Keep it in the family: The role of family brands in brand architecture

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Brand architecture” is a widely used term with several definitions, but for the sake of this post (and since I’m a big believer in the wisdom of crowds), let’s use the Wikipedia definition: Brand architecture is the structure of brands within an organizational entity.

No matter which definition you prefer, most agree that brand architecture is concerned with “structure” and “relationships” between brands in a company’s portfolio of products and services. Along with the popular “house of brands” and “branded house” organizing principles, family brands (also referred to as “platform brands”) can be an effective way to clarify relationships and organize brands around a strategic value-orientation within a company’s brand architecture.

Family brands allow companies with a diverse product portfolio to create a closer link to their masterbrand for brand extensions, help define clear roles for sub-brands in the portfolio, and can strengthen ties within the portfolio between related brands. Consider the US Army. The US Army’s Special Operations Command (SOC), comprised of specialist units including the Army Rangers, Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) [SOAR(A)] and the Green Berets is an example of a family brand at work. Each division supports a specialized function within the overall organization. The association of each division with elite training, especially for high-risk operations, elevates the perception of the family of SOC brands (each with its own unique brand mythology) above standard Army battalions.

Or consider auto manufacturers’ sport-tuned racing models, such as the Mercedes-Benz AMG brand or BMW’s M-series of automobiles. Car aficionados use the “AMG” and “M” monikers as short-hand for a brand platform built on high-performance, unmistakable styling and premium price. While each sport model is derived from the manufacturers’ standard car platform, the enhanced engineering elevates the perception of quality and a premium driving experience among car buyers.

In his post on sustainable branding, Larry Vincent points out that “a strong brand still differentiates products and services by connoting quality, style, feature sets, price/value, and favorable associations with aspirational values and goals.” That’s true for every brand that’s actively managed as a strategic investment, especially family brands within this architecture.

Family brands cover all the bases:

+ Aspirational Goals: Family brands are an effective way to reinforce brand identity in the marketplace. They can also create a branded network effect in the brand architecture. To build on the BMW example, if there’s only one M-series in the BMW portfolio; it could easily be dismissed as a concept car or special edition. However, 3 or 4 M-series models positions BMW as a legitimate contender in the sport-luxury segment and bolsters the brand’s “ultimate driving machine” message.

+ Price/Value: Brands are shorthand for perceived value in the minds of consumers. Family brands aid differentiation in the minds of consumers by adding a layer of specialization that equates to value within brand architecture. For instance, the hallmark of Olay skin care products is their ability to reduce the signs of aging. Olay’s Regenerist family of moisturizers, cleansers and specialty products ups the ante with “advanced anti-aging” technology, creating a more memorable, defined consumer benefit than typical brand extensions.

+ Communication: Companies that suffer from too much brand extension often have difficulty clearly communicating their value to consumers. Family brands, often organized around a defined benefit shared among their related product brands and sub-brands, help corporate parent brands communicate and reinforce the value that individual sub-brands represent in their portfolios. Sub-brands within a brand family usually share identifying traits (a family resemblance) like the vehicle badging on BMW’s M-Series models or shared “family values” like the Special Forces belief in rigorous training and constant preparedness. When brands look and behave in a related manner, it’s easier for companies to tell a coherent, values-based story.

Family brands’ ability to focus brand architecture and improve a brand’s ability to communicate can support the sustainable competitive advantage that Vincent suggests. The best part: unlike real life, in branding you get to choose your family.

McNeal Maddox is a senior strategist for the Siegel+Gale Los Angeles office.

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