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In most cases, a brand has a single tier with one mission, purpose, and set of values. The brand foundation is where the products stem from, how the services are handled, and points everything back to the parent brand.

Sometimes a product has the ability to stand on its own, to create a personality above and beyond the brand it comes from. It develops its own mission, purpose, and values, and tells its own story.

Not everyone should have a sub-brand, but there are some instances where it might be beneficial to create one.

Brand is all about personality and connecting with your audience on a deeper level. A sub-brand is about focusing into your audience and offering a segment of those people something different.

In this episode, we dive into brand architecture and talk about when you might consider developing a sub-brand.

Highlights, Takeaways, Quick Wins
  • Brand architecture is the foundational structure of your brand’s identity.
  • A sub-brand is something that has mission, purpose, and values, while fitting under a brand that has its own mission, purpose, and values.
  • A sub-brand focuses on a segment of the parent brand’s audience.
  • Sub-brands give you the ability to grow new things using the resources of your parent brand.
  • Sub-brands allow the audience to become more trusting of the parent company, which might result in them buying another one of their products.
  • Count the cost before investing in a sub-brand, which could make or break your company.
  • You can have many products and still keep the same brand without using sub-brands.
  • Choose an audience for your sub-brand based on what you want to build equity in and why.
  • Understand your parent brand direction more than anyone else.
Show Notes
  • 01:54 Cory: Everything comes back to evaluation and saying, “Is this actually what my brand needs?” I don’t believe that every brand should have a sub-brand. Everyone who has a business or is creating something has a brand, and that might be fine for a lot of people. You have one tier, and that’s what works. You don’t need to overthink it too much. Count the cost of whatever you do, whether that’s creating a lower sub-tier of your brand or saying, “Maybe I need to reevaluate what my brand is and what my offerings are on a single level,” keeping it simple. This is not a universal episode. It’s not going to apply to everyone who’s listening, but there should still be some valuable takeaways for everyone.
  • 03:13 Kyle: There’s definitely some value in having a sub-brand. They can extend the current brand that you have, and that’s valuable for people to understand. This doesn’t mean that you have to have a new company or a new business. A sub-brand is something within your company that takes on its own branding and its own life.

Brand Architecture

  • 03:55 Cory: When you are creating your brand, you have to ask yourself, “What is a brand? What are we even talking about? What does my brand consist of?” You have your mission, your purpose, and your values, and all of that starts to make up what your brand is about (Related: e001 What Is a Brand?). All of that makes up your brand architecture.

Brand architecture is the foundational structure of your brand’s identity.

  • 04:35 You start off with your “parent brand.” Have you ever looked up your ancestry, Kyle? You have Sottish and Irish ancestry?
  • 04:55 Kyle: I have Scottish, Irish, and English for sure, and I’m not sure about anything else. Those are the predominant ones for me.
  • 05:07 Cory: Let’s say you go back and you pick an ancestor. We’ll call him Kyle the Red. Kyle the Red had a couple of children, so that branches down. Those children have children, those children have children, and then somewhere down there is Kyle Adams, generations later. Think about the hierarchy of what’s at the top and then go down one level and say, “What is underneath this?” Typically, if you have a single brand, everything on that hierarchy are your products or your services.
  • 05:47 Kyle has Kyle Adams Design. That’s the name of his business, so that is his brand. Within that, he has icon design, which is what he’s all about. Kyle also offers consultation. “Kyle Adams Consultation” is not its own brand, but it’s something else that he offers. Kyle has mentioned before that he wants to get into physical products, maybe some prints and things like that, and those aren’t necessarily brands. Those are byproducts of his brand, not sub-brands. When you look at the hierarchy, you have to figure out what goes where.
  • 06:52 Kyle: In the example Cory brought up of consultation work, it’s not directly related to icon design. Typically, I do consultation work for stuff like we talk about here on the podcast, like branding, marketing, or other topics along the business line of things. I get a lot of people emailing me, asking me questions about those things, and occasionally there’s some kind of consultation with someone to help them out with that topic. It’s not a part of the icon design I project all the time, but it does relate to it, because that’s how I’m running my business and I’m helping people run their businesses in a similar way.

What Is a Sub-Brand?

