If your brand has become complicated, confusing, or just plain chaotic, brand architecture is the solution you’re looking for.

It happens.

Sometimes as your business grows—whether because you’ve acquired other businesses, launched new products, or expanded into new markets—the cohesive brand you started with becomes a jumble of brands, sub-brands, and sub-sub-brands.

Enter brand architecture to the rescue.

Brand architecture is the best way to bring your business’s offerings back into focus, helping you better cross-promote products and services—and regain control over how your brand is perceived by customers.

In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about brand architecture, including why it matters for your business, how to know if your brand needs an architectural overhaul, and the 4 types of brand architecture (including some famous brand architecture examples).

We’ll even walk you through a step-by-step guide to choosing and defining a crystal-clear brand architecture framework for your own business.

CONTENTS

What is Brand Architecture?

Brand architecture is the organizational hierarchy of a company’s brands, sub-brands, products, and/or services. It’s an integrated system of names, symbols, colors, and visual vocabulary that bring clarity to a brand portfolio.

The best brand architecture is intuitive. It maps directly to how customers think about a business and the various ways it solves their problems.

Intuitive brand architecture makes it easy for customers to understand the relationships between a brand’s various products and/or services, including how each offering meets their unique needs.

An integral part of brand strategy, brand architecture can also influence purchasing behavior by facilitating the transfer of brand equity from one brand to another.

If a customer already trusts a parent brand, for example, they are much more likely to purchase one of its sub-brands.

Let’s take a closer look at the role brand architecture plays in brand awareness and business success.

Why Brand Architecture Matters to Your Business

A photo of a collection of Apple products
Like most things branding, brand architecture is ultimately a tool for shaping perceptions. It allows you to define both the breadth and depth of your brand portfolio.

But the practical benefits of brand architecture don’t end there.

A common misconception is that brand architecture is only for large, complex organizations. But even small companies can see measurable improvements in business performance by better organizing their offerings.

Regardless of your company’s size, effective brand architecture can help you:

Target the Needs of Specific Customers

Better organizing your offerings enables you to more effectively segment your brand messaging, ensuring each of your target audiences hears what you want them to hear—and gets precisely what they’re looking for.

Reduce Marketing Costs

When brand hierarchy is architected in a logical, intuitive way, your marketing efforts are exponentially more efficient. Clearly defined brand architecture opens up opportunities for cross-promotion between brands, as well, enabling you to get more out of your marketing spend.

Clarify Brand Positioning

Nothing clarifies your brand positioning like clearly defined brand architecture. Improving the clarity of your brand positioning results in more impactful messaging and a more readily apparent competitive differentiation. It’s like giving your brand a high-performance tune-up.

Facilitate Future Growth

The modular nature of an intuitive brand architecture makes it vastly easier to add brand extensions like new products or services as your company grows. And well-managed, growth-oriented brands are a reassuring sign for investors and employees alike.

Enhance Customer Awareness

When a brand’s various divisions are not clearly delineated, those divisions are forced to rely on the parent brand to capture the attention of the marketplace. Brand architecture empowers your distinct brands or sub-brands by highlighting their unique strengths and differences.

Build Brand Equity

The upshot of all of the above benefits is the ultimate competitive advantage for any company: brand equity. Growing your brand equity provides compound returns, as industry authority and market valuation grow with it.

6 Signs You Need Better Brand Architecture

An abstract diagram illustrating the concept of brand architecture
As you can see, a well-organized brand architecture that maps to your customer’s thought process in a clear, intuitive way is key to boosting brand awareness and building brand equity.

The simple truth is, if you haven’t defined a clear brand architecture framework for your customers, you’re leaving it up to them to define it for you. Which is a surefire recipe for customer confusion and lackluster sales.

But how do you know if your business is in need of a brand architecture overhaul?

There are a few telltale signs that point directly to the need for clearer brand architecture:

1. Your Customers Don’t Understand Your Offerings

If your customers either aren’t aware of, or don’t fully understand, the full breadth of your offerings, a more clearly defined brand architecture is the best way to correct these misperceptions.

