, product architecture.)

Professional services are the same. At my brand storytelling studio, Brew Copy, I offer service packages for company’s who want to tell a better brand story.

But if I wanted to add additional services like email marketing, educational workshops or online tutorials, I’d still have to create a brand architecture model if I wanted to strategically promote the extra offerings while still making sure I’m strengthening (not diluting) the messaging of the Brew Copy brand. 

Like many things in strategy and communications, brand architecture is a pretty damn simple framework but is hard to execute. By putting in the time and thought to understand the bigger picture, though, you will save headaches down the path and, ultimately, create a brand you’re proud of and, of course, a brand that customers want to be part of.


Until next time, 

Jayden O’Neil 

. . .


If you haven’t already, sign up for a free 5-day email series to unearth a bolder story, create consistent messaging and write on-brand, always. Yes?


Brew Copy, a storytelling studio that helps you build your brand—with words. Contact me at jayden@brewcopy.com. Stay in touch on Instagram. Or on Linkedin.