Brand Architecture series: Part 1 – 10 key steps to move from managing brand identity to creating experiences
This 12 part series shares brand architecture triggers and in-depth deep dives of each of the 10 steps introduced here.
A business’s portfolio is rarely a static set of products or fixed list of services. In fact, when it comes to a company’s roster of offerings, the only consistent factor about it may be change itself. Whether an organization is growing organically or through acquisition, adapting to a shifting economy or new market trends, or simply spearheading a fresh approach: the reality is that this change means many brands are not getting the full credit for all they do and offer.
For companies who’ve experienced this ongoing evolution firsthand (if you’re reading this, that’s you!), optimizing your portfolios via a strong brand architecture is essential to drive clarity and eliminate complexity for your buyers. And at Monigle, we believe brand architecture goes one step further—serving as a device to not only manage products, services, and sub-brands, but also elevate your customer experiences.
In this initial chapter of our 12-part brand architecture series, we’ll walk you through some of the most common catalysts that cause leaders like you to revisit portfolios—and then discuss key steps for successfully restructuring them.
Learn more: Exploring the future of brand architecture
Common reasons to re-evaluate brand architecture
- General complexity
Most businesses never intend for their portfolios to become elaborate or convoluted—but over time, complexity has a way of creeping in. Just like a physical house, a brand’s architecture needs to be maintained. If it’s not reviewed at regular intervals—even after only incremental growth—a company’s portfolio can become fragmented and obscure, making it both difficult manage internally and understand externally.
- Mergers, acquisitions, and spinoffs
Brand architecture is a fundamental part of any M&A or spinoff conversation. In M&A scenarios, the question becomes: how do we seamlessly fuse together two (or more) groups of offerings in the most effective manner? This joining of forces usually features notable overlaps—in the form of duplicative products, similar groupings, and more—and avoiding these redundancies is key. On the other side, the combined power of these organizations often leads to an expanded offering that can change the entire way customers should view and engage with you. Clearly communicating this combined value is critical to realize the full potential of your M&A.
In spinoffs, the main considerations are maintaining and maximizing brand equity and whether the separation will change the type of company you are. For example, in 2022, Johnson & Johnson spun off its consumer health division—a relatively painless process because it was already one of the three main pillars of its brand architecture (along with Pharmaceuticals and MedTech). However, if the new entity being formed does not align with the previous architecture (for example, if an enterprise organizes its offerings by audiences or product type, but is separating its assets based on geography), this will call for a serious return to the drawing board. In many cases, a spinoff can also allow a company to be its true self, such as PerkinElmer spinning off its legacy applied, food, and enterprise services businesses to allow it to become a true Life Sciences and Diagnostics company. Your architecture is the most tangible expression of what you do, so if the type of company you are changes, so must your architecture.
3. Organic growth
Purchasing or merging with other businesses can spark quantum leaps of growth. But growth also happens naturally—whether it’s in response to societal events, technological advances, or beyond.
Take Netflix’s transformation from a disruptive DVD by-mail rental business into a streaming giant and content creator. Or look at sports and fitness companies that transitioned from holding in-person classes or manufacturing gym equipment to selling online subscriptions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Or tech companies that evolve from selling individual software products to integrated platforms. Innovation plays a key role here. Perhaps you have a new breakthrough offering and your current architecture strategy doesn’t do it justice – think IBM’s Watson. These pivots were big moves—and smart ones. But they also required substantial adjustments to brand architecture to accommodate these new at-the-time offerings, and to be able to adapt to future growth.
4. New business strategies
Sometimes the change that precipitates updating a brand architecture is intentionally driven from within—when a company embraces a new strategy. A great example of this is in the field of technology, where providers are increasingly moving from product and hardware-based offerings to solutions and software-as-a-service (SAAS) models. Or perhaps the business is shifting its focus because of changing market and competitor dynamics. These decisions typically mean radically rethinking how a company sells its offerings—and, therefore, how it presents its brand architecture to the world.
5. Changing customer behavior
At the end of the day, customers are the biggest driver behind any business—and catering to them sometimes requires brand architecture modifications.
It could be that your audiences are engaging with you in different ways or that you need to adapt to tap into new markets entirely. Think: health systems where consumers no longer wanted individual, hospital-centric care and instead demanded integrated systems of care. Or banks and credit unions where consumers relied less on physical branches and more on digital services. Your architecture needs to reflect how customers wish to buy and engage with you, so how you organize your portfolio needs to evolve along with customer behavior to ensure an ideal experience.