  • 07:47 Cory: When you are trying to figure out if what you’re creating is a sub-brand, start at the very top. A sub-brand is something that has mission, purpose, and values, while fitting under a brand that has its own mission, purpose, and values. The parent brand is, for example, Invisible Details. We want to create something that narrows the field a little bit. A sub-brand is all about narrowing your current target audience. When you start off with your brand, you have a target audience and market, and you niche down really far.

A sub-brand takes its parent brand’s target audience and narrows it, allowing you to focus on a segment of that audience.

  • 08:45 That’s the first of three benefits to having a sub-brand. Having a brand within a brand allows you to focus on a segment of your target audience. One of the best examples of this is Apple. We talk about them all the time, but there’s so much there. Apple is your parent brand, but they make a ton of stuff. They make all these products, this great line-up. When you think of the iPhone or iPad, those aren’t just products. Those are sub-brands. They have their own mission, purpose, and values, but they also point directly to a certain segment of Apple’s audience. They have this holistic audience, and the iPhone allows me to connect with part of that parent brand, but it’s its own self-contained thing.
  • 09:50 Kyle: Sub-brands are essentially their own asset building their own equity. Brand equity is the value of that brand. If you wanted to sell your brand tomorrow, how much is it worth? What’s great about sub-brands is that, using Cory’s example with the iPhone, people know the term “iPhone.” If Apple decided one day to sell iPhone, they would need to sell it to a different company. They can say, “Here’s iPhone. Here’s all the equity we’ve built up in iPhone. Here’s what the iPhone brand means and what it stands for.” They can take that away from their overarching company without hurting it.
  • 10:53 Obviously, it will hurt them with sales, but as far as the brand perception goes, it’s not affected too bad. Although, you do always associate your sub-brands with your brands, so there’s a little bit of that, but it can be sold on it’s own. You can do something with a sub-brand on its own. If one day, Apple decided that they only wanted to sell phones and they wanted to be known as “iPhone,” removing the Apple name, they could do that. They could narrow down to that one thing.
  • 11:29 Cory: Even then, having a sub-brand also allows you the ability to branch off. Let’s say Apple decided, “We don’t want to do iPhone anymore, so they’re going to split off and become their own company. All of our resources, strategies, and work will stay with Apple. This company is going to have to build up its own capital and have its own CEO and it’s own CFO.” They could do that, but because it’s nested under Apple as a whole, that brings us to the second benefit of having a sub-brand.

Sub-brands give you the ability to grow new things using the resources of your parent brand.

  • 12:24 Let’s say you have a clothing line. You manufacture jeans. Having different kinds of jeans in different cuts, men’s, women’s, those are just different styles of a product. That’s not a sub-brand, but you could create a sub-brand under your clothing company. Let’s say that it’s called “Snazzy McJeans for Teens”. All of a sudden, you’ve applied a name and created a sub-section. You can brand and market that differently because you’re targeting a different segment of your audience. You can give it a new logo, it can have a different color palate, and it can have a different look and a different feel. It’s still nested underneath your parent brand.
  • 13:57 Now “Snazzy McJeans for Teens” can use the resources of the parent brand, but they can have their own marketing department, if you wanted to do that. That would depend on the size of the company. That’s one of the benefits—being able to try new things, branch out in different ways, and grow something larger, but still using the resources and the full audience of the parent brand.
  • 14:37 Kyle: With iPhone, like Cory said, they could go off and become their own brand or even their own company apart from Apple. That’s a great advantage to having a sub-brand. You can do that. You have that flexibility. You could even have the flexibility to turn it on it’s head a little bit and say, “We’re really struggling. We need to split these into two different brands to protect each one.” Now, iPhone could be it’s own company, Apple’s its own company, and if Apple was struggling and iPhone was doing great, they could focus on iPhone and let Apple go. This would never happen.
  • 15:29 Theoretically, that could happen for them, and that’s why they’re building so much equity up in the different products that they make. Apple is known for naming things different than everyone else, and they do that for this reason. They want to ensure that those things build up equity. For example, Magic Mouse is a bluetooth mouse. They could call it a Bluetooth Mouse With Touch Features, but they’ve titled it with a name, with it’s own brand. Maybe that never goes anywhere and it’s not a big staple of their brand, but they’re always naming these things and calling them something unique in order to build up more of that equity. If they wanted to sell that name later, now there’s value to it.

