April 23rd, 2018

The Art of FMCG Brand Architecture

Three principles that we apply to ensure we deliver a successful brand architecture

Brand architecture just like its more easily understood physical architecture sibling is about simply making things work. Allowing our brains to rapidly decode the various brands and products at speed. Using design to help ensure people don’t end up confused and picking up a more easily understood competitors brand. Businesses love to add products and services periodically with a revolving door of new marketers looking to make their mark within their limited tenure of managing a portfolio. Tactical decisions are often made at warp speed to hit a commercial deadlines and the resulting legacy brand architecture often suffers and leads to a muddled portfolio of products and brands that confuse more than clarify. Its these legacy brand architecture jigsaw puzzles that we all too often get asked to solve and set a course for the future.

Here are 3 principles that we apply to ensure we deliver a successful brand architecture that people get:

1. Don’t move away from your brand equity

It’s all too often easy to throw the baby out of the bath water and kill the very equity on which a the brand became famous. Understanding what the brand is known for today and what license it has to move beyond that set the key foundation for any legacy brand architecture brief. Far too often product portfolio decisions are made with scant care or understanding, use research to get up close and personal with people and listen to where they’d let you take the brand.

A brief that starts with “we’d like to create a new sub-brand” is one that we together look to unpick with the clients, taking a step back to understand if that is the only, or the right decision. Creating new sub-brands is exciting and sexy for marketers and designers alike, but being clear on where the brand equity in people’s minds is today and where it can be taken tomorrow is critical. Coca-Cola Life was one such brand extension that was destined to fail from the outset, the brands first foray into a cola sweetened from a blend of sugar and stevia plant extract. It contained 45% less sugar and calories than the original variant. But it was product stuck in the wasteland between the original product and Diet Coke & Coke Zero.

Coca-Cola Life didn’t make people’s lives or choices any easier, it was a brand that nobody wanted from the outset and ultimately caused more confusion than clarity. This is the perfect example of a brand stretch that wasn’t needed. Coca-Cola has now taken a new form of attack, focusing on extending from within a core brand.

Diet Coke has not only slimmed down in the US with a new brand refresh but also created four new flavour variants (Ginger Lime, Twisted Mango, Zesty Blood Orange, Feisty Cherry). Surely a much safer bet and product architecture strategy, with the UK market taking on board two initially.

2. Keep it as simple as possible, as complex as necessary

This is more of a design mantra than anything else, but when reviewing any different architecture design solutions we always say “could you gran understand this”, if the answer is an outright “no” then go back to the drawing board. People need to understand the interplay between brands and brand families, but then also quickly navigate within the family of products. It’s a challenge we’ve faced with BirdsEye, when we began working with them they had two core frozen fish lines beyond fish fingers: Simply Breaded and Harry Ramsden’s Battered fish. Research and insight led us to the first big brand identity conclusion, it was time to bring the Captain back to the table, for a new generation of Mums that remembered him fondly from their childhood. That then led us down a road of discovery in terms of once again becoming a Captain BirdsEye led brand, removing the need for Harry Ramsden’s or Simply Breaded and simply promoting whether the products were battered or breaded. Doing this made it clear that there were two product families (battered was red, breaded was blue), the challenge then went down a layer to the fish species which we needed to pull apart, which we did with a secondary layer of colour for the 3 types of fish.

This is just one example where you need to focus in on why you are, or in this case were, loved and drive that through your core story. Beyond that its then helping people to find the right product to suit their needs and wants. Design plays a hugely important role in simplifying that choice and ensuring brands win. Two brands that have similar parity in terms of equity may go head-to-head on a fixture, the one that’s easiest to decode beyond that is more than likely the one that ends up in the shopping trolley. Comparing and contrasting competitor and out-of-category architecture can help you reach conclusions on the challenges you are facing today.

3.Don’t stretch too far, you might snap

Sometimes it is all too easy to take a giant leap into the unknown and stretch the brand beyond what made it famous, or what it is known for today. The best-in-class failure of this has to be Colgate’s move from dental care into the frozen aisle, who remembers Colgate’s infamous Beef Lasagne?

There is also the risk of mixing two brands because you can, Mondelez (then Kraft) took over the Cadbury brand in 2010 and within a decade launched Philadelphia cream cheese with a hint of Cadbury chocolate. 

Whilst the product may taste great these two brands have their own unique memory structures and mashing them together is perhaps a stretch too far. A safer foray is beyond their core and light ranges into snacking product formats that taps into the food-on-the go trend, or healthy kids lunchbox snack.

The simple rule here is if it feels wrong it probably is, if you get that feeling that take it to consumers and test the principles to see if it works. I recall being sat in a meeting at Nestlé in York and someone saying “we are going to mash-up Matchmakers and Quality Street”, and my brain instantly going “what the hell!?”.

However, with a little bit of time and design exploration it made sense. Quality Street simply trumped the corporate Nestlé brand when it came to being the lead master brand. It not only added in higher product quality values, but there was a stronger love that Quality Street brought to special occasions with family and friends.

Commercially adopting a masterbrand strategy for communication efficiencies and effectiveness makes total sense and in the majority of cases growth in the UK’s FMCG sector is driven by brands that extend themselves into new products to meet new occasions, needs and audiences. By adopting the 3 principles highlighted above you should hopefully increase your chances of success. Understand what made you famous in the past or why you are famous today, make it as simple as possible so that your grandma would understand and don’t stretch too far that you snap!