Key steps for building an exceptional brand architecture
We all know: Rome wasn’t built in a day. And the best brand architectures aren’t either. Architecture can be one of the most political, complex, and subjective journeys you embark on with brand. Finding the right approach takes time. Data. Deliberation. Rigor. But the following steps can provide a more efficient and effective roadmap to get you there. Let’s go.
- Measure brand equity
So, where to start? Assess your existing assets. Understanding the value of the various brands, sub-brands, and names across your portfolio—aka brand equity—is essential for laying the groundwork for a successful structure later. Maybe your architecture needs to make space for a specific marquee brand that’s beloved by customers. Or maybe a product is perceived as outdated, so it can be easily moved to another, lower-level category. Maybe all the equity lies in the name, but the identity of the brand does not matter. Brand equity will give you the implications on which you can build a stronger architecture.
Ideally, brand equity studies will include objective quantitative research. But for brands that may not have access to quant, qualitative interviews with customers or even internal brand experts can be helpful. Remember though: while brand equity data is part of the puzzle, it should not be the only factor influencing architecture. Your brand’s strategic positioning and vision should also help guide architecture development.
2. Understand how customers buy
The way your customers think about your brand, or brand equity, is one piece of the architecture equation. But your customers’ purchasing habits is an equally important element at play. After all, to sell your offerings, your architecture needs to align with how people buy today—or how you want them to tomorrow.
Begin by mapping the buyer journey to get a better sense of what they’re looking for. Are they looking for solutions tailored to the type of person they are or looking to solve certain needs? Are they seeking specialization or do they value a more comprehensive, broad-based portfolio? These insights will help you optimize your own architecture to appeal to their patterns, as well as drive desired behaviors and encourage cross-selling—boosting business along the way.
3. Identify regulatory issues
While often frustrating, legal red tape can be a helpful parameter when determining how to brand your portfolio.
Let’s say, for instance, you’re a global entity introducing your brand and sub-brands into new geographies. Understanding regulatory guidelines in those regions will be critical to determining what names you can use for products, what logos they can feature, and more—all of which impacts how you present your portfolio to the world. Legal costs around these types of issues, including potential regulatory filings for name changes, can also be prohibitive depending on the area in which you’re operating—a practical issue that may still have considerable bearing on decisions such as brand architecture. And remember, these factors should not be seen as barriers to your ideal strategy, just scenarios that need to be solved for.
4. Establish the story your brand architecture should tell
To some, architecture is a functional component of a brand—an organizational framework and nothing more. At Monigle, we believe that brand architecture is more than functional—it’s fundamental. To us, it’s not simply a tool to manage portfolio brands, but also one that helps you manage experiences: the ones your customers have with your business.
What do we mean? A clean, streamlined architecture that’s easy to navigate may communicate to your buyers that you’re customer-centric, smart, and helpful. On the other hand, one that’s more extensive but still clear and coherent, may position you more as an “industry expert”—a go-to source for all things “X.” But when executed poorly, messy, convoluted brand architectures will raise a red flag for customers—leaving a negative impression that says “unreliable” and “inconsistent.”
Your architecture drives how people experience your brand, and is critical to driving people to, and within your portfolio. So before you dive in, ask yourself: How can architecture support our positioning? What experience do we want to create? What actions and feelings do we want to spark from this? In what way can it help represent our brand? Answering these questions will help you set goals and standards to guide the creation of your system moving forward.
5. Define the framework
Now it’s time to finally get down to business—and build your brand architecture at long last. Brand architecture considers four key components: architecture, portfolio strategy, hierarchy, and nomenclature. Below, we break them down:
Organizing principle: Every architecture starts with an organizing principle, which delivers a “way in” for customers. This defines how your portfolio is organized, and most directly communicates your story and the breadth of all you offer. These are generally organized around one of the following:
- Who: By audience (e.g., retailers who organize by men, women, everyone, kids, etc.)
- What: By product category (e.g., tech companies who split their offerings into hardware, software, accessories, etc.)
- Where: By geography or location (e.g., restaurant companies that organize their brands by cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.)
- How: By processes or tasks an offering supports (e.g., an engineering company that organizes by concept, design, build, etc.)
- Why: By benefit (g., a financial services company that organizes by getting married, buying a house, buying a car, etc.)
A portfolio strategy defines the ideal relationship between offerings, specifically when and how you create brands across your portfolio. From a branded house (where offerings are unified under a single parent brand) to a house of brands (where there are many distinct brands within a portfolio and the parent brand has no obvious affiliation or connection to its sub-brands), it’s important to find a system that works for your portfolio based on your business’s unique circumstances. While there are clear benefits and drawbacks to these strategies (a branded house is more efficient and tells a bigger story, while a house of brands allows you to hyper target to unique audiences), there are very few pure brands out there. Most will likely adopt some kind of hybrid approach that leverages aspects of both sides of this spectrum, which is why it is important to have a brand architecture expert that understands the many nuances of portfolio strategy.
