Brand architecture…or just city planning?

At the start of the year, Coca-Cola went public with a piece of brand architecture work that will impact their whole range – what they are calling their ‘One Brand’ strategy. All brands will be united under a strategic sign off of ‘Taste The Feeling’.   This is not a branding revolution – far from it in fact. Many companies when starting out simply don’t have the financial resources to market multiple brands. Creating a single meaning is logical, commercially sensible and often quite desirable.

Brand Architecture.jpgWhat’s unusual in the Coke example is that often, companies move away from this single ‘architecture’ approach over time as they wrestle with multiple sub brands sharing a single meaning. How can a low fat, full fat, high taste, low taste, large size, small size, for the young, for the old range cohesively sit together. It’s not impossible, but it creates strain. And of course, Coke are not lacking in the funds to adopt a brand by brand approach – which is why over many years they haven’t. Coca-Cola brands – original / diet / diet Caffeine free / Zero have been connected by shared values and iconography, but have ploughed, very successfully separate furrows. Separate furrows in the same field, but separate nonetheless. Off the back of this, Coke Zero has been an incredible launch and Diet Coke – well, in overtaking original Coke has been a phenomenon. So why change?

Potentially, it’s competitive pressure. Coke can’t move without Pepsi or another challenger matching it; or indeed leading and putting them under pressure to respond. More likely, it’s pressure from outside soft drinks – from other drinks categories. But surely this is a matter of ensuring that the Coke range remains fresh, relevant and contemporary? How does making each brand share a single meaning help that – versus keeping each brand sharply targeted and focused on key needs, attitudes and consumer segments.

Perhaps then it’s Governmental pressure? Soft drinks are an easy target for obesity campaigners and the UK Government’s new ‘sugar tax’ is evidence of targeting the low hanging fruit. But again, how does a single brand architecture help?

So then, surely it must be the changing media environment? The fragmentation of channels and increasing personalisation of viewing and ownership of content by consumers. But again – it doesn’t wash. The whole point of our media landscape now surely, is that we can build more specific brand positionings for more specific audiences and needs? If anything, wouldn’t Coke be doing the opposite? Making individual brand positionings even more refined?

The confusing factor in all this is that as consumers we buy brands, not companies. Oh, there’s no doubt that how companies set up their mission and their principles casts a discrete halo on individual brands – but that’s different from owning a single minded thought in the mind of your target consumer. I may buy Diet Coke, but I wouldn’t buy original, yet when I want full flavour I may choose Pepsi Max. I love the flavour intensity of Taylors of Harrogate’s Hot Lava Java, but occasionally I just need the convenience of Kenco Millicano. Different needs, different occasions, same consumer.

Which makes the whole ‘One Brand’ approach a worry. If it’s not a response to competitive pressure, Governmental pressure or changing consumer usage habits and needs then it can only be one thing: intellectual neatness. It’s more like city planning – idealistic but difficult to deliver. Coke will find it tough precisely because they did such an amazing job building their individual brands and I suspect, it will quickly unravel (as reports suggest). Intellectual neatness is not always the commercially neatest thing to do.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps discover the direct route to success for brands and businesses. david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 246260

 © The Crow Flies, 2016