• Transform magazine
  • December 07, 2023


Opinion: The art of FMCG brand architecture

Richard Taylor - Brandon Consultants (Large) (1).jpg

Just like its more widely understood sibling – physical architecture – brand architecture is all about making things work. It’s about helping our brains to rapidly decode brands and products. And it’s about using design to ensure people don’t end up confused by your brand and choose a more easily understood competitor instead.

Businesses love to keep their portfolios moving by periodically adding products and services, supported by a revolving door of new marketers looking to make their mark quickly before they move on to the next big thing. Tactical decisions are made at warp speed to hit commercial deadlines and legacy brand architecture often suffers as a consequence, resulting in a muddled portfolio of products and brands that confuses more than it clarifies. It’s these legacy brand architecture jigsaw puzzles that we’re all too often asked to solve – and then to set a clearer course for the future.

Don’t move away from your brand equity. It’s easy to throw the baby out with the bath water and kill the equity that made a brand successful in the first place. Understanding what the brand is known for today and what license it has to move beyond that point sets the 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 allow you to take the brand.

A brief that starts with, “We’d like to create a new sub-brand,” is one that we always look to unpick with our clients, taking a step back to understand if that really is the best course of action. Creating new sub-brands is exciting and sexy for marketers and designers alike, but being clear on where the brand equity sits in people’s minds 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. This was the brand’s first foray into a cola sweetened by a blend of sugar and stevia plant extract. It contained 45% less sugar and fewer calories than the original. But it was stuck in the wasteland between the original product and Diet Coke and 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. It’s the perfect example of a brand stretch that wasn’t needed.

Keep it as simple as possible and as complex as necessary. This is more of a design mantra than a branding rule, but when reviewing any architecture design solutions, we always ask, “Could your grandma understand this?” If the answer is an outright no, it’s time to go straight back to the drawing board.

People need to understand the interplay between brands and brand families, but they also need to be able to navigate quickly within the family of products. It’s a challenge we faced with Birds Eye. 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 who remembered him fondly from their childhood.

That took us down a road of discovery that led to becoming a Captain Birds Eye-led brand once again, removing the need for Harry Ramsden’s or Simply Breaded and just promoting whether the products were battered or breaded. Doing this made it clear to consumers that there were two product families (battered was red, breaded was blue), and three different types of fish, which we signified with a secondary layer of colour.

This is just one example showing the importance of focusing on why you are – or, in Birds Eye’s case, were – loved and driving that through your core story. Beyond that, it’s about helping people to find the right product to suit their needs and wants. Design plays a hugely important role in simplifying that choice. If two brands with similar equity go head-to-head on a fixture, the one that’s easiest to decode is more than likely to be 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.

Don’t stretch too far; sometimes it’s 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 must be Colgate’s move from dental care into the frozen aisle with the infamous Colgate beef lasagna.

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

While 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 was moving beyond their core and light ranges into snacking product formats that tap into the food-on-the go trend, or healthy kids lunchbox snack.

The simple rule here is this: if it feels wrong, it probably is. If you get that feeling, then take your idea to consumers and test it. Sleep on any brand architecture and wrestle with it visually to see if it makes sense, or could make sense in the future. Commercially adopting a masterbrand strategy for the sake of communication efficiencies and effectiveness makes total sense. 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.

Richard Taylor is the managing partner of Brandon