Interbrand Thinking

Andrew miller

The Elastic Brand

View from the inside

Big technology and its ever-present change and evolution has changed the world, so how can we architect brands which are as elastic as the tech stars’ business models? It is by no means impossible – even traditional companies can build a brand to thrive in today’s permanent disruption.

Technology companies have disrupted every aspect of life, influencing how we engage, how we buy and how we connect. In turn, they have changed the way we think about brands and the practice of brand building. Unlike traditional companies, “big tech” companies connect evolving technological capability with existing and emerging consumer demand to deliver new models, services and products at speed.

This requires us, as brand builders, to rethink how we architect brands. Essentially, we have to ask: “how do we build masterbrands with the elasticity to stretch into any arena?” And, as traditional brands look to transition and transform into technology brands, we have to ask what can the traditional players learn from big tech?

When we look at technology brands and how they build their brand architecture, it’s non-traditional. They eschew the age-old methodology and ideology around brand architecture, based on a hierarchical relationship between an entity and its portfolio. For instance, with a house of brands where there’s no connection between the holding company – the owner – and the go-to market brands, the owner’s role is just to orchestrate each brand so they’re not cannibalizing one another’s market share. Even in a branded house, where the masterbrand is designed to simplify the relationship with the customer to drive overall marketing efficiencies, clear hierarchy is required.

How do we build masterbrands with the elasticity to stretch into any area?

Tech’s business model is forcing a shift in how we build associations between a parent brand and its portfolio, from a traditional hierarchical model to a principles-based approach.

Like many companies, they started with a clear value proposition built around a core product, and their brand emerged from the interactions people had with the product. For Google that was search, for Microsoft that was Windows and for Amazon that was e-commerce.

To exponentially grow, each business expanded into a diverse set of categories – entertainment, cloud computing and devices, to name a few. This was only possible by building a strong masterbrand with equities that transcend the original category in which it played.

Now, each of these brands has equities that are not directly connected to any particular category or product. Instead, they connect to the purpose of the brand and what it does for people, for humanity and for society. Nurturing these transcendent equities allows them to stretch into as many categories as they can think of.

The Five Keys To Today’s Successful Brand Architecture

1. Build Masterbrand Elasticity

If you build what we’re calling “masterbrand elasticity” into your brand, it will allow you as a company to stretch across multiple categories over time and respond to new business opportunities as they arise. Technology companies have done this well, while other companies which have a more traditional mindset have rooted their equities in one or more primary categories. It feels very strange for them to venture into other categories, because they haven’t built the sort of transcendent equities that cut across silos more easily.

2. Think About Architecture in a User-Centric Way

Because we’re using digital ecosystems all the time, we have to organize architecture around the user; this is even more crucial now than it has been in the past. It’s a mental shift from a more product centric view, which could be expressed as: “Here’s the thing I made. Here’s what it does. Let me tell the people who might like it what it is” towards a human truth: “What do people need, and how do I build a portfolio that serves those needs?” User-centricity must be built into your brand architecture.

3. Optimize Your Equities

If you’re a company that makes many things and has strong product brands that drive sales and daily interactions, you need to have a very clear idea of what your masterbrand equities are and what your portfolio brand equities are. You also need to know exactly how those equities interrelate. An ideal architecture model builds self-reinforcing equities, as opposed to being redundant in an unhelpful way, or worse, contrary. You should actively avoid elements that are in opposition to one another and which are not helping people feel a certain way about your company.

What this means tactically is that companies need to have a quantitative understanding of the major parts of their portfolio, and how that portfolio works together, to deliver equity up to the masterbrand, and for the masterbrand to be providing equity down to the brands within the portfolio that people interact with.

Many companies spend time understanding their purchase funnel within a business line, so they have information about a product brand and what drives demand generation. And while they likely track the masterbrand, they haven’t deeply studied the equities and associations of the portfolio brands and how they relate to the masterbrand, which is where the opportunity lies.

4. Use Applied Strategy

In this digital era, you need to use applied strategy in real time. It won’t work to use academic strategy and then work out how to execute it later; there are too many overlaps and interconnections. You need to be able to make really good decisions about how to express architecture across touchpoints. Applied strategy is simply applying a strategic hypothesis across a range of touchpoints in order to know if it will work, how well it will work, and defining the challenges that you are likely to face and will need to address in order to adapt and change.

5. Move to Growth Oriented Governance

Governance in the traditional sense is about being the “brand police” and making sure people are applying the brand in the correct way. Growth-oriented governance, though, reframes the idea of brand governance toward how we think about brand management. If the masterbrand is seen as a strategic asset that is directly tied to creating value and growth, it means that business units can achieve and exceed business objectives by having a clear and consistent approach to applying brand architecture principles.

Is it possible for a traditional top-down brand to transform itself into a new tech-style brand?

This poses a major question: is it possible for a traditional topdown brand to transform itself into a new tech-style brand, and if so, how?

The answer is that yes, it is certainly possible but it is very challenging and requires intense change management. Change management is an important skillset and capability for agency and client teams who work on brand architecture, because when it comes down to executing change we need to be able to help companies work through, and think through, that process.

Change management is, in fact, becoming more and more vital. If we are to help companies reframe their mentality around brand architecture toward a principles-based approach that builds transcendent equities into their execution, we need to help them actually make that change possible and do it in a way that maintains the value they’ve created.

It is important to acknowledge that this is tremendously difficult to do, and it will take time. If you’re trying to build an elastic masterbrand in an organization that lets the products lead, it will require a massive shift in the mentality of your company. Companies that are fundamentally product-centric, deep in their DNA, will have to reorient themselves to become brand-centric. It is a difficult and tall mountain to climb, but it’s absolutely possible.