Brand Architecture Basics: What Is a Sub-Brand?

In Building a Brand by DistilityLeave a Comment

[Update: The best practices in Brand Architecture: What Is a Sub-Brand can now be found in our free brand architecture ebook, How to Organize Your Brands. Download it today.]

Our blog posts What Is Brand Architecture? and How to Choose Your Brand Architecture cover brand architecture basics. This posts builds on those posts and features the sub-brand brand architecture structure.  The other three primary brand architecture types (masterbrand, endorser and freestanding) will be featured in future blog posts. The sub-brand architecture features an overlying corporate brand and separate unique, trademarked, sub-brands beneath the corporate brand.

Each of these brands may have a distinct brand promise, position and personality. Two of the biggest brands which employ a sub-brand architecture are Microsoft and Apple. Microsoft targets many different customers with different sub-brands with different names, colours, types of imagery, logos, different promises, positions and personality traits.

Some brands were created in-house, but many — like Visio — were acquired. Compared to Microsoft, Apple has a far more stream-lined sub-brand architecture, benefiting from a smaller portfolio of products, more focused base of target customers, and careful naming strategies. Apple even incorporates certain masterbrand architecture traits by only having only one logo, one colour pallette, one font, and one layout style. However, the Apple brand architecture differs from the masterbrand strategy by having unique trademarked names for its offerings, for example iPhone, iPad, Macbook and iTunes.  Further, while Apple eschews unique wordmark designs, its sub-brands always features distinctive icons that serve as sub-brand logos.

Four Key Considerations

There are four key consideration to take into account before adopting a sub-brand architecture.


1. Are your offerings in conflict?

Are your offerings brand promises, personalities, or positions alien or in conflict with one another? If so, then employing a sub-brand architecture could damage your brands and it is not the right architecture for your organization. If an organization’s sub-brands are in conflict, you risk damaging your brands by creating confusion or alienating your customer.

For example, it is obvious that a film company with a division making family friendly movies and a division making XXX adult films would be ill advised to use a sub-brand architecture; associating these offerings will alienate your target audience.

Or, consider a luxury brand that is about to launch an economy brand. Doing so under the same brand name will damage both offers. This is why firms like Honda, GM, and Toyota, create freestanding luxury brands like Acura, Cadilac, and Lexus.

2. Do your offerings fit within the same category?

Are all of your brands styles or models in the same narrow product category? If the answer is yes, then a sub-brand architecture may be appropriate.  For example, car companies generally employ a sub-brand architecture. Examples include: Ford, GM, Dodge, BMW, Porshe, VW, Volvo, and Subaru. Under each overlying corporate brand are the model sub-brands. A few examples under the Ford sub-brand architecture are: Ford Escort, Ford Mustang, Ford Focus, Ford Escape, Ford Fusion and the list goes on.

In the case of car brands, the corporate brand ties the quality, safety and performance reputation of the car company to its vehicles, but the sub-brand architecture allows each sub-brand to stand out and build a reputation of its own.

3. Do you need unique trademarks?

Is it really necessary to have more than one unique trademark? Would a less expensive masterbrand architecture accomplish your brand building objectives just as well? The masterbrand approach will be considered in a future post. However, we offer full disclosure of our bias in favour of its consideration instead of sub-brands for many organizations; a masterbrand brand architecture is often overlooked, but it often works as well as or better than a sub-brand architecture.

4. Can you afford sub-brands?

Can you afford the creative and legal costs of creating a new sub-brand? Can you afford the time required to maintain and build the corporate brand and each sub-brand? Each sub-brand will mean a new brand with the associated creative costs and fees, legal fees, trademark and trademark risks. While this is not currently an issue for the Apples and Fords of the business world, these costs can be materials and sometimes staggering for small to mid-sized companies. You may prefer to deploy your scarce resources for other aspects of your business or marketing.

How to Use Sub-Brands

Effective use of a sub-brand brand architecture requires clarity and commitment by your entire team. You will need clarity and commitment on:

  • Your corporate brand promise, position, and personality
  • Your sub-brand promises, positions and personalities
  • The shared attributes of the corporate brand and each
  • The areas where each sub-brand will be differentiated (for example (i) intangibles attributes like personality traits or naming styles or (ii) tangibles attributes like colours, fonts of packaging)
  • Guidelines to ensure that the sub-brand strategy is respected across all your sub-brands.

Clarity on the corporate brand and sub-brand strategies is essential for success with the sub-brand architecture. We recommend that you distill your corporate brand and each sub-brand into its own simple and clear brand strategy summary. Brand strategy summaries will allow your entire team to stay on brand in all your marketing and communication, and also stay on-brand in every aspect of the brand experience.