Hierarchy speaks to the sub-levels that live beneath your main organizing principle. It captures the depth of your portfolio—creating a framework for prioritization to ensure that more strategic, higher value offerings are not buried within your more standard, less differentiated products. A general example of a hierarchy could include levels such as enterprise brand, solutions brands, product families, individual products, and even features. Your hierarchy is key to informing decision-tools to help guide users how to brand offerings (e.g., key solutions may get a special visual treatment to increase visibility while standard products may get a descriptive name only.
While architecture is often an exercise in categorization, it also has a significant verbal component, as well: naming. Deciding what to call your different products, groupings, and sub-brands shouldn’t be a random process—rather, it’s inherently strategic. Say, for example, you want to emphasize one or two of your products more than others. Adopting a strategy where you use evocative names for select offerings, but descriptive, straightforward names for the rest can help create this distinction within your architecture. Nomenclature is also critical for showing how a portfolio fits together, and for signaling innovation. Think how tech companies use numerical formulas to signal incremental innovation (10.1, 10.2, 10.3, etc.) but names to signal more revolutionary innovation (Snow Leopard, Mountain Lion, etc.).
Learn more: Enabling a consistent brand experience
- Show the implications of your architecture
Now that you’ve got a prototype for a new brand architecture, it’s time to take it for test drive. Visually, create mockups that illustrate how the brand architecture would show up. What does website navigation look like? How do sub-brand logos and names appear on touchpoints, like signage, packaging, and other collateral? Architecture is a complex subject, and one that many leaders are rarely exposed to. Visualizing the architecture is critical to ensure stakeholders understand what the strategy actually means and can even help get executives to buy-in to a strategy that they were originally uncomfortable with.
Beyond visuals, you’ll also want to think through any operational implications. Does embracing a new brand architecture prompt any other changes—either in go-to-market strategy, how you structure your service team, or even new product development? Occasionally, refreshing your brand architecture can create opportunities to transform your business to ensure you are delivering on the company vision. And this step allows you to get a gut check as you move from theory to reality.
7. Extend your brand architecture to co-branding scenarios
Brand architecture cannot be conceived in isolation. From sponsorships to joint ventures to affiliations, there are so many moments of co-branding that exist in the marketing funnel. Your brand is one of your most valuable assets, and the key to co-branding is maximizing your impact while minimizing risk. Co-branding adds an element of complexity to an already complex subject, and often deserves its own dedicated effort rather than trying to solve this in parallel with your core architecture. But given the visibility and potential risk involved in these situations, ignoring or minimizing co-branding can lead to potentially costly outcomes (think of Adidas and Kanye West).
8. Explore internal architecture opportunities
The previous steps have focused mainly on the external considerations and impact brand architecture may have. But now, it’s time to flip the script and apply brand architecture from a different angle: internally. From employee and resource groups to departments and divisions, you can follow the same steps above to improve any or all these internal initiatives. The result? Doing so can clarify the relationships between these entities and eliminate silos across your organization. But most importantly, it will make your employees feel unified and seen—like they’re truly valued and all on the same team.
- Create a strong socialization plan
You’ve done the research. You’ve created the framework. You’ve tested it out. But if you can’t get universal buy-in across your organization, all that work will be for nothing. Big brand shifts, including in brand architecture, are rarely agreed upon by everyone. These discussions can often feel passionate and political, so making sure all key stakeholders are on board and aligned on objectives from the get-go is crucial. By involving the relevant decisions-makers and influencers from the start and creating a socialization plan that lets each of their voices be heard, you’ll ensure that everything you’ve built will actually be actioned.
- Develop tools to help others apply your architecture correctly
Ultimately, your brand architecture is only as good as the tools you use to implement it. Most people instantly think of a “decision tree,” which guides users to the ideal brand solution based on a series of yes/no criteria. But decision trees aren’t always one-size-fits-all. Depending on your people, your culture, and more, other resources might be a better fit—like briefs or templates. The goal is not to force popular tools into your arsenal, but rather design each one with you in mind.
Ready to refresh your own brand architecture? After reading this article, you may feel like a bona fide brand architecture expert already. But stick with us: throughout the year, we’ll dive deeper into many of the steps and topics we just introduced. And we’re looking forward to continuing the journey.
Stay tuned for the next part of our series—and, in the meantime, if you have any questions, we’re just a click away.