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
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
(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
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
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
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
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