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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 hyper-proliferating.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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 tiers.
Primary color, product presentation and print techniques combine
to distinguish between value offerings. Gold and matte-black caps
also reinforce the better/best associations.
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.).
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
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 balance.
Without sacrificing the base brand's core equities, a new green
background and more matte substrate communicate this product as a
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
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.
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 required.
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.
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
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
If Sunshine Grove acquired Jamba Juice, it might capitalize on
Jamba Juice's core equities (logo, stylized wings illustration,
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 architecture.
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 brand.
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.
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
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.
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
A graphic design memoir laced with pseudonyms and intrigue? Oh
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Section: Why Design -
branding, identity design, business, students
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Section: Inspiration -
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Section: Events and Competitions -
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Washington, D.C. and was recently the lead product designer at
Berlin, Germany. AIGA Baltimore took a field trip to interview
Benjamin about designing in-house for NPR.
Section: Tools and Resources -
INitiative, information design, experience design, in-house design
Design EditorAAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science)
Washington, District of ColumbiaOctober 9 2014
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