Defining your brand structure
Series Note: This is first in a series of articles exploring corporate and product naming theory and processes.
At the most basic level, coming up with a name is easy: just write down a bunch of ideas, and pick the one that you like best. Of course, this is easier said than done. You can maximize the number and quality of your options and be smart about picking the best one by defining a strategy, following a process, and using different techniques.
Before diving into naming, it’s vital to step back and understand and define the relationship between the company and its products: the structure of the brand. When it comes to brand, is the company dominant, are its products dominant, or is it somewhere in between?
Company-centric structures build brand equity in the company itself.
In many brand structures, the company holds the brand equity and its different products simply extend it. In this company-centric strategy, product names are often alphanumeric or rely heavily on the company name.
This structure is best for companies selling large ticket items with long sales cycles, where knowing the company behind the product is a priority for purchasers. Many auto manufacturers follow this strategy, as do airline manufacturers, B2B software companies, and even some consumer companies.
Examples of companies that follow a company-centric naming strategies include Mercedes, BMW, Boeing, Oracle, SAP, Coke, and Neutrogena.
Product-centric structures distribute brand equity to individual products.
At the other end of the spectrum, a product-centric strategy puts little brand equity in the company itself, and instead creates strong brands for individual products.With this approach, the company’s name is less important to purchasers, but individual product names and logos matter a great deal.
This strategy is often used by companies selling smaller, stand-alone products in which the purchaser is more interested in the product itself and its features, not necessarily on the company behind it.
Proctor & Gamble, for example, sells Dawn and Swiffer, and Unilever produces Lipton and Slimfast — many consumers are not familiar with either company, but their products are well known. Indeed, P&G and Uniliver list their various products under “brands” — the products are the brand, not the company. Many pharmaceutical companies create product-centric structures, heavily marketing individual medications while the company remains in the background — Pfizer and Viagra or Lipitor, Sanofi and Ambien or Allegra.
While this structure distributes most brand equity to individual products, the company needs to remember to retain some for investor and analyst relations.
Hybrid brand structures split brand equity between the company and its individual products.
In between these two extremes are companies that use a hybrid structure. Most companies fall into this category, with products that share the spotlight with the company. Apple and Nike are prime examples of this — while they are well known, iPhones and Air Jordans are as likely to be buzzworthy as the companies that make them.
In some cases, the hybrid structure is as a result of a natural evolution or shift within the company. A new product may need to be called out. Microsoft began with a very company-centered brand structure, but shifted brand equity to its products when it needed to distinguish Windows from DOS.
A change in market or an acquisition may also contribute to a shift. When Adobe began marketing Photoshop to a broader audience, it let the company brand take a backseat to the product name — to such an extent that “photoshop” is popularly used as a verb.
Very few companies pursue an exclusive strategy: nearly all exist somewhere on a spectrum, with attention gradually shifting away from the company itself to its products:
Different brand structures are appropriate for different companies and strategies. A solid understanding of which is right for your company will help ground your naming project (and branding project) and give it direction.
In our next article on naming, we’ll discuss different types of names and how they communicate with your audience.
Hey! This wasn't written by a bevy of otters! It was written by Josh Orum, who does awesome work at Loud Dog, a digital branding firm in San Francisco that helps businesses express themselves authentically via identities, websites, and marketing collateral.
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