Blood, Sweat and Tiers

I recently wrote an article summarizing a presentation by Marcus Hewitt called "Branding is Like Dating." As a follow up, I'd also like to share a great article from the AIGA's website by Rob Wallace (of Wallace Church). This article clearly illustrates the opportunities and pitfalls surrounding brand extensions. As all designers know, you can have a fabulous one-off package design, but then along comes a new product and you need to figure out how to work it all together as a cohesive brand. It's not always an easy task, but Wallace's advice here is priceless.

Blood, Sweat and Tiers: Building Optimal Brand Identity Architectures

by Rob Wallace

June 19, 2008

Brand extensions are more than twice as

likely to succeed as new brands. With mega-brands like Crest extending

to more than 80 SKUs in the United States alone and over 300 products

worldwide, today’s brands are not just expanding—they are


Brand identity architectures—and the design strategies that define

them—are rarely planned to accommodate this hyperbolic explosion. In an

effort to differentiate their various tiers, firms may use design

strategies that overstep their needs. In the best cases, these

ill-planned design architectures close the door on future brand growth.

In the worst cases, over-extended design architectures actually

denigrate the base brand’s integrity.

The most successful brands leverage their relevance across a number

of meaningful experiences, attracting a broad range of consumer

profiles without eroding the brand’s essence. In their initial

evolution, brands offer core users variations of the same experience.

As they grow, many brands offer core consumers completely new, but

relevant experiences. When they are more fully evolved, idealized

brands leverage their core attributes to both new consumers and new

experiences. And when a brand’s values become so richly engrained in

the culture, the brand’s reputation can credibly endorse unrelated

brands, too, while still building on base-brand credibility.

Certainly not all brands are relevant enough, nor all brand

experiences rich enough, to extend to all tiers. Regardless, all ideal

brand identity architectures effectively differentiate each brand

offering while actually building on the brand’s integrity. In this

article, we’ll show how it’s done by using two examples: the first is

Lean Cuisine, an actual, established brand of frozen entrees, and

Sunshine Grove, a fictional brand of orange juice created for

illustrative purposes.

Hierarchy of design strategies: colors, shapes, numbers, words

Audiences typically respond to a specific hierarchy of

communication. In this hierarchy, visual language is far more eloquent

than verbal communication. In visual communication, color is first

element observed, generating the most immediate visceral and emotional

response. Successful design architecture’s single most effective

strategy is to establish a distinctive color relevant to the brand

experience and use that color consistently. Changing brand color should

only be reserved for the highest level of differentiation.

When design architecture is consistent, as in the Lean Cuisine

example, even subtle tertiary uses of color can have a meaningful


Well-planned design architectures might use color in a number

of primary, secondary and even tertiary strategies. For example, the

white color is Lean Cuisine’s core brand mnemonic used consistently

across all products, while the very subtle use of supportive colors

effectively segments the brand tiers.

Shape is the second most recognized visual strategy. Again,

shape can be part of the primary (i.e., package structure), secondary

(layout of graphic elements) and tertiary strategies (brand logos or

icons). Using the Lean Cuisine example, the layout of elements remains

identical across more than 100 SKUs. Each element is in exactly the

same “staging area,” resulting in a recognizable brand shape that helps

consumers navigate quickly. The package structure or layout shape only

changes to differentiate very unique brand offerings.

Numbers are the third most immediately recognized strategy.

Numbers are most effective for differentiating good/better/best brand

tiers. For instance, most consumers recognize the value differences

between 200-, 500- and 700-series automobiles.

Words are the last to be recognized and the least visceral of

all cues, and therefore should not be relied on to create meaningful

differentiation across the brand. As in Lean Cuisine’s case, brand

segment names, such as Everyday Favorites and Café Classics, are

relatively small, allowing the distinctive color bands that wrap them

to signal each tier more effectively.

Putting best practice to use

What follows is an outline of sequential best practices for building

optimized brand identity architectures. Ten possible tiers are defined

both by the criteria used to determine their place in the brand

hierarchy and by some of the design strategies used to best achieve

their balanced, branded differentiation.

Lean Cuisine and Stouffer’s (both owned by Nestlé), as well as our

fictional Sunshine Grove brand of juices, are referred to as mentors.

Note that they are used exclusively to exemplify branding strategy.

These examples may not be actual products nor do they indicate Nestlé’s

desires to extend their brands. They are used as hypothetical examples,

purely to illustrate each tier of a balanced brand architecture.

