In a previous piece, I delved into the overpopulation crisis that brands are suffering. Driven by venture money, large company innovation, and low barriers to brand entry created by large-scale tech platforms like Amazon and the Apple App store, we now have 50M trademarks in force in the world. This creates a ferociously fragmented and frenetic environment that requires new thinking about brand architecture to deal with it.

I’m going to look in more depth at three secular shifts that define this era, and how brand architecture needs to change to address them. It’s a moment that requires new thinking and a toolkit that has not been fleshed out.

1. The brand explosion

In an era awash in brands, it takes a strenuous effort to get noticed, especially when media channels are also exploding in number and marketers have seconds to land a message. In such an environment, fragmented brand architectures risk letting their many separate components drown alone. Brand architectures need to deliver scale and cohesion to remain afloat above the frenetic tide. Fewer, better brands are an absolute rule for most companies – or else they end up simply managing labels. One example: I helped Target define their private brand architecture in 2007. The problem they articulated was that they had too many private brands – around 75, by their count. An audit discovered 225 in total, many of them perilously small (my favorite was the brand Decorative Brass Dog, which was the brand for, you guessed it, a decorative brass dog).

The change needed was in governance and decision-making: To create a much higher hurdle for new brand creation, and to elevate the seniority of brand decision making to the leadership of merchandising and marketing. This shift, coupled with a data-driven analysis of the true brand needs across the range, allowed the number of brands to be pruned to under 40, hugely reducing cost and complexity, and allowing Target’s guests to build useful recognition and understanding.

2. Direct digital relationships

The digital era has driven rapid growth in direct relationships between brands and people, at the expense of relationships mediated by retail in B2C, or by an attentive sales force in B2B. In every sector, it’s becoming essential to have direct contact with customers, to get to know them better and deepen relationships by using the data that the direct contacts generate. This creates an imperative to be navigable. It’s worth remembering how much work retailers do to make today’s snowstorm of brands accessible to us. The retail brand itself is a filter for how premium or otherwise your options are going to be. Once you’re inside, you are helped to navigate by departments, and within departments, similar brands are grouped together for you, by both function and price point. Many consumer brand portfolios have long outsourced navigability to retailers, and thus are hard to compute as a whole. P&G’s website lists Always, Just, L, and Tampax as “feminine care” brands, but links out to each individual website without helping us understand how they relate and why they are differently branded in the first place. Many B2B brands, especially portfolios assembled by acquisition, offer the same experience.

So any new brand architecture theory needs to incorporate navigability as a consideration, to allow people to understand and engage with a company’s offerings as a whole. As a general rule, this also means de-branding: Treating creatively branded elements at the product level with suspicion, and looking to deploy one or just a few umbrella brands, with clearly-named signposts to products, under them. Air travel is an excellent metaphor for this, if we can summon that distant experience to mind. Billions of people worldwide have navigated huge distances without error all around the world, by using a simple architecture: Airline/airport/terminal/gate/flight/group/seat. And within that structure, there are only two “brands” we really remember: the airline and the airport (for good and bad, depending on which we had to experience).

Similarly, effective brand architectures today include very few brands, with named suffixes underneath them that are optimized for clarity rather than artistry. Apple’s brand evolution is an excellent example of this approach. When Jobs arrived for his second stint as CEO, he inherited a brand tarnished in the Scully era, and so initially emphasized product branding: The iMac was given prominence and the Apple logo was decolored and separated from it. This template was followed for the iPhone and iPad. But the Apple Watch launched as the Apple Watch, not the iWatch. Apple’s entertainment services are Apple TV and Apple Music, which could scarcely be plainer names. The reason is that the success of the iPhone injected fresh meaning into the Apple brand, allowing it to become a single umbrella with empathetically simple naming beneath it, and allowing smooth navigation for loyalists across Apple’s entire range of products and services. It’s worth remembering in debates about how creative to be with product-level naming. This simplest of architectures now organizes $2T of market capitalization.

3. The push towards purpose

This third shift was underway long before Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter moment in 2020, but both have given it rocket fuel. People demand far more of brands today than functional benefits and managerial emphasis on commercial success. Skeptical of the effectiveness of governments, we expect companies to make a meaningful contribution to their customers, employees, environment, and the communities around them. And we want transparency – to know where a product comes from, how an organization treats its workers, its stance on racial justice, and how sustainable its practices are. These expectations necessitate a new job for brand architecture: to showcase a purpose, making it easy for customers to understand the mission behind the offerings, and for employees to hold everything the company does to that high standard.

Unilever started adding its corporate logo to its products in the aughts to frame a long-term mission of sustainability. The purpose imperative is another reason to radically simplify branding and to elevate brand narratives to be unifying and mission-based – since customers and employees will not find multiple missions credible or grokkable (understandable). Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad was placed at the Nike master-brand level, not at the level of Nike’s football products.

Elevating the brand in this way is not simply altruistic. It offers a tangible business benefit, by opening a broader growth pathway beyond a company’s category of origin. Brand architectures rooted in product benefits can be growth traps. How far can Dollar Shave Club ever develop beyond the singular price point, category, and business model enshrined by its name? At the other extreme, we find Tesla, its brand is framed by a mission to upend the “mine and burn carbon economy” rather than to convert the world to electric motoring (which would be impressive enough on its own). This broad mission opens the brand up to new categories such as home power, solar panels, and so on – far beyond the scope of Tesla’s automotive rivals. Amazon has a similar approach: Its mission from the outset has been to be the world’s most customer-centric company, which opened a pathway far beyond books, that now includes AI assistants, drones, and cloud computing.

To summarize, the job of brand architecture has profoundly shifted. Instead of maximizing shareholder value by managing brand equity, your brand architecture needs to do three essential jobs today.

One, it needs to deliver brand scale and resilience by containing as few elements as possible: minimal viable branding. It’s worth asking which of your brands have genuine recognition and meaning, and setting a high bar for whether you support or transition them.

Two, it needs to help your customers navigate to what they need, with simple, functional product signposts under the minimal viable brands. Ask yourself if your brand structure is organized by customer need, or by your company’s org chart, and whether your product names are functionally clear or creatively vague.

Three, it needs to showcase a purpose-driven story by connecting all the offerings under a transparent mission. Ask yourself if you have a mission beyond commercial ambition and whether it manifests at the summit of your brand architecture and at the product or offering level.

Doing this job well requires a fundamental shift, away from thinking about brand architecture as an analytic framework in which all points in the spectrum may be viable options, and towards a more ideological stance: Brand architecture as the practice of building ever simpler, more human, and more mission-driven brand systems. This is similar to the shift from 19th Century architecture, in which decisions between, say, Neo-Classical and Gothic styles were matters of taste, to Modernist architecture, which was driven by the deep belief that buildings should be radically simpler, more human, and more useful to communities than before.

What kind of brands best exemplify this ethos, and what specific practices and metrics companies should use to build and manage them, will be worth looking into another time.

Part 1 of the series: New Brand Architecture for a Fragmented, Digital, Purpose-Fueled World, Part 1 – The Problem

Cover image source: Clint Adair & Glen Carrie