2. One of Your Offerings is Outperforming the Others

If you have a product or service that vastly outperforms the others—and you’re looking to transfer its brand equity to another offering—a more intuitive brand architecture is the easiest solution.

3. One of Your Offerings is Underperforming the Others

If you have a product or service that significantly underperforms your other offerings—and you want to improve customer awareness of its value proposition—brand architecture gives you a way to measurably amplify its visibility in the market.

4. You’ve Acquired a New Business

If you’ve recently acquired (or plan to acquire) a new brand and want to ensure you get the most out of integrating its products or services, taking the time to revisit your brand architecture isn’t just recommended, it’s essential.

5. You’re Launching a New Offering

If you’re launching a new product or service line and need to integrate it into your existing brand portfolio, a brand architecture strategy provide clarity around how it will affect—and be affected by—the brand equity of other brands in your portfolio.

6. You’re Preparing to Exit

Finally, if you’re preparing for a liquidity event and want to ensure you’ve maximized your brand’s market valuation, a clear brand architecture sends unmistakable signals to investors that you have built and continue to grow brand equity.

4 Types of Brand Architecture

There are a number of different types of brand architecture, each offering a different conceptual framework for your brand portfolio.

As you’ll see in the various brand architecture examples below, you’re probably already familiar with these brand architecture types, whether you realize it or not. The world’s biggest brands take a deliberate, highly strategic approach to brand hierarchy—and for good reason.

There are pros and cons of each of the following brand architecture models, which is why you’ll want to carefully consider some important factors before deciding which is right for your business. More on that in the next section.

For now, let’s take a look at what each type of brand architecture entails for your business and its brands.

There are four common categories of brand architecture: branded house, house of brands, endorsed, or hybrid.

Branded House

A diagram of the FedEx brand portfolio as an example of a branded house
A branded house includes a strong master brand (or umbrella brand) with a collection of product or service brands, each of which has a descriptive name that includes the master brand name.

One branded house example is FedEx and its various extensions, including FedEx Express, FedEx Ground, FedEx Freight, etc.

The branded house architecture capitalizes on established customer loyalty where audiences care less about product features or benefits than they do about the central brand promise they know and love (in the case of FedEx, “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight”).

Branded House Advantages

  • Parent brand and sub-brands share a unified positioning strategy and visual identity, resulting in more cost-effective marketing and branding
  • Entails the least amount of short-term investment and disruption
  • Visual cohesiveness and clarity reduces customer confusion
  • The visibility of and awareness of sub-brands boost the exposure and brand equity of parent brand
  • The quality and trust of the parent brand is automatically extended to the sub-brands in the minds of customers

Branded House Disadvantages

  • Risk by association means that a problem for one brand can negatively affect the reputation and brand equity of the parent brand.
  • Dilution of brand equity. When a brand is positioned too broadly across multiple service categories, its impact can become diffuse and ineffectual.
  • An overall lack of flexibility means that the entire system can be compromised by a single underperforming entity.

Branded House Examples

  • FedEx
  • Apple
  • John Deere
  • Harley Davidson
  • Virgin
  • GE
  • Accenture
  • Samsung
  • USA Today
  • National Geographic

House of Brands

A diagram of the P&G brand portfolio as an example of a house of brands
A house of brands architecture features a collection of distinct, individual brands under a parent brand that customers may or may not be aware of. The parent brand is primarily important only to the investment community.

The brand extensions in a house of brands system essentially endorse each other, while the parent brand realizes the benefits. House of brands examples include Proctor & Gamble and its vast array of products across multiple industries.

Products within a house of brands architecture sometimes feature their parent brand’s identity on their packaging by way of a small logo or address.

Some house of brands examples choose not to broadcast the relationship between their parent brand and portfolio brands because of specific strategies around pricing, perceived quality, or target audiences.

