Brand Architecture Revealed: What Exactly is it?

Female designer drawing architecture while standing

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Marketers use the term brand architecture a lot these days. But, depending on the speaker or context, it can mean a number of different things. In this post, you’ll find an explanation of the most common ways the term is used and the differences between them.


Brand architecture as a business or marketing term has become really vague. It seems more and more marketers are interested in this important aspect of their strategy. But, when you talk to marketing professionals from various backgrounds, you’re often left scratching your head as each discussion of brand architecture can sound really different. Each person has his or her own definition or concept in mind.

In my experience, there are three definitions or concepts that people have in mind when they say the words, brand architecture. Here is an explanation of each.

FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS AS BRAND ARCHITECTURE

A common high-level definition is that the brand architecture outlines the familial relationships of a master (or corporate) brand and its sub-brands. Brand strategists often present the relationships in a hierarchy or similar structure. When using brand architecture specifically for this purpose, you often hear terms like branded house, house of brands, or endorsed brands as a way to quickly capture common approaches.

FedEx is a good example of the branded house approach. P&G, Unilever or GM is often cited as a good example of a house of brands. Endorsed brands are often brands that combine master and sub-brands together in some way. Lego Ninjago and Courtyard by Marriott are good examples.

DESIGN ARCHITECTURE AS BRAND ARCHITECTURE

Brand architecture commonly comes up when working on brand design projects. In this context, design strategists use the term to refer to how brands, sub-brands and specific products are visually related. The architecture helps identify both similarities and differences beyond name such as color, typography, placement and spatial relationships. This can apply to logos and trademarks but also other executions such as packaged goods labeling (where and how everything appears on the label).

For CPG brands, the design architecture ensures that the desired brand equity is consistent across the family, but with sufficient variant differentiation to make product selection easy at shelf.

PORTFOLIO STRATEGY AS BRAND ARCHITECTURE

The third common usage of the term brand architecture is in reference to a detailed framework for portfolio strategy. Brand strategists write the framework in a tree or tabular format and spell out the business and consumer/customer reasons that each offering (i.e., product line or service) in the portfolio exists. It’s a copy-focused document with minimal visuals.

In this context, the brand architecture serves as a foundational strategic document within the organization, highlighting key strategic points of difference both within the portfolio and versus competition. Each column represents a product or service line. You will likely see strategic role, target, need, points of difference and competitive frames all outlined within each column. Columns can be added to capture potential future positions and strategic intent such as line extension, target expansion or domain expansion.

Read more about how to write a strategic brand architecture.

SO, WHICH IS THE RIGHT ONE?

Well… that depends! None of them are right or wrong. What matters most is that everyone gets on the same page and speaks the same language. So, the next time you find yourself in a discussion about brand architecture, ask two questions to gain clarity:
1. What does each person in the conversation mean (ask them directly)?
2. What is the objective of the current discussion or initiative (basic relationship, design, or strategic)?

Then, you’ll know better how to add value and contribute to a meaningful conversation. It’s ultimately up to you and your team to decide on a definition to use moving forward. Whichever you choose, be sure the brand all hangs together under a central brand positioning. If you need a positioning format or template, start here: An Effective Format for Writing a Brand Positioning Statement.

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