Brand hierarchy, otherwise known as brand architecture, refers to the brand strategy behind the relationships between various parts of a business. Broadly speaking, this strategy is best summarized by grouping products and services according to their associated similarities and differences.
Understanding brand hierarchy
As companies grow, so too do their product ranges. Brand hierarchies help businesses and indeed consumers communicate vital brand elements and feature differences between individual products in a range.
Brand hierarchy is important for the simple fact that many businesses overlook the strategy entirely.
These businesses tend to have a preoccupation with releasing products and services without first thinking about the relationship between them.
As a result, the association between offerings is vague and not reflective of the wider brand. Consumers then become confused and unable to make a purchasing decision, which negatively impacts revenue and profits.
Establishing a robust brand architecture is not difficult and can be performed at any stage of business development.
However, those who focus their initial efforts on product development at the expense of brand hierarchy may encounter a costly rebrand in the future.
The three types of brand hierarchy
Corporate, umbrella, and family brands
The highest level of the hierarchy is corporate, family, or umbrella brands.
This level uses cohesive and consistent naming and identity structures, ensuring that individual products and services are homogenous throughout the range.
The corporate strategy is particularly useful for large parent companies that have many divisions or subsidiaries.
For example, Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup and Heinz Tomato Ketchup both share similar visual branding on their labels.
They also feature the corporate brand Heinz in their names, reducing confusion among consumers, and increasing brand equity in the process.
Endorsed brands are those that have been endorsed by a parent brand that is either a corporate, umbrella or family brand itself.
In theory, the endorsement from the parent brand adds credibility to the endorsed brand in the eyes of consumers.
In this approach, products are linked or grouped according to brand identity itself and do not rely on homogeneous naming or aesthetics.
For example, parent company Microsoft lend its brand identity and credibility to Office, Xbox, Windows, and Bing.
But each endorsed brand in isolation is distinct in the sense that it is not immediately recognizable as being owned by Microsoft.
Individual brands are consumer-facing brands where no explicit link between the product and its parent brand is promoted.
In many cases, there is also no link between individual brands themselves.
This is a common occurrence when parent brands acquire smaller brands with high equity among consumers.
Here, the parent brand is irrelevant and often detrimental to brand equity compared to the individual products it takes ownership of.
Coca-Cola uses this strategy to their advantage, having acquired brands such as Fanta, Sprite, and Dasani that were successful in their own right.
Those who are motivated to do so can discover the connection of these brands to The Coca-Cola Company, but they nevertheless continue to exist in original, recognizable forms.
Benefits of incorporating brand hierarchy strategy
- Reduces customer confusion. Businesses offering a line of unrelated products confuse consumers as to the brand they are trying to create and convey. Establishing a proper brand hierarchy lessens this confusion, establishes consistency, and leads to increased brand equity.
- Reduces competition. In some cases, sub-products achieve such popularity with consumers that the weaker core brand loses popularity. Brand hierarchy strategies focus on strengthening the primary brand so that products under its “umbrella” do not compete with or undermine each other.
- Provides clarity. When brands are visually or otherwise segregated with a hierarchy, it allows businesses to develop a marketing strategy for each. Since each brand will have its own target audience and brand story, clarity reduces the chances of brand dilution or improper messaging.
Brand hierarchy examples
Now that we’ve explained the theory behind brand hierarchy, let’s take a look at some real-world examples.
FedEx operates an umbrella brand hierarchy where the master brand is linked to all products and subproducts.
The company has many business branches across various services such as FedEx Office, FedEx Ground, FedEx Freight, FedEx Trade Networks, and FedEx Express.
While these branches perform different functions and operations, they remain united under the core FedEx brand.
Proctor & Gamble
Proctor & Gamble utilizes an individual brand hierarchy with a vast portfolio of strong product brands that have no overt connection to the company itself.
Below is a look at just some of these brands arranged by product category:
- Fabric care – Bounce, Cheer, Ariel, Tide, and Gain.
