Brand architectonics from the mind of Gucky

One evening at the local pub, Broken Record, I was rapt in conversation with Amanda Peterson, a brilliant former Landorian and current former HP Google namer and brand strategist. “Gucky,” as she’s known to friends, said two things so great I just had to share.

One gem gave me a new appreciation for “branded house” architecture systems and how to garner internal support for them. In a branded house, there’s one master brand and all products have descriptive, often generic, names and/or alphanumeric designators (e.g. FedEx Ground and FedEx Express, or BMW i3 and BMW 535). If you’re a product manager it’s natural that you’d want to give your product a real name with depth and character, not a generic one.  

For a product manager at a branded house, generic names can be a bitter pill to swallow, reducing your unique product – your baby! – to a descriptor and a mishmash of letters and numbers. But the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one, so somebody at some point has to break it to the product manager that their product won’t get a unique name. This is how Gucky frames it:
“You should feel sorry for sub-brands because they have been kicked out from the heartland of the brand.”
I just love this. She positions the master brand as a real source of pride, and any product that doesn’t have the privilege of basking in its radiant glow and rewarding equity is in brand exile, banished and left to fend with only a new and unknown name to set it apart and fight for attention in the jungle of the marketplace. She makes the master brand irresistible, which is helpful, because in a true branded house, resistance to master branding is futile.   

Next beaut: Gucky thinks the era of the disconnected “house of brands” is over. She points to a recent backlash against Unilever. As a house of brands company, Unilever sells independently-branded products like Dove and Axe that compete and coexist on shelf with “kisses and punches.” But sometimes punches outnumber the kisses.

That’s what happened when Unilever tried to play the field with two personal care brands that were antithetical to one another. Specifically, their Dove brand staked its position in The Campaign for Real Beauty, a celebration of women who are beautiful despite, or because of, their imperfections. At the same time, Axe body spray advertising featured sex-charged, objectified women; sexist to most, sexy to some.

Now, if the brands were Tide and Downy in the same portfolio (as they are in P&G’s), no problem. One is best for deep cleaning, one best for softness. Those ideas can play well together. But when two brands in one company’s portfolio have violently conflicting values, it spells trouble. That was the case with Dove and Axe, when it wasn’t just a small handful of hard-core feminists who loudly objected to the sexist Axe ads; a whole country had a problem with them, too.

According to Gucky, this portfolio dissonance is a sign of the times.

No, not that sign.
Back when things were simpler and we walked five miles to school in the snow (uphill both ways), there was such a thing as “invisible branding” in a house of brands. Invisible branding, when a parent brand is not visible in the consumer communications of a product brand, is how Disney insulated its family-friendly brand image from the grown-up content of Touchstone Pictures. It's how the soybean-hugging Silk brand could be quietly bought and silently operated by industrial agriculturist, Dean Foods.

There have always been limits to invisible branding. Shareholders and employees know who owns what. Gucky reminded me that Unilever now owns Ben & Jerry’s, whose original, radical values changed after their buyout, demonstrating that the parent brand is invisible only to consumers, but is in full view and control of the brands in its portfolio.

The limits of invisible branding have recently become more pronounced. Before the social network era, you might not know that your favorite mom-and-pop brand is now part of a corporate behemoth. Or that the maker of your preferred moisturizer slash feel-good cause also uses oiled-up nymphomaniacs to sell men’s body spray. Today, everyone knows everything. As I wrote in Bullshit-Free Branding
Armed with Snopes, mass reviews, WikiLeaks and other trusted sources, everything a company claims can and will be verified, almost instantly. Every pissed-off critic holds a megaphone and now the whole world can hear their rant.
That means the glory days of true invisible branding are over, says Gucky:
“There’s no such thing as invisible brand architecture. Social media has made it impossible. Dove can’t peacefully coexist with Axe.”
Today, companies must be ever-mindful about the values and messages of all the brands in their portfolio, even those with no visible brand relationship. Despite the distance between Axe and Dove, they are close enough to create brand dissonance in the mind of the market, and a whopping headache for Unilever.

Thanks, Gucky, for your words of brand architecture wisdom!