The Brand Architecture Conundrum in the World of B2B

By Alan Brew

As with many terms in branding, brand architecture is such a fuzzy concept. Most definitions coalesce around the Wikipedia version, which asserts: “Brand architecture is the structure of brands within an organizational entity.”

Beyond this point it is hard to get specificity on the subject, which inevitably leaves it wide open to interpretation.

So, all too often, a brand architecture program becomes nothing more than an elaborate exercise in reorganized complexity in which a neat arrangement of logos, names and endorsements is tidily wrapped up with a bow in a set of guidelines.

What a business really needs is not just visual logic, but an effective and powerful way to go-to-market with its products and services.

As with most concepts in branding, brand architecture has its roots in the consumer products industry. Makers of chocolate, cosmetics and sodas have long pioneered and perfected systems and strategies for managing portfolios of brands and products aimed at micro-segments of the market. These branding systems, or architectures, can take various forms. Some emphasize the provider brand (or corporate brand), others create brands that have no connection to the provider, and others combine these approaches. These have been rendered into quasi-academic models, commonly referred to in the textbooks as the Branded House model, the House of Brands model, and the Hybrid or Asymmetrical model.

While these models are useful enough to illustrate the broad range of relational possibilities across the entire business spectrum, they are theoretical constructs, not ready-to-wear templates that can be applied from one company to another depending on preference. Indeed, great care is required in their use and interpretation.

Brand architecture complications set in when the invisible divide that separates the consumer world from the business-to-business domain is crossed without due awareness.

Consider Procter & Gamble, the classic “House of Brands” model: P&G as a business is a quintessential volume-operations organization. It specializes in serving high volume, fast-moving consumer goods markets with more than 300 standardized products. They are branded and mass-marketed through low-touch distribution channels and serviced by close-end transactions. P&G also has the significant advantage of a $5 billion marketing budget to maintain a House of Brands model successfully.

A B2B company, on the other hand, has a fundamentally different kind of business model. The supplier-customer relationship is much less transactional, often requiring individualized solutions with a high proportion of value-added consultative services. As a result, products are much more complex and product development cycles are longer. The customer universe is also much smaller for B2B companies and the sales process is long and rigorous, often involving many people.

Hence, “brand architectures” developed in the consumer world can be as relevant and meaningful for a B2B company as studying patterns in the night sky and consulting the morning horoscope for advice. As superficially logical as they might look, they don’t translate.

In the B2B world a buyer may identify as much with the promise of the corporate brand as they do with specific products and services. No doubt price, quality and product features will always be important factors in the buying process, and specific market segments do have to be addressed on their own terms, but branding at product/service level will be much less effective for a B2B company without the presence of a strong, overarching corporate brand.

It defines how the enterprise makes strategic sense as a whole, a key investor message, and also makes important customer promises of reliability or innovation, or whatever the company has built its reputation on, which underpin the performance of individual business units and product groups. But they, in turn, must also have the flexibility and tools to compete in their competitive market environments.

This kind symbiotic relationship requires a dynamic, flexible go-to-market framework that supports the entire organization, from investor relations and employee communications to marketing and sales processes. Call it brand architecture, but form must always follow function.