- Grooming – Braun, Gillette, Gillette Venus, and The Art of Shaving.
- Haircare – Head & Shoulders, Herbal Essences, Old Spice, and Pantene.
- Home care – Dawn, Ambi Pur, Febreze, and Cascade.
- Oral care – Crest, Fixodent, Oral-B, and Scope.
Marriott is the world’s largest hotel chain, with 30 different brands across more than 7,000 properties in 132 countries and territories.
The company utilizes a mixture of individual and endorsed brands that are arranged according to luxury and exclusiveness:
- Classic Luxury – The Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, and JW Marriott.
- Distinctive Luxury – Ritz-Carlton Reserve, The Luxury Collection, and W Hotels.
- Classic Premium – Marriott Hotels, Sheraton, Marriott Vacation Club, and Delta Hotels.
- Distinctive Premium – Le MERIDIEN, Westin, and Renaissance Hotels.
- Classic Select – Courtyard Hotels, Four Points, and SpringHill Suites.
- Distinctive Select – AC Hotels, Aloft Hotels, and Moxy Hotels.
- Classic Longer Stays – Marriott Executive Apartments, and Residence Inn.
- Distinctive Longer Stays – element, and Homes & Villas by Marriott International.
Mondelez International is an American multinational food and beverage company that specializes in chocolate, cookies, powdered beverages, confectionery, and gum.
The company has a more complex brand hierarchy with various family brands, individual brands, and modifiers (models) under the core Mondelez brand. To explain this structure in more detail, consider these examples:
- Cadbury (family brand) – Dairy Milk, 5 Star (individual brands), Dairy Milk Hazelnut, Old Gold, Caramilk (models).
- Nabisco (family brand) – Oreo, Ritz Crackers, Chips Ahoy! (individual brands), Ritz Bits, Chocolate Oreo, Chips Ahoy! Reese’s Pieces (models).
Most consumers think of the Golf or Beetle when they think of German auto-manufacturer Volkswagen, but the company owns multiple vehicle brands with each having many model designations.
Given the pedigree of some brands among car enthusiasts, Volkswagen’s hierarchy is comprised of individual brands with little relationship to its core brand aside from perhaps some minor style similarities.
Some of these individual brands include:
- Audi – with models such as the A3, A5, A7, and R8.
- Porsche – with models such as the Cayman, Boxster, and Macan.
- Lamborghini – a premium sports car manufacturer with models such as the Huracan, Aventador, and Urus.
- Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles – these include the Caddy, Amarok, and Transporter.
- Ducati – a motorcycle brand with models including the Superleggera, Scrambler, Streetfighter, and Multistrada.
Additional Case Studies
- Corporate Brand: Unilever
- Individual Brands: Dove, Axe, Lipton, Ben & Jerry’s, Hellmann’s, among others. Each of these brands has its own identity and stands on its own, though they all fall under the Unilever corporate umbrella.
- Corporate Brand: PepsiCo
- Family/Umbrella Brands: Pepsi, Lay’s, Quaker, Tropicana, Gatorade.
- Individual Products: Within the Lay’s brand, for instance, you have flavors/varieties like Classic, Salt & Vinegar, and Barbecue.
- Corporate Brand: Sony
- Endorsed Brands: Sony PlayStation, Sony Pictures, Sony Mobile.
- Individual Products: Within Sony PlayStation, you have PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PlayStation VR.
- The Gap Inc.:
- Corporate Brand: The Gap Inc.
- Individual Brands: Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Athleta, Intermix. Each of these brands targets a different market segment, from casual wear to upscale fashion.
- Volkswagen Group (beyond the previously mentioned brands):
- Corporate Brand: Volkswagen Group
- Individual Brands: SEAT, Škoda, Bentley, Bugatti. Each of these caters to a different market segment, from affordable to luxury.
- Estée Lauder Companies:
- Corporate Brand: Estée Lauder Companies
- Individual Brands: Estée Lauder, Clinique, M·A·C, Bobbi Brown, La Mer, among others. Each brand focuses on different beauty and skincare niches and demographics.