House of Brands Advantages

  • The freedom to create unique positioning, identity, experience for each brand
  • The ability to precisely target distinct market segments with specialized value propositions
  • Any negative impact on one brand is relatively isolated from other brands
  • The ability to easily diversify the business in the future with additional brands (without worrying too much about how they fit into the system)

House of Brands Disadvantages

  • Each brand within the portfolio requires its own strategy, marketing, website, etc.
  • The cost of these siloed branding, marketing, and promotional efforts can be considerable
  • This also means limited opportunities for cross-promotion
  • Any successes or positive associations of one brand are not transferrable to other brands in the portfolio
  • The opportunity for market confusion as to which is the best representation of the business: the parent brand or the sub-brands
  • The legal complexities and cost involved in owning and operating multiple corporate entities

House of Brands Examples

  • Procter & Gamble
  • Unilever
  • Nestle
  • General Motors
  • Automatic
  • Yum! Brands
  • Mars
  • Automatic
  • Johnson & Johnson

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Endorsed

A diagram of the Marriott brand portfolio as an example of endorsed brand architecture
In an endorsed architecture, there’s a parent brand (or endorser brand) and associated sibling brands (or endorsed brands) all of which have unique market presences. An endorsed strategy is one where you’ll find messaging like “Brought to you by…”.

In endorsed branding, the endorsed brands benefit from their association with (or endorsement from) the endorser brand. But the relationships between the endorsed brands within an endorsed architecture is often mutually beneficial as well, each benefitting from the strength of the other.

Think of Marriott and its various properties, including Courtyard, Residence Inn, and Springhill Suites, each of which feature the Marriott name in their logo.

Endorsed Brand Architecture Advantages

  • A good balance between the individuated brand equity of a house of brands and the collective brand equity of a branded house
  • In some ways, offers the the best of both worlds
  • The parent brand is associated with the sub-brands, but its name is not front and center
  • This offers some mitigation as to risk by association
  • The freedom to create unique positioning, identity, experience for each brand
  • The ability to precisely target distinct market segments with specialized value propositions, yet the throughline exists for intuitive cross-promotion

Endorsed Brand Architecture Disadvantages

  • The downsides of endorsed branding are similar to those of a branded house
  • Each brand within the portfolio still requires its own strategy, marketing, website, etc.
  • The cost of these siloed branding, marketing, and promotional efforts can be considerable
  • A problem with either the endorser brand or one of the endorsed brands can wind up being a problem for the entire brand portfolio.

Endorsed Branding Examples

  • Nabisco
  • Kellogg
  • Ralph Lauren
  • Caterpillar
  • Honda
  • Marriott
  • Atlassian
  • Invision
  • Intuit

Hybrid

A diagram of the Alphabet brand portfolio as an example of a hybrid brand architecture
Finally, a hybrid brand architecture framework is essentially some combination of the above architecture types.

Often the result of acquisition and/or rapid growth, a hybrid architecture is ideal when the existing brand equity of an acquired brand needs to be maintained, or when the system includes some level of nuance or complexity.

In the case of Alphabet, Google is allowed to operate in the space it knows best, search and advertising, while smaller brands, like Nest, Sidewalk Labs, and Calico operate as individual companies in their own specialized verticals.

Hybrid Architecture Advantages

  • The flexibility of multiple tiers of distinct hierarchies
  • Multiple hierarchies allows for varying levels of market-facing brands and sub-brands
  • Similar to a house of brands, a hybrid architecture offers the freedom to create unique positioning, identity, experience for each brand
  • The ability to precisely target distinct market segments with specialized value propositions
  • Easier diversification with the addition of new brands (without worrying too much about how they fit into the system)
  • Allows an added brand or sub-brand to retain any complexity inherent to its market value

Hybrid Architecture Disadvantages

  • Can feel ad-hoc if not done with purpose and deliberation
  • The complexity that is inevitable with an hybrid architecture creates opportunities for customer confusion
  • Each brand within the portfolio still requires its own strategy, marketing, website, etc.
  • The cost of these siloed branding, marketing, and promotional efforts can be considerable