The Halo Effect

  • 16:26 Cory: The third benefit of having a sub-brand is called the Halo Effect. A sub-brand can help build exposure and relationship to the parent brand. For instance, you’ll see this in car manufacturers all over the world, but one example is Mustang. Mustang, made by Ford, is it’s own brand. When you think of Mustang, you could even think that it is its own company. It’s actually owned by a parent brand, but you don’t think about that when you think of Mustang. Now that you’ve thought about it and you have engagement with that brand, it gives exposure and connection to the parent brand, which is giving the sub-brand resources and advertising.
  • 17:21 Sometimes, larger brands will do this. Volkswagon makes a high end, luxury car, Porsche. Porsche is actually owned by Volkswagon, but when you think of Porsche, you think that it’s its own manufacturer. There’s this overarching meta-brand of Volkswagon. Within Porsche, it has its own lines and products. Volkswagon has this whole category of people it wants to reach, and one of those is high end customers. 2% of all the sales that Volkswagon ever makes are Porsches, but that accounts for 22% of their revenue.
  • 18:59 They can say, “We want to create this sub-brand, and we’ll give you all of the resources, but we want to market, advertise, and sell this to people who have more money than someone else who wants to buy a sedan for $30,000.” When you use that Halo Effect, you have the opportunity to create this larger exposure. When someone has an iPad, that’s going to help them build trust with the maker of that product.

Sub-brands allow the audience to become more trusting of the parent company, which might result in them buying another one of their products.

  • 19:47 Kyle: Another example would be the Gap. The Gap is a clothing store that actually owns Old Navy and Banana Republic. They opened Old Navy to target the lower end market. They have lots of sales, cheaper clothing, and they don’t use as good of materials. They still want to keep that feeling of being better than a random store, but it’s not the higher end market. I believe that Banana Republic is the highest tier. The Gap is kind of in the middle. They’ve used them to target different segments. Some people don’t even know these brands are related.
  • 20:58 They’ve got these sub-brands that help them target different audiences. The Gap is their foundational brand, but they have these others that reach different people. They could branch off into one of those only and shut down two of the others, keeping that one thing. In previous episodes, we’ve talked about narrowing your focus to one thing (Related: e019 Narrow Your Focus and Win With Specialization). This sounds counter-intuitive, because now you’re branching into these other brands, but what’s really happening is that you still keep your focus. In Cory’s example, it’s cars.
  • 21:43 Cars are still the focus. In my example, it’s clothes. All of those companies sell clothing, but they have these different brands to reach different audiences, not to suddenly create a different product. It’s not like the Gap suddenly decided to open a fast food chain. They’re still keeping that very narrow focus.
  • 22:11 Cory: There are a lot of different ways to do sub-branding. You can have your sub-brand trade mark endorse its parent brand. Something might say, “iPhone: Buy Apple,” or something like that. Or, like Porsche, you can have a sub-brand that’s owned by a larger group but otherwise, that’s it’s own entity. There are a lot of different ways to do that. Count the cost and figure out what this is going to do. Will this require new trademarks? Does this make sense with the amount of products that you have? Is this actually going to matter to your customers in the long run? Is this something you can maintain? Will you have to hire more people? Will this create confusion or dissonance?

Sub-Branding Is Not Always the Answer

  • 23:23 An example of really rough sub-branding is Virgin Group. If you scroll down their webpage, you can select different regions and different industries, and this is a very interesting concept. Virgin is an entity that has created all of these different brands in all of these different sectors—entertainment, health and wellness, travel, telecom, money, and so on. Virgin Australia, Virgin Casino, Virgin Airlines, Virgin Active, Virgin America, Virgin Books… There are all of these things, and the only thing that makes sense is that their logo is the same. They’re all over the place. They have Virgin Wines. What is this?
  • 24:22 Kyle: Cory was reading these off to me yesterday, and I thought, “Is he serious?”
  • 24:25 Cory: I got a headache! Obviously, they’ve been extremely successful. A couple of days ago, I read about Richard Branson, and he talked about how he loves the idea of being able to say, “I have an idea. Let’s go make a company!” If it fails, they have enough money to be able to handle it. I think his net worth is something like $5 billion. They have the ability to do that and make it sustainable, but if you’re running a small brand or a growing brand, you may not be able to just say, “Let’s try this out, and if it doesn’t really work, that’s a bummer.”