- Alphabet Inc.:
- Corporate Brand: Alphabet Inc.
- Individual Brands/Subsidiaries: Google, YouTube, Waymo, DeepMind, Verily. Although Google was the original company, it was restructured to become a subsidiary of Alphabet, allowing the conglomerate to diversify its business ventures.
- Adidas Group:
- Corporate Brand: Adidas Group
- Individual Brands: Adidas (with its own sub-brands like Adidas Originals and Adidas Performance), Reebok.
- Procter & Gamble (P&G):
- Corporate Brand: Procter & Gamble
- Individual Brands: Pampers, Ariel, Gillette, Head & Shoulders, among many others. Each of these caters to different consumer needs, from baby care to personal grooming.
- LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton):
- Corporate Brand: LVMH
- Individual Brands: Louis Vuitton, Dior, Sephora, Givenchy, Moët & Chandon, among others. This luxury conglomerate encompasses various sectors from fashion and leather goods to wines and spirits.
- Brand hierarchy is a means of organizing different brands and their associated products under a larger, parent brand.
- Brand hierarchy can be divided into three main types: corporate, endorsed, or individual. Each has a different organizational structure based on real or perceived relationships between a parent company and its various brands.
- A brand hierarchy strategy is most effective when implemented as a foundational element of business operations. It clarifies the future direction of a brand and avoids individual products within a brand potentially undermining each other.
- Definition: Brand hierarchy (or brand architecture) is the structure and relationship between various parts of a business and its brands.
- Purpose: Helps businesses communicate vital brand elements and differentiate products or services, preventing consumer confusion and reinforcing brand identity.
- Hierarchy Types:
- Corporate, Umbrella, or Family Brands: Highest level, with consistent naming and identity across products or services. Example: Heinz.
- Endorsed Brands: Sub-brands that have the backing of a parent brand, adding credibility. Example: Microsoft’s endorsement of products like Office and Xbox.
- Individual Brands: Standalone brands with no explicit connection to the parent brand. Often seen in acquisitions. Example: Fanta under Coca-Cola.
- Reduces customer confusion.
- Prevents internal competition between sub-brands.
- Provides clear branding and marketing direction.
- Real-world Examples:
- FedEx: Uses an umbrella brand strategy with different services like FedEx Office and FedEx Ground under the main FedEx brand.
- Proctor & Gamble: Employs an individual brand strategy with a vast range of products, each standing alone (e.g., Tide, Crest).
- Marriott: Combines both individual and endorsed brand strategies, categorizing its hotel chains based on luxury and exclusiveness.
- Mondelez International: Has a complex hierarchy with family brands like Cadbury, individual brands like Dairy Milk, and model variations.
- Volkswagen: Owns multiple vehicle brands (e.g., Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini) each with its own set of models, largely employing an individual brand strategy.
- Strategic Importance: Implementing a thoughtful brand hierarchy strategy from the outset can guide a brand’s future direction, ensuring clarity and consistency across the board.
What are the benefits of brand hierarchy?
If implemented as a foundational element of business operations, brand hierarchy can help clarify the future direction of a brand and avoid individual products within a brand potentially undermining each other. Thus, it helps improve the brand’s overall performance, both internally and externally, by:
- Reducing customer confusion.
- Reducing competition.
- Providing clarity.
What are the levels of a brand hierarchy?
Brand hierarchy is divided into three main types: corporate, endorsed, or individual. The highest level of the hierarchy is corporate. The second level is endorsed brands. The third level is individual brands consumer-facing brands.
How do you manage a brand hierarchy?
To correctly manage brand hierarchy, companies must focus their efforts on ranking their products, as their initial efforts on product development are executed, to avoid having costly rebranding in the future. Thus, it’s critical to incorporate a brand hierarchy framework within product development to properly organize a product portfolio.
Visual Marketing Glossary