Hybrid Brand Architecture Examples

  • Alphabet
  • Coca-Cola
  • Microsoft
  • Amazon
  • Salesforce
  • The Walt Disney Company
  • MGM Resorts
  • Adobe
  • Meta
  • Volkswagen

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Brand Architecture

A team of young professionals works to define their brand architecture
The brand architecture model that’s right for your business will depend on a number of factors, including the brand equity in each of your brands, how you want that brand equity to be distributed in the future, the various levels of visibility you want for each brand, and more

Most importantly, though, the right brand architecture strategy for your business will depend on how you want customers to understand the relationship between your brands, offerings, and/or divisions.

Let’s take a closer look at six of the most important factors to keep in mind when choosing your brand architecture framework and organizing your brand hierarchy.

By carefully considering each of the following parameters, you can mitigate the risk inherent to any brand restructuring.

Brand Equity

It’s important to evaluate both the strength and flexibility of the existing equity in each of your brands.

Do you risk losing valuable brand equity by consolidating brands after a merger or acquisition? Can an existing brand’s equity reasonably be leveraged to promote another?

Proctor & Gamble can’t exactly leverage the equity of its Head & Shoulders brand to promote other products in its brand portfolio like batteries or cold medicine. The resulting confusion would be problematic for all the brands involved.

Culture

Internal factors like core values and company culture are just as important as external ones when structuring your brand architecture.

If you’ve acquired a new company with a radically different culture, it’s important to ask whether it makes more sense to merge it or keep it separate.

Certain divisions also operate better with a level of autonomy that isn’t compatible with the codependent marketing strategy necessitated by a branded house, for example.

A branded house demands that all entities be on the same page when it comes to things like positioning and brand personality. If that doesn’t seem likely, or even possible, another architecture type should be considered.

Growth Strategy

Growth strategy should be front of mind when determining brand architecture.

Does your business model entail pending mergers, acquisitions, or alliances? Do you plan on expanding your product or service lines in the near (or even distant) future?

Your brand architecture should support and enable successful growth by providing strategic latitude for each brand.

The right approach will allow you to identify underperforming brands and avoid the exposure that comes with a single-brand strategy.

Market

One of the most important factors is the market or markets in which your company operates.

If your business targets a single market, a branded house can boost brand awareness, optimize marketing spend, and bolster reputation.

If you have products or services aimed at significantly different markets, multiple brands can help to protect each market from the other, mitigating risk and ensuring differentiated messaging.

The Ritz Carlton, for example, retains its luxury status by keeping a branded distance from its parent company, Marriott, and other, more budget-conscious sub-brands in the Marriott family.

Unable to compete in the luxury car market because of its pragmatic image, Toyota launched Lexus.

And by acquiring natural foods brand Odwalla, Coca-Cola gained access to a fast-growing market segment that was previously unavailable because of the soda giant’s association with junk food.

Multiple brands mean multiple ways to fulfill the unique needs of multiple audiences.

Disruption

Another key factor is how much disruption you’re willing to endure with a reorganized brand architecture. The restructuring that comes from a new brand architecture is always going to be disruptive.

Breaking a single brand into multiple brands requires creating new entities, transferring employees, and setting up new internal systems and external websites.

Consolidating multiple brands is also disruptive, setting the stage for confusion among employees and customers alike.

Every rebranding and restructuring initiative entails a certain amount of disruption and risk. The important thing is to measure that risk against the long-term gain you stand to realize.

Cost

Last but certainly not least among factors to consider when creating your brand architecture is cost, particularly the cost of rebranding that a new brand architecture entails.

Maintaining a slew of separate brands is always going to be costlier than organizing all of your offerings under a single brand.

It’s also expensive to rebrand the packaging, signage, and digital assets of multiple brands and consolidate them under a new single entity. And, of course, intangible costs like brand equity should always be considered as well.

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How to a Define a Clear Brand Architecture

The brand architecture process includes Research, Strategy, and Migration
After taking into consideration the factors outlined above, there are a few important steps to ensure you end up with a brand architecture that benefits both your business and your customers.