Only the fruit illustration and subtle, tertiary color cues change

to differentiate between juice flavors. All other elements, including

the signature illustration style, remain the same.

TIER ONE: The base brand and its flavors/fragrances

Key criteria: Same consumer, same experience

The base brand delivers the core brand experience to the core

consumer profile in any number of flavors, fragrances, sizes, etc. Each

alternative is just a different way of delivering the same benefits and

same experience to the same consumer.

Design strategy: Product presentation and tertiary color cues

The most effective design architectures, specifically those for food

products, make the product “the hero,” using a representation of the

product as the most prominent visual element. In combination with a

relatively small flavor/fragrance name, product presentation can often

provide the appropriate level of differentiation between these

variants. When photography and flavor name alone are not enough,

tertiary color cues might be used in a subtle way that does not erode

the primary brand color mnemonic. However, all other primary elements

of the architecture (logo, primary and secondary color, the consistent

“staging area” of elements, etc.) should remain consistent.

SUB-TIER ONE: A unique claim/benefit/promotion

Key criteria: Same consumer, same experience—with one unique benefit

Products within the base brand that offer a single unique benefit,

promotion or cause-marketing effort may justify a subtle level of

differentiation. Whole grains, fragrance-free, breast cancer affinity,

for example, all might deserve awareness, but need to be balanced

within the primary brand experience. Since this is still a Tier One

level of differentiation it does not warrant significant distinction

from the base-brand.

Design strategy: Violators

Violators must be designed with the same level of care and

craftsmanship as every other element of the identity. Staging areas

should be dedicated for violators that do not overlap product

presentation or clutter key brand messaging. Importantly, violators

should attract attention without denigrating the brand. Big, bold

bursts may be eye-catching but can seriously erode quality perceptions

and betray brand integrity. Most importantly, violators must be used

sparingly, limited to one key message.  Identities that already use a

key benefit violator should not use a second violator for promotional

purposes. In this case, marketers must decide which is most

important—the key benefit, the cause marketing or the promotion—and

replace one with the other.

The addition of red banners and Target’s iconic logo create an adequate distinction for this product, sold only at Target.

TIER TWO: Retailer-specific products

Key criteria: Perceived differences in identical products

Retailers increasingly require their corporate partners to offer

unique products exclusively dedicated to their account. These

requirements go beyond count size and muti-packs. In this case, the

product is identical, the brand experience and the consumer profile are

also identical, but the design must evoke a perceived distinction from

identical brand offerings sold by different retailers.

Design strategy: Add subtle visual cues

The brand owner’s goal is to make the most minimal change that

satisfies the retailer. Brands may highlight a specific ingredient or

fragrance that provides the “reason to believe” this perceived

difference. However, when the retailer is more insistent on having the

design reflect its own aesthetic (i.e., make it look more “Target”), a

more evolved change in the layout of elements or their staging areas

can achieve the appropriate perception. It is critical, however, that

the brand logo, primary and secondary color, typefaces, package

structure and product presentation should remain identical, thereby

reserving those higher level strategies for more truly differentiated

brand experiences.

(Left) The flag and the blue banner in the design are acceptable

interruptions of the design architecture, as long as they revert back

to their original place in the hierarchy (at right).

TIER THREE: Acceptable exceptions: temporary differentiation for new SKUs

Key criteria: Same consumer, new variation on same experience

New flavors, fragrances or forms sometimes need to stand out from

the base brand for a period of time, but both the experience and

targeted consumers should be identical to the existing brand tier. In

order to draw attention to new product offerings, design architectures

must provide for the flexibility of “breaking the rules,” providing

that all design elements revert back to the standard base-brand

architecture after a six-month introductory period. This allows future

products to use the same acceptable strategies during launch.

Acceptable exceptions should be created for each tier of the

architecture. Again, by establishing these visual strategies before new

products are launched, the brand will have a roadmap for future growth.

Design strategy: Tweak the layout

The overall goal is to make these new products stand out without

changing consumer perceptions about the brand. And since they will

revert to the base-brand design, these exceptions should be easy and

inexpensive to change back. Therefore, product presentation and

photography should remain consistent.

Although small, the Sunkist logo is recognizable. By controlling the

size of each element and its impact on the communication hierarchy, the

design architecture can continue to accommodate future brand tiers.

TIER FOUR: Branded ingredients

Key criteria: Same consumer and experience, while leveraging another brand

Well-recognized brands are often adopted as a value-added ingredient

to the base-brand experience (think Dell computers with “Intel inside”

or Breyer’s ice cream “with Oreo pieces.”) Strategically, the

base-brand adopts a small portion of the ingredient brand’s equity, but

the base-brand experience and its audience does not change.

