From chaos to clarity: how to build a brand architecture that lasts.

Like a house that won't withstand a strong rain season, a rebrand will never succeed if you don't give your brand strong foundations.

Imagine a beautiful shop.

It’s aesthetically pleasing. Considered signage, visually enticing window displays, and maybe even a cute or funny name. And you know exactly what it does. The name and design together give an indication of what you’ll find inside. 'Great,' you think, 'I'll go in there. It looks like it has what I need.'

But inside, you find an endless mess: muddled shelves and aisles in every direction. More items on display than shelves to hold them. Lots of unnecessary walls that split the space up into tiny rooms. Wildly different items next to each other, as if it makes sense to have pogo sticks next to antique teacups.

This is what a rebrand can feel like when you forget to examine your portfolio strategy and architecture. A beautiful outer shell covers up poorly considered brand logic.

There are many symptoms of poor brand architecture:

  • A confusing naming system across products.
  • A website filled with products and services but no clear propositions.
  • The need to reinvent your system every time you grow your offer.
  • Internal confusion and inefficiency in managing the portfolio.
  • Being unable to scale, differentiate or communicate your brand well.

In contrast, the most powerful brands consider every element, starting with their brand strategy and building foundations where design systems can thrive. They are clear on their portfolio strategy and they visualise it through an easy-to-navigate brand architecture.

What is portfolio strategy?

Portfolio strategy is taking stock of all your brand offers—products and services—and organising it to maximise growth opportunities or optimise your budget.

Take a company creating smart-home technology. You might organise your portfolio by category (e.g. heating, lighting, security) or by audience relevance (e.g. for a home-owner or a business-owner).

Each has its advantages: the first enables you to cross-sell and solve multiple problems for an individual, while the second allows you to be relevant to different contexts and grow in the B2B market.

The strategy comes into play when you decide how much emphasis to put on each element of your portfolio. You have to determine which products to prioritise and how to allocate resources effectively. If our smart-tech company organised their products by category, their may decide to invest heavily in security to answer rising audience concerns around personal safety. But they could then prioritise heating heavily in marketing because this is where they want to maintain the biggest market share.  

The DixonBaxi Example
Recently, we helped a major entertainment brand reorganise their portfolio. They had a strong IP which was activated through content, physical experiences, products, digital and much more. All were treated equally, making it hard to prioritise and connect them with audiences. We helped them identify clear sections of their offer which would drive audience engagement—called 'Purchase Brands'— and created 'Versions' to sit beneath, which were the iterations of the purchase brands in different content types.

What is brand architecture?

This is how things appear to the customer. It's about defining the relationships between our brands and how they are positioned, differentiated, and connected to each other from an external point of view.

Here are some common questions you should be asking yourself:

  • Do we want our brands to have a clear verbal, experiential and visual link?
  • Does having a relationship between our brands help customers make decisions or hinder them?
  • Should a brand leverage the equity of another brand?
  • Is it simple to navigate?

In answering these questions, your brand architecture should become an outward-facing tool for customers to navigate the brand offerings and understand the business's core purpose.

This is where brand relationship models come in. These brand architecture models define the relationship between a parent company and its product/service brands. The most important thing when considering them is to avoid an academic conversation about them at all costs – that's not why you’re doing this.

Explore scenarios for growth, not theoretical frameworks.

Let’s go back to our smart-tech company and think about what that means for them.

We could choose a Branded House approach, using one brand across heating, security, lighting, etc. Having a relationship between the brands helps customers see the products as a system they can easily add to, so they can easily navigate between the different products. It also positions them as a business driven by household services.

But whilst models are useful to work from, it starts to fall apart when a brand wants to grow and expand its target market. Most companies naturally have to build their own unique model—a hybrid model—that incorporates multiple architectures and allows growth to happen efficiently.

A Branded House approach might work initially for our smart-tech company to connect their products and services (e.g. CompanyNameHeating, CompanyNameSecurity, CompanyNameLighting, etc). But if the company were to invest or innovate within health tech—a very different sector—they might need to develop a hybrid model. This could mean maintaining consistency and clarity within their core offerings (Branded House) while creating a separate Sub-brand, Endorsed Brand or entirely unique brand for their new, unrelated ventures.

This is just one way of doing things. But whatever outcome, the problem of brand architecture needs to be looked at through two lenses: the lens of the audience, and the lens of business ambition. Good brand architecture should be for the benefit of audience navigation rather than just business priorities, but it also needs to show what kind of a brand you want to be.

The DixonBaxi Example
The major entertainment brand we worked with had a second issue. They had a master brand, which had low consumer engagement, and a secondary brand that had much greater brand equity. This made it hard for consumers to navigate the brand ecosystem, as the primary brand wasn’t the one they were looking for. We helped to untangle the two brands to give them distinct roles. In the process we demoted the original master brand and promoted the secondary brand due to its much stronger emotional connection (amongst many factors). This created a clearer audience-driven architecture, pulling people in through the beacon of the new master brand before introducing other offers in the portfolio.

Where do I start?

A portfolio or architecture challenge is like a tiny rock inside your shoe—you learn to live with it, and you don't think about it until you go on a long walk, and it becomes too painful to ignore.

Sorting the problem out early will save pain in the long run. But it can be hard to identify what you need to do and why. Here's a cheat sheet.

Where do we go from here?

Our beautiful shop is only a light-touch analogy, but it illustrates a point: don't be the company with a beautiful exterior but no cohesion once you step inside. Be the company that understands its goals and how to use its offer to get there. Be the company that's clear about what it stands for in its offering and its communication. Be the company that puts the audience first and helps them navigate the brand ecosystem. Be the company that uses its brand equity to its advantage and conveys each of its brands distinctly but clearly.

Some tips to bear in mind to make sure it is an easier process:

  • Diagnose before you solve: make sure you know what the problem is before you try to solve it, so you don't fall into the trap of undertaking a brand architecture process when your portfolio strategy is the problem.
  • Get outside opinions: it's important to get beyond the internal biases and politics to make sure the decisions you make are for the benefit of the brand and consumer rather than the individuals behind the scenes.
  • Take everyone on the journey: this complex journey will unravel as soon as a key stakeholder loses faith in its importance. Check in regularly, agree on important language, and work through different scenarios as a group.
  • Take the time: brand development follows the "Rome wasn't built in a day" theory. Your brand, and your strategy for it, are precious. Treat it like that.

If there's one takeaway, it's this: great brands are built from the foundations up. Portfolio strategy and brand architecture are the core ingredients for these foundations to be successful and long-lasting. Start at the beginning, and you will unlock enduring brand clarity, coherence, and effectiveness that will set your brand apart in the market.

Claire Langer, Strategy Director.