The most important thing to keep in mind is not to overcomplicate things. The purpose of brand architecture is to make your offerings clearer, not more complex.

With this key piece of advice in mind, there are 3 essential steps in defining a sound, intuitive brand hierarchy: research, strategy, and migration.

1. Research

The best brand architecture starts with customer research into things like brand awareness, brand loyalty, and associations. Only with research can you know how your audience currently understands (or doesn’t understand) your key offerings.

The insights you get from research will help you identify which brand architecture type will best support your business strategy. It will give you the information you need to parse your offerings or divisions in a way that makes sense to those you serve.

Research can include qualitative initiatives like one-on-one customer interviews, as well as interviews or focus group with with employees and other key internal stakeholders.

It can also include quantitative studies designed to test hypotheses developed in the qualitative phase. Quantitative research often takes the form of more widely distributed online surveys to understand customer segmentation.

Brand equity studies can help you better understand the equity each of your business’s brands has in relation to each other and the market at large.

And a competitive brand audit will provide further insight into the current strengths and weaknesses of your brand—as well as those of your top competitors.

2. Strategy

In the strategy phase, you determine the optimal brand architecture type for your business’s unique needs. Each type offers a different way to leverage (or not leverage) your corporate brand or master brand.

How closely do you want to associate your sub-brands to your parent brand?

This question is particularly relevant if you’ve recently undergone a merger or acquisition (and even more relevant if a former competitor was involved in the process).

To what extent should your various brands cross-reference and promote each other, or to what extent do they need to remain independent?

The best way to answer this question and others like it is to create illustrative examples of multiple architecture alternatives, identifying the pros and cons of each.

Evaluate each alternative against pre-determined criteria to ensure objectivity. A decision tree can help you answer specific questions and determine the best course of action.

Above all, prioritize clarity in the connections between sub-brands, divisions, products, or services. Cross-promotion between brands doesn’t work if customers are confused by the correlations between your brand extensions. The more common elements there are among your brands, the stronger the synergy will be between them.

Lastly, be realistic when it comes to budget and resources. Make sure to create a system that you can reasonably expect to support given the resources and capital you have available.

3. Migration

The final step is to create a blueprint for the system you’ve organized and outline a plan for migration.

This includes a naming structure and visual identity system that clearly delineates the brand hierarchy of your various sub-brands or brand extensions in a way that aligns with your overarching brand strategy.

The visual and verbal breadcrumbs that result from a tightly constructed blueprint are key to helping customers and other external stakeholders navigate your brand architecture.

Migrating existing brands to or from a new brand architecture entails no small amount of risk. The consolidation that follows M&A activity, for example, often means absorbing multiple brands into a single brand or breaking a single brand into multiple brands.

Careful deliberation over the course of multiple phases is the best way to mitigate risk and prevent market confusion during any brand architecture transition. Constant communication with key stakeholders throughout the shift is also essential to ensure you’re preserving existing brand equity.

In addition to your brand architecture blueprint, deliverables of this final stage should include a profile of your brand portfolio, outlining the following:

  • The strategic role of each brand within the portfolio
  • Each brand’s unique scope (offers, geographies, customers)
  • The relationship of each brand to the master brand
  • Various examples of the expression of each brand

The Takeaway

Ultimately, brand architecture strategy involves parsing the nuances of your brand portfolio and, with the help of meticulous research, deciding how to leverage each of brand or sub-brand to best benefit the whole.

By carefully considering each of the important factors listed above and following the process outlined, you’ll have a much better chance of mitigating the risk associated with any revised brand hierarchy.

Remember, the goal of brand architecture isn’t simply to come up with clever names for your products and services. It’s to create clarity from chaos—and sharpen the edge of your ongoing branding efforts.

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A prolific blogger, speaker, and columnist, Brian has two decades of experience in design and branding. He’s written for publications including Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc. Magazine, Fast Company, HuffPost, and Brand Quarterly.