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Typecasting and Brand Architecture

Human beings are natural categorizers. Brand architecture is how a brand satisfies our need to sort.

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Human beings are natural categorizers. We introduced our planet to the Dewey decimal system, the periodic table of elements, and an onerous set of entertainment awards. We can’t help ourselves. We even sort people into types. Conservative or liberal. Lover or fighter. Pisces, Sagittarius, or Virgo. These categorizations do more than create order for us. They create meaning. When we learn someone is a Pisces, we might assume that the person is moody, creative, and quiet, even though the person could just as easily be loud and analytical. Though we are often counseled to avoid stereotypes, stereotyping is an example of our natural human instinct to understand something and attach meaning to it as a result of the category to which we think it belongs. Brand architecture relies on this categorization instinct. It preserves and creates value for brands in a portfolio by suggesting how people should categorize them.

There are various ways brand architecture influences how we categorize a brand in a portfolio. The most frequent sorting approach is to relate subbrands by the degree to which they are typical of their master brand.

Our brains typically use a two-step categorization process. The first step is to look for the common characteristics of something we’re evaluating. We try to match those characteristics against a checklist of sorting criteria in our minds. If we observe that the object has wheels, pedals, a handlebar, and a seat, we are likely to sort it into the bicycle category. But we don’t just look for things a bicycle must have to get sorted that way. We also look for criteria that would make it most definitely not a part of the category. If I added wings to the list of characteristics in my example, you would doubt whether it was a bicycle. Thus, members of a category have very typical characteristics—and very atypical characteristics as well.

The challenge is that a brand portfolio can’t always be sorted out with such obvious criteria. For example, if I asked you to draw me a picture of a chair, you might draw something with four legs and a back. That’s the most typical way we think of a chair. However, I bet you and I would agree that a beanbag is a kind of chair, even though it has neither legs nor a back. There are degrees to which something is typical of a category. The trick for the brand manager is to determine how far something can stray from the most prototypical example and still be considered part of the category at all.

I know what you’re thinking. Consumers seem to be quite accepting of brands that have a broad portfolio of subbrands—portfolios in which there is a lot of variety and it’s hard to think of one subbrand that is most typical of the master brand or its siblings. Consider Virgin. Its portfolio includes a couple of airlines, recorded music, mobile phone service, banking, and wine. These product and service categories seemingly have nothing in common, yet there’s a sizable audience of consumers who are willing to consider Virgin across all of its subbranded businesses. Despite a lack of typicality, equity flows quite well throughout the Virgin portfolio and consumers appear to sort out the relationships fairly well. Why?

Virgin’s equity flows because the Virgin master brand has strong brand-specific associations. These associations conjure favorable attitudes, opinions and emotional responses that can override our surface evaluation of how typical the brand is within a product or service category. The first step in our sorting process is to assess the degree of typicality, but if that fails our second step is to assess the degree to which the offering looks, feels and behaves like the Virgin brand. As long as Virgin demonstrates that the emotional benefits of its brand-specific associations make dissimilar subbrabded offerings better, we’ll grant it permission to offer an increasingly broader brand portfolio. In fact, over time and consistent repetition, we begin to see Virgin as its own category.

The principles of real branding still apply, regardless of how broad or narrow we might consider the master brand. The brand that anchors an architecture has to deliver an experience that matches audience expectations. In fact, you should stretch a master brand only as far as your ability to deliver consistently satisfying experiences that live up to our expectations of a typical offering in a category or our attachment to brand-specific associations. Sometimes those experiences relate to easily observable category characteristics (e.g., everything branded by Gillette promises the benefit of better skin care), and sometimes they relate to benefits that live purely through our emotions (e.g., Virgin makes you feel like a rock star). Regardless, every extension in the portfolio has to live up to the benefit promised by the master brand. If a Virgin brand extension delivered an experience that didn’t have the usual Wow! factor, consumers would be let down as much as if Gillette delivered a body care experience that caused a rash.


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