Design strategy: Ingredient-extractable branding unit

Procter & Gamble refers to a recognized brand logo, color, icon

and holding device as an Extractable Branding Unit. (EBU). In our

example, Sunkist’s arched blue logo is its recognized EBU. Ideally, the

ingredient brand’s EBU should take a prominent place in the base-brand

architecture and should be somewhat disruptive to the design system,

almost like a violator. While this element violates, it should be

careful not to denigrate the base-brand perception or interrupt other

elements of the communication hierarchy.

Note: As previously mentioned, violators must be designed with care

and used sparingly. In design architectures that already have a claim

violator, the ingredient brand descriptor must replace this element. An

ideal design architecture has only one most important claim, and

usually the recognized ingredient brand is more important than any

other promotion or claim benefit.

To attract a new audience and signal its new vitamin-enriched

benefit, both the Centrum Silver logo and product illustration change

to reflect Centrum’s core equities and a more premium experience.

TIER FIVE: Brand Segments

Key criteria: New consumer, with variation of the experience

Evolved brands may have a set of products that warrant stronger

differentiation from the base brand. For example, Lean Cuisine has a

series of Asian-inspired flavors while Stouffers has both individual

serving and family-sized segments. A brand may well have several such

segments within it.

Brand segments are the first true level of meaningful

differentiation from the base brand. They offer a variation of the

base-brand experience to a new consumer profile.

In some cases the segment benefit actually elevates the overall

quality perception of the base-brand, allowing marketers to justify a

higher price for this segment.

Design strategy: Product styling and stylized type elements

In addition to optional new segment names (i.e., “Asian

Inspirations”), brand segments are often best differentiated through a

change in product presentation. For example, the photo styling for an

Asian segment may simply add chopsticks or an Asian placemat. If that

does not generate enough distinction, the segment name might be

highlighted with a stylized type. However, primary color and all other

elements should remain as consistent with the base as possible,

reserving those more prominent strategies for more differentiated brand


Primary color, product presentation and print techniques combine to

distinguish between value offerings. Gold and matte-black caps also

reinforce the better/best associations.

TIER SIX: Value-added increments: good/better/best

Key criteria: New consumers and value-added experiences

Robust brands can often support value-based, value-added, premium

and often super-premium variations of the brand experience. In addition

to their differing price points, value-added increments are often also

differentiated by consumer target (kids/all-family/adults-only) and/or

product usage (different eating occasion/mealtime or light/medium/heavy

duty, etc.).

Design strategy: Primary/secondary color and photo styling

Stronger visual cues are required to evoke different product usage

associations such as evoking everyday, special and premium occasions.

Food products might change the style of the plate, silverware and/or

table setting. Personal care products might indicate their origin or

“sense of place.” In addition, a more involved change in color might

also support good/better/best differentiation.

Some architectures amplify differentiation through print

technologies and package substrates that support the value premise. The

same design elements reproduced using specialty print techniques can

provide immediate and meaningful distinction.

Design architectures must differentiate between “good/better/best”

experiences without denigrating the “good.” Again, a high level of

design craftsmanship is required to create this ideal perceptual


Without sacrificing the base brand's core equities, a new green

background and more matte substrate communicate this product as a

unique experience.

TIER SEVEN: Brand forms: New delivery systems/usage associations

Key criteria: New consumers, but a significantly different experience

A change in product delivery or preparation technique, or a

dramatically unique usage experience, constitutes a brand form. A brand

form is so meaningfully different from the base brand that it attracts

new consumers for whom the base brand may not have been otherwise

relevant. For example, an “organic” form not only evokes a

significantly new experience but actually attracts a very different

consumer profile.

Again, because its differentiation is more apparent, a brand form

can have any number of flavors and or segments within it and still, if

appropriately designed, leverage the base brand’s equities.

Design strategy: Primary/secondary color, stylized type and package substrate

Brand forms often warrant larger, secondary brand descriptors (i.e.,

organic) and this type can be highly stylized, evoking its unique

experience. Even more prominent differentiation can come from changing

the primary background color to signal its core benefit. Lastly, a new

tactile feel to the package can generate immediate distinction. For

example, the carton stock used for Sunshine Grove Organic could have a

less glossy, more tactile feel to support its natural message.

The stylized “Nectar” logo takes prominence over the base-brand

identity and the imagery signals a new experience, but the reduced,

quart-size carton is the most powerful visual cue.