Investing in a sub-brand could make or break your company, so count the cost and see if it’s worth it.

Products as Sub-Brands

  • 25:31 Kyle: Allison Brooke asks, “The Volkswagon example has a much more distant sub-brand, Porsche, than Apple has with their iPhone. Is there a preferable way to market the sub-brands?” Distance does matter in some situations. Porsche, for example, targets a different market of people. If you’re at that level and you’re considering buying a Porsche, you’re not interested in the cheap Volkswagon. For some of us, Volkswagon may not be cheap, but for the person wanting a Porsche, Volkswagon is the cheaper, less desirable brand.
  • 26:19 For iPhone and Apple, Apple is continually the same quality level. Because they output the same quality level over and over, they can have these sub-brands that all relate to them. If Apple suddenly wanted to target a lower or a higher tier of price, they might want to start separating that and coming up with a different brand to start building in that sector.
  • 26:50 Cory: I think there’s also some confusion on whether a product is a brand. Is it the same? What is the difference there? I want to go back to the idea that a brand is like a personality. A brand is what you feel about something, how you connect with something, and what you feel when you hear about it. Technically, a tiny little product might be a brand or it may not be. That’s confusing, I know. The iPhone has a very strong brand because of how it is perceived, talked about, and marketed. They don’t just say, “Here’s Apple! We have this new product!” They say, “Here’s this thing, this new entity you can connect with,” and it’s almost as big as Apple in people’s minds.
  • 27:53 A few years ago, you would be walking around and someone would say, “Hey, could you pull out your iPhone?” I didn’t have an iPhone. I had an Android phone, but people equated that to having a smartphone. Yes, the iPhone is a product, but it is also a brand, because they have worked hard to make their customers feel a certain way about this thing.
  • 28:20 Kyle: When you mentioned multiple products, Cory, the first thing that came to mind for me was Ugmonk. That’s a great brand. Jeff Sheldon, the owner of Ugmonk, designs all of his products and puts them out into the world, but he has shirts, prints, and I think he’s even getting into desk products soon. He has decorative items, kid’s clothing, and those kinds of things. All of those are under the Ugmonk brand, but he hasn’t branched any of them off into some kind of sub-brand.

You can have many products and still keep the same brand without using sub-brands.

  • 29:14 Cory: Even iPhone has multiple products. There’s the iPhone 6, 6S, 5S, 6S Plus, and so on. Those are all iPhone tiered products, but the idea of iPhone itself is just that—it’s an idea, a category.

Choose Your Audience Based on Your Goals

  • 29:37 Robert said, “Should your sub-brand appeal to a sub-niche of your current audience or serve the needs of a different audience than your umbrella brand or parent brand is serving?” Again, there are different strategies. What are you trying to accomplish by doing this thing? What are your goals? Kyle and I talk about goals nonstop. What are you trying to do? What is the purpose of creating another entity, brand, or product? Where are you trying to get to? It could appeal to a sub-niche.
  • 30:12 I know Robert. He and his wife have this great small business with beauty products for young girls, and it’s all natural. I met with him at a coffee shop a couple of months ago, and he gave me some. It was great! There was chapstick made out of beeswax and stuff like that. Obviously, I’m not his target market, because I’m not a teen girl. Within that, he could make a brand that’s gluten free. I don’t know if there’s any gluten in beauty products, but let’s say that he wanted to create a sub-brand of their company that was the gluten free brand. They gave it a new name and they trademarked it, and it had some different colors. He could do that.
  • 31:00 On the other hand, he could say, “We also want to create skin care products for men. It doesn’t fit under what we’re doing here, but we want to create this other sub-brand.” It goes back to goals. What are you trying to accomplish?

Choose an audience for your sub-brand based on what you want to build equity in and why, and that’s a long term decision.

