The Myths of Brand Architecture

| January 10, 2017

The importance of brand architecture in a growing enterprise cannot be overstated. It provides the basis of your identity, yes, but even more importantly it provides your competitive point of difference and justification of your price and basically underscores everything that feeds your bottom line.

This is why all businesses need to establish the architecture of their brand, the basic blueprint that supports every decision your company will make, as one of the very first things they build in their business.

Sadly, many businesses believe that branding (other than their logo) is equivalent to marketing and that marketing is something they will only need to seriously indulge in later, after they start to scale.

I've learned a lot about this in my career so far, most recently as the first-ever CMO at Harley-Davidson and now running a brand and marketing consultancy that works on these issues for clients like Under Armour. And because it is such a crucial factor in any businesses' success, I am happy to share some insights with you to make your business stronger in whatever growth phase you're in.

In my experience, there are four major myths about brands and their architecture in businesses. I know it would be cleaner if there were five, or three, but I really believe there are four.

So here we go - listicle time - the Four Myths About Brand Architectures:

New Businesses Can Wait Until Later To Have One

The myth of brand with start-ups or emerging businesses is that many believe a brand is important only once you've already developed the business. That is exactly backward.

The truth is that the brand IS the business, and you should build its foundations with the same energy as you develop your initial products and services. They are inseparable if you're approaching it right. And approaching it right means better business from the start.

Success Means My Brand Architecture Is Already Pretty Awesome

There is another myth of brand that is even more dangerous, and this one happens after a business has already become successful, especially if that success is measured in market cap or PR buzz but not yet profitability. The myth is, "because we have a successful business, that means we have built a resilient and strong brand".

There are many cautionary tales of booming businesses that had buzzy brands but discovered only later that their brands did not command much distinctive market power. Or profit. This applies even to "first-movers" who showed a new way in a category but didn't win in the end (Alta Vista vs. Google; Friendster vs. Facebook; Burger Chef vs. McDonald's; Blackberry vs. iPhone).

Even in a company as legendary and historic as Harley-Davidson there was a time when it was believed that "everyone just knew" what the brand was and how to make on-brand decisions. The truth was far less clear, even confusing, and kept the company from new growth paths. With a fresh effort to clarify and simplify its brand architecture and brand purpose, Harley was able to see ways to extend its traditional brand power to new demographics (e.g. #1 with Millennials and Women) and new territories (Vietnam, India) while preserving its strength with Core customers.

A Brand Architecture Is Just A Clever Marketing Description Of What We Already Do

Lots of businesses think marketing and brands are just like layers of tasty and colorful frosting on your well-baked product cake. The myth here is the belief that a brand architecture is just a tastier description of what you do. And that is true, however it is not all a good brand architecture should be. A good brand architecture is not just descriptive of your benefit and distinction, it should also illuminate what not to do. It has to take customer and competitive issues into account. In this way, a strong brand definition from the start is one of the greatest efficiencies for your business because it eliminates waste and rework. The clarity of what to do, and not to do, helps teams work better together.

Brand Architecture Is A Marketing Thing, Only

So by now you may be persuaded that you should not wait until you need more serious marketing to create a brand architecture - good. However there is another myth you must tackle, too: a brand architecture is not just a marketing thing. The true power of a brand architecture is in how it is used across the entire business. It should help clarify choices for every department, to enable all decisions to be considered as part of your larger brand definition - every product, every service, every customer encounter - and help those decision makers know when they are OFF brand, not just on it. They use the brand architecture to challenge their decisions, the small decisions that impact customers and happen every day outside of marketing meetings, to ensure that your brand is continually reinforced in every interaction. This makes your brand, and business, stronger and more sustainable, no matter your latest marketing campaign. A brand architecture is not a tagline. It is a sustainable, differentiated benefit of your brand.

So how do you go about this?

Creation of a brand architecture can take many forms, but the key is to strive for painful levels of simplicity. A good brand architecture is not a binder, nor a brand bible, and not a marketing plan. It's good to have those, of course, but a brand architecture is to help you and everyone in a company make on-brand decisions on a day to day basis which means it must be simple, memorable and relatable.

While staying simple, it must also be true to your customers.

And true to your products and services.

And distinctive from your competitors, or future competitors.

A brand architecture stems from your most central and meaningful promise to your customer. It is most likely, at its best, an emotional promise and not a rational one. It is hard work to create this, simply. The first step is creating this central idea in as few as one to three words. Not sentences. Simple is hard. But worth it.

And from that central gravitational idea, an idea that every decision in your company can be checked against - "does this decision reinforce the idea of X?" - you then start to create important support pillars that help contextualize the brand idea in important ways.

Contributed by Mark-Hans Richer, President of Richer Inc. and Board Member of QuickPivot