TIER EIGHT: Sub-brands: Combining two experiences

Key criteria: Significantly new consumer/dramatic new experience

When launching a new product that is built upon on a base brand’s

perceptual foundation yet offering a significantly new experience to a

new target, an increasingly distinctive level of differentiation is


For example, adding a line of nectars to the hypothetical Sunshine

Grove juice brand would warrant sub-brand status. In this case, the

design must attract new users and signal to core users that this is not

the same base-brand experience.

Design strategy: Shape, secondary logo, color, photo styling

Significantly changing the package shape and/or its substrate (i.e.,

a glass bottle vs. a carton) generates such an immediate distinction

that this can often be a sufficient strategy alone to evoke a

dramatically different experience. However, in order to truly

differentiate a sub-brand, a second logo is warranted, marking the

first time in the architecture that the size of the base-brand logo can

be reduced in visual prominence and the staging area.

Design best practice requires that the brand and sub-brand logos not

to be the same size but balanced in a 60/40, 70/30, 80/20 or similar

relationship. This visual balance is determined by how much of the

base-brand experience is leveraged. Using our hypothetical Sunshine

Grove example, nectars might be more relevant to base-brand equities

(60 sub-brand/40 brand), while fruit-flavored breath mints might be

less base-brand relevant (80 sub-brand/20 brand).

If Sunshine Grove acquired Jamba Juice, it might capitalize on Jamba

Juice’s core equities (logo, stylized wings illustration, handcrafted


TIER NINE: Co-branding: Morphing two different brands

Key criteria: Two unrelated experiences becoming one

Acquisition and co-creation may prompt the need for merging two very

different identities, two very different target consumers and two very

different experiences into one brand.

In its initial form, the package might actually have two brand names

and logos. This is confusing and therefore only commonly used as a

transition strategy while the weaker or acquired brand is morphed into

the stronger brand’s identity. For example, Nabisco and Post did this

successfully when the former Nabisco cereals adopted the Post brand.

Over time, the brand identity transitions into the dominant brand’s


Design strategy: Stronger brand’s color/layout with second brand’s logo

In that this is only a transitional strategy, the stronger or

acquiring brand’s core mnemonics are most heavily leveraged; but the

second brand’s logo and extractable branding unit is added initially as

a prominent feature. During the transition, the second brand logo unit

can be reduced in size and eventually be removed from the newly unified


This new frozen novelty brand leverages almost every element of the

base brand’s design architecture and retains its integrity by appealing

to the adult purchaser, not the child consumer.

TIER TEN: Endorsed brands: Leveraging brand integrity

Key criteria: Dramatically different consumers and experiences

The most effective brands are able to extend their relevance to

completely unrelated products, attracting dramatically new audiences

and evoking significantly different consumer experiences. For example,

in the prototype project, the Sunshine Grove juice brand can

successfully extend into the frozen novelty category offering a “better

for you” dessert to kids through health-conscious, gatekeeper moms. The

resulting endorsed brand architecture must, in itself, be flexible

enough to accommodate flavor, segment, form, value-based and other

future proliferations.

Design strategy: Leverage base-brand core mnemonics

The elements of the endorsing base-brand’s core identity should

never be disassociated or compromised. In order to stand out among the

brighly colored packages in the frozen novelties section, our

hypothetical branders might want to leverage only the Sunshine Grove

logo but not the brand’s other core mnemonics (white background,

stylized product-illustration style). Although that might benefit the

frozen novelty brand, it would certainly denigrate the base brand and

should therefore be avoided.

A plea for simplification and consistency

As brands grow and their communication becomes increasingly complex,

only the single most important brand message warrants communication on

the package’s front panel. Limiting brand messages simplifies the

shopping experience and creates affinity with the brand. Color,

texture, typography and layout all speak an immediate, visceral

language. Use them wisely and eliminate extraneous words. Side, top and

back panels are the appropriate staging areas for your secondary brand

messages, and even those should be strictly limited to the one or two

that are unique to your brand and meaningfully different from your

competition. Less is truly more.

Lastly, architecting brand identity is hard work and requires a

disciplined, long view of the brand’s potential growth. Smart marketers

will err on the side of consistency, saving more pronounced design

strategies for future brand experiences that truly demand them. Smart

designers will lead them there.

Plan your brand identity’s growth cautiously, protect your core

mnemonics, don’t use design strategies that overstep their intended

tier, and then you’ll find the perfect balance of branded


Tips + Advice Beth Nori