Most brands start with a single product. Sooner or later, however, and that product is joined by another, and then another. Brands evolve as the product range diversifies; or, as is sometimes the case, brands are created with diversification in mind. Executed effectively, multiple products should not require multiple brands; each product should fall under the same umbrella of meaning, and complement the brand’s overarching purpose.
Products should speak in a brand’s voice: its tone, its language. Think of multiple people in the same room; the conversations may be different, but the atmosphere – and the reason for being there – will be the same.
Still, the character of a brand cannot subsume just any product, and a discordant product will weaken a brand identity. New connections tug at existing connections – and, ideally, all should be pulling in the same general direction. Microsoft is known for hardware and software. The strength of their brand identity would be weakened by repeated ventures into, say, fashion.
Creating (and constructing) a multi-product identity
If a brand is a house where your products live, how do you separate them? Do they all live together, or do some inhabit an annexe? Deciding the structure for your brand, and the products related to that brand, is, as with any construction, best done at the beginning. It is possible to do it later: a new idea emerges, or opportunity reveals itself, and the brand changes to meet it. But changing a brand creates friction, and interrupts recognition. Sometimes it is necessary – especially if the existing brand is failing to gain an audience – but brands survive better when iterated upon. When possible, renovate.
There are three primary brand architectures.
1. Branded house or master brand. A parent brand that influences the identity of the sub-brands. Accenture is a good example. Many products and services, but one widely recognised brand name. The master brand aligns all of the sub-brands, and ensures consistency across them. Deviation is permitted within defined limits (normally set out in the brand style guide, within which separate ancillary identities may exist for each product).
2. Endorsed brand. In this model, each sub-brand has a distinct brand identity, but carries the same value. Endorsed brands are, as the name implies, brands connected to (and endorsed by) another. This brand model is commonly seen in the hospitality sector (Marriot, etc.)
3. Hybrid. Hybrid blends the master-brand and endorsed-brand architectures. This is commonly seen within the beverages industry (Coca Cola, which owns many sub-brands but combines its product portfolio into a one-brand strategy). Similarly, Volkswagen Group manages many products under the Volkswagen brand, but also has distinct sub-brands, such as Audi.
Brand is key to business success. It is better to do one thing well than many things poorly – and looking too much into the future can cause decision paralysis. Still, it’s enough to be aware of common brand architectures and, should additional products begin to percolate the brand’s horizon, of the options available.
A brand within a brand can be strong – and of the above, the most common is hybrid architecture. But the master brand – say, Uber – must be strong enough to support the endorsed brands. This is not only because of reputation, but so that if a sub-brand fails or falters, the master brand will be able to withstand the reputational hit. An Uber venture may fail because the Uber master brand is resilient, as a side act unable to deter from the enjoyment of the main stage.
Brands increasingly resemble stories; each sub-brand is a saga upon which the brand ventures, and the audience’s interest in the overarching story is dependent upon the success of their individual experiences. Brand diversity is key, especially when pursuing niche market penetration, such as a certain type of worker or a specific buyer. But that diversity has to be buttressed by consistency. If not in logo, visuals or even language, then in feeling and experience. Each execution of the brand, and of the sub-brands, must be focused on achieving the same outcomes and response from its target audience.
Challenges and decisions
The primary challenge of multi-product branding is consistency. Separate teams may interpret brand guidelines differently. This is why many companies build their own in-house branding teams, to manage the branding of individual products and ensure brand alignment, whether written or visual. Without this, it is left to high-level teams to monitor the branding of individual products against the brand name, and make decisions about which products should be associated with the brand.
Consistency is difficult for individuals. Brands cannot be capricious or temperamental, however; their strength is defined by how easy they are to recognise, which is determined by how consistently their identity is expressed and reinforced. Consistency is easier when everybody responsible for communicating a brand understands it, and understands how to represent a brand’s multiple products without them becoming discordant with its core identity.
It is for this reason that sufficient time should be dedicated to decisions at the beginning; a founder may want to change his start-up month-by-month or year-by-year, but will rarely be thanked for it. It’s important that you know what you want your business to be – and, even if multiple products don’t yet exist, take time to understand what brand model would best fit a multi-product strategy.
If a product is being iterated upon or shipped as an MVP (minimum viable product) to gauge audience reception, focus the brand identity on the company, and not the product. Divergent communications will result in significantly lower engagement; each product, and each product’s brand, will be judged, and that judgement will be set against that of the underlying brand. A new device manufacturer will be judged on its first product, and condemned or redeemed through its second and third. Build brands around products that are ready, and which are ready to represent the core underlying brand.
For more information on creating or developing a multi-product brand strategy, and executing it alongside your digital communication strategy, please contact us today.