Think about a brand — maybe a big corporation — that has a hierarchy of other brands and services. Maybe you’re thinking about Amazon, which has Prime Video, Audible, and Amazon Echo. Or maybe P&G which owns Gillette, Pampers, Tide, Cascade, and Old Spice. Unilever owns everything from Ben & Jerry’s and Skippy to Lipton and Dove.
While these corporations sell different products and services, what they all have in common is a clear brand hierarchy. Brand hierarchy is a structure that has a top-level parent company or corporate brand, a secondary level of family brands, and, below that, individual brands.
Brand hierarchy isn’t only reserved for large corporations. Any organization that is composed of multiple brands or services can develop a clear structure, and they should. A lack of organization and intention can undermine business planning and confuse buyers. By clearly defining how your brands and products differentiate and relate to each other, you’re able to market them more effectively.
Here are three ways to cultivate an effective multi-brand strategy:
1. Identify and eliminate sources of brand confusion
As you study the various product lines in your organization’s portfolio, you might discover some overlap. Think about each brand from a consumer’s perspective: where might the consumer be confused about each brand’s identity and what it represents?
It’s important for every organization to eliminate any internal confusion among its various brands. It’s also imperative to eliminate confusion between its own brands and the similar products and services offered elsewhere in the marketplace. Where do any brand redundancies exist? What’s the missing component that will allow each of your organization’s brands to stand out?
As one example, Innovative Ergonomic Solutions (IES) is a parent company that acquired multiple brands within a short period. IES found itself with five different companies all producing ergonomic workspace solutions through various products and channels (HAT Contract, Ergotech, SiS Ergo, CompuCaddy, Innovative Office Products). But without a clear brand hierarchy in place, there was confusion both internally, and in the market, about how these companies related (or didn’t relate) to each other.
With the explosion of growth and acquisition of different product lines and market segments, IES’s challenge was to organize the brands with a clearly defined go-to-market strategy and optimize each brand’s potential while not cannibalizing market share or alienating its dealer network.
2. Develop a holistic strategy for the organization
Every multi-brand organization should be able to envision its corporate hierarchy in a simple chart featuring a parent brand at the top and each subsidiary brand branching off. In this structure, the main corporate entity oversees multiple subordinate companies organized by their primary sales channels, or other market-defining characteristics.
Once the organization’s internal brand redundancies have been eliminated, the chart should practically fill itself out. This can be a useful tool for determining the common thread uniting every brand in an organization’s portfolio, and where each brand aligns in the marketplace. As you study the chart, ask: is every product offered within the most suitable sales channel? Where do opportunities for re-branding specific products exist? Is there a better way to organize the chart for the organization’s long-term strategy, including any future brand acquisitions?
For IES, this meant establishing an overarching corporate entity with subordinate companies organized by primary sales channels. Innovative Ergonomic Solutions made sense as the umbrella entity because “ergonomic workspace solutions” is the common thread between each subsidiary brand, regardless of sales channel. And the new IES brand, while not a consumer-facing brand, provides a common identity for corporate shared services, like operations, finance, marketing, and customer service.
Building on HAT Contract, the contract office brand with the strongest name recognition, two companies were consolidated under a common name — HAT Collective — that also absorbed the relevant product lines from CompuCaddy and Innovative Office Products. This greatly simplified their brand structure and provided a template for future acquisitions in the contract market.
Now IES could focus on its original-equipment manufacturer (OEM) and point-of-sale (POS) business. This company was re-branded Innovative Design Works (IDW), a stronger name positioning for a refined strategy of designing, engineering, and manufacturing products as a contract office OEM supplier and direct seller in the POS market.
CompuCaddy had a strong direct-to-business sales model, primarily in health care. However, the brand had little name recognition. IES folded its direct-to-business sales under the IDW name and organization, while phasing out the CompuCaddy brand and further simplifying the IES brand structure. The CompuCaddy products were absorbed into a healthcare vertical within HAT Collective.
Another brand (Ergotech) primarily sells through distribution partners, which can be perceived as competition with contract office dealers. So it made sense to keep Ergotech separate from HAT Collective, both in product lines and marketing. The Ergotech brand was given a brand refresh and direction to continue servicing the distribution channel.
3. Articulate new brand strategy/strategies
With a long-term strategy in place, and a sustainable hierarchy of brands to build upon, it’s time to refine specific brand strategies.
What are the unique attributes and customer perceptions that each brand offers? What’s the most effective strategy for leveraging these positive attributes and perceptions, while elevating each brand’s position? Tackling these essential questions will require a ground-up approach to refining the verbal and visual expression of each brand.
For IES to establish its new brand, HAT Collective, multiple companies and product lines were merged into one. Each brought unique attributes and customer perceptions. This new entity needed to leverage those positive attributes and perceptions but with a new, elevated aesthetic. This required a ground-up approach to verbal and visual expression.
The first step was to articulate the mission of HAT Collective — “empowering people to work their way” — then develop their story based on the brand’s mission to improve employee health, satisfaction, productivity, and engagement through a sophisticated and flexible range of workplace solutions. From this foundation, the HAT Collective visual and verbal voice were created.
Other inspiration came from the Danish design aesthetic of SiS Ergo: a clean, warm, design-forward approach to all HAT Collective brand visuals, from logo design and typography to product renderings and advertising creative. Leveraging this core attribute of a merged brand not only elevated the look and feel of HAT Collective, but did so in an authentic and ownable way.
Creating clarity in a multi-brand organization demands intention and a strategic approach — a proactive investment of time and energy. The alternative is an accidental brand structure that may cost an organization more due to internal and market confusion, cannibalized sales, and missed opportunities. A clearly defined brand structure, and effective brand positioning for each company within it, is the solid foundation of all excellent marketing organizations.
John Williamson is an account leader at ddm marketing + communications. He has served clients in a wide range of industries, from startups to Fortune 500 companies, with over a decade of experience leading creative teams in strategy and execution of all aspects of B2B and B2C marketing.