Mark's Big Five: Warning signs your brand is in trouble.

By Mark Bubula, President & Co-Founder

We’re all familiar with the big reasons to embark on a major brand architecture overhaul. Things like mergers, acquisitions, new product launches, major changes to the competitive landscape, etc., can all signal it’s time for a reassessment. But what many brand managers and owners fail to spot are the smaller, less obvious warning signs of a brand architecture issue.

Having worked on dozens of brand architecture projects for Fortune 500 companies, we’ve identified five early warning signs that indicate a revision is in order. If any of these questions sound all-too-familiar, it may be time to reevaluate your brand architecture.

1. “Why is this brand struggling while the rest of our brands are doing fine?”

Problem: A single lagging brand in an otherwise successful portfolio could suggest an architecture problem.

While there are many reasons a brand may be suffering, one possible reason is that the brand in question is failing to benefit from the architecture strategy. For example, it could be a matter of equity not transferring across the brands as originally intended; or perhaps budgets are being spread too thin across too many brands; or, ultimately, the brand itself may be the problem.

If you’ve got one brand that’s falling behind, it’s time to take an honest look at that brand within the larger architecture; how is it gaining/sharing equity from your other brands? Is it inadequately supported by the budget? Is the brand trying to play in too many categories? Or—most critically—is the brand simply superfluous? Answering these questions can help you fix the problem and, in turn, help all boats (read: brands) rise.

2. “Aren’t we targeting that segment, too?”

Problem: Multiple brands within the portfolio are competing for the same consumers and spreading thin resources even thinner.

While there are certainly exceptions—different usage occasion, regional preferences, shelf space strategies or different distribution channels, for instance—the general rule of thumb in most business situations is to have only as many brands as needed to cover the addressable market, and no more. If you have multiple brands targeting the same segments, you’re just paying to compete with yourself.

If this is the case, it’s time to take a hard look at you’re the brands in question. Which is the stronger brand? How much cannibalization is there? Can you steer one brand towards a new segment to make room for the other? Do both brands play strategic business roles? Would customers be missing something if one brand went away? If not, the weaker brand must go. Cutting a brand may be a hard decision, but trimming excess fat can make the whole portfolio stronger in the end.

3. “Why do we have that brand?”

Problem: Brands lack a clearly defined role within your strategy, causing confusion, inaction or waste within the organization.

There’s no better indicator that you have a brand architecture problem than if your teammates are unable to clearly and succinctly explain the portfolio and the role of each brand within it. Even worse, if team members can’t list all of your brands, period. Imagine if this happened on the football field. Every player on a team needs to know his/her role in the overall game plan. No team can play its best when one player doesn’t know or play their position.

If you find that one or more of your brands are in this situation, it’s time to clarify the specific role each brand plays within the larger architecture. Ask yourself if the problem is lack of clarity on the brand in question or lack of clarity on the whole brand architecture. Start by reviewing the marketing and brand strategies for all your brands (these can easily get dusty and out of date). This simple exercise can often remind everyone why all the brands exist.

4. “Which logos do we need to put on this?”

Problem: There’s a lack of clarity about how each brand relates to the others.

The ultimate benefit of a solid brand architecture strategy is that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Questions regarding which logos to use are indicative of a larger problem that is likely costing you precious time and money. This confusion is most common with regard to tactical items like sell sheets, catalogs, hangtags, PowerPoint templates, labels, etc.

If logo uncertainty is a problem with every new piece of collateral, there are a few questions you should ask as a team: What role does the corporate brand play? How are sub-brands being treated in relation? Which brands have real equity? And with whom? Having answers to these questions is a crucial part of implementing a successful brand architecture strategy. Left unanswered, it can leave your marketing communications looking like a stock car at the local fairgrounds—shouting everything, but communicating nothing.

5. “How do we define a brand, again?”

Problem: Not only is the architecture unclear, but there is no shared understanding of the fundamental principles and practices of branding, making it impossible to have or execute a successful strategy.

Perhaps the biggest sign you have a problem is when there’s internal disagreement about what a brand is or does. While it may seem like a matter of semantics, when people within organizations confuse brands, product names, copy lines, descriptors, etc., the architecture stands no chance of working effectively. In these situations, rules get bent and broken—often unintentionally—and before long, the outliers, one-offs and special cases outnumber the on-strategy brand work. Cleaning up these situations can take years.

While we list this one last, it’s often the best first step with any problem. Many companies define things differently. If you find there’s a lack of clarity around the role of branding in your organization, it’s time to go back to the basics. There’s no shame in that. You’re simply agreeing on a common language (in fact it’s smart to do this occasionally even when you don’t have a problem). One simple definition is, “The promise of a unique experience – delivered.”

Should you find yourself with any of these problems, it’s time to revisit your brand architecture strategy. This can be an intense and emotionally charged project, with many varying opinions in the mix. It’s for precisely this reason that you should consider outside help whenever you’re faced with something as critical as reviewing your brand architecture. Experienced agencies will help streamline and facilitate the process—making it as painless as possible. This much-needed outside perspective will base a recommendation on legitimate qualitative research, broad industry knowledge and an understanding of what does and doesn’t work based on experience. So, in the end, the findings are objective and leave no argument about the way forward.