  • 31:28 Kyle: An example Cory and I talked about before this episode was Learn Lettering. That’s a sub-brand of seanwes, which is where we do our livestreaming. Learn Lettering has taken on its own branding, it’s own sub-brand. It’s directly targeted to hand letterers. Sean McCabe was a hand letterer, and he decided to put together this class. The class has taken on its own sub-brand.
  • 32:03 Cory: It’s got its own logo and colors.
  • 32:06 Kyle: Not that Sean is planning on doing this at all, but if he wanted to, he could sell that name and all of that equity he’s built up in it to another hand letterer. It could become its own brand if he really wanted it to, because it has built up its own equity. A lot of people know Sean as a hand letterer, specifically, and they associate him with that. Learn Lettering is the brand to them. Then he’s got these other things that he’s doing under this bigger umbrella brand that he build ahead of time.

Sub-Brands & Social Media

  • 32:47 Cory: Amanda asked, “Should your sub-brand have its own unique social media stack, and how do you cross-promote without being redundant to your followers?” This depends on the size and scope of what your company is about. We talked about Virgin Group earlier, and if they had a single social media account that handled everything—airlines, travel, wines, and so on, it wouldn’t work. In that case, it would be okay to have someone handling this social media for the wines and someone else handling this social media for something else. Most of these larger brands have departments. They have dozens, if not hundreds, of people handling their social media output and their connection with their audience.
  • 33:45 If you are a small company, a small business, and you’re creating things that fit underneath, if you don’t have this widely expansive palate to choose from, then you’re probably fine having a single kind of social media stack. You would have the company name, and then if people have issues with products or sub-brands, they can connect with you there. A lot of it has to do with scale, how many people are working for you, and how many directions you’re going while maintaining your single direction.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • 34:46 Robert asks, “What are some good questions to ask myself in order to prevent my sub-brand from being confusing or misaligned with my overall brand?” You need to understand your parent brand direction more than anyone else in the entire universe. You need to know everything about why you’re doing what you’re doing. A lot of this may come from doing some writing, looking at some graphs, and planning out that stuff. One of the first questions is to go back to the beginning and ask, “What are my mission, values, and purpose for my primary brand?”
  • 35:27 Then you say, “Why do I want to do this? Why do I want to create a sub-brand?” Past that, ask yourself, “What relationship does this need to have? Is this going to be endorsed, X product by X company? Is it going to be linked together? Will I use the same kind of imagery? Am I going to have to hire another designer to create a whole new design palate for this? Am I going to have to register new trademarks?” Those are a few questions to get you started.
  • 36:10 Kyle: Maybe your brand is in the early stages right now. Sub-brands come after you’ve built up a lot of equity in your current brand. Going back, again, to the Apple example, when Apple began, they started with the Apple 2 and then the Apple Lisa. In 1984, they came out with the first Macintosh, and that became the brand name for their computer line, although we say “Mac” now. That was a sub-brand that started building equity, but before that, they used their name, Apple, constantly.
  • 37:09 That was the name for their products, because they were building equity in the Apple name. Once they became known as someone with expertise in computers, they could start creating these sub-brands, like the Macintosh, the iPhone, or the iPad. If you’re starting a company and you’ve only been in it for a year, creating a sub-brand might be detrimental, because you don’t have the equity built up in the main brand to bolster the new brand. You can’t say, “We have a strong experience with this, so you can trust us with this sub-brand.”

Sub-Brands vs. Split Focus

  • 38:01 Cory: Emily asked, “I’m a designer. I’m focusing on illustration, and it’s growing, but design help pay the bills still, and it’s what people know me to do. Can I keep that as a sub-brand, or is it a bad idea to let it linger when I don’t want to do it long term?” I don’t think this is an issue of branding. I think this is an issue of focus. When you’re one person, it’s incredibly difficult to have sub-brands. It can be done, but it’s very difficult. In this case, this is on offerings. Emily, if you want to be known for something, this is about curation and focus (Related: seanwes podcast e074 Curate What You Share).
  • 38:51 Technically, you could do Emily Carlton Design, Emily Carlton Illustration, but now that’s pulling you in two different ways. It’s not going to help people understand what you’re about in a conceptual way. If you had multiple people, it might work out, and you could do some sub-brands there, but this is more about figuring out what you want to be known for and what kind of work you want to do.
  • 39:20 Kyle: I had a similar question to this a few days ago. I’ve been sharing a lot of stuff on Snapchat, but someone asked me, “I want to focus on this certain thing. Right now, I’m doing this thing, and the people who know me know me for this thing. I don’t know what to do.” At one point, I switched from being Kyle Adams Icon Design and Illustration. That was what I would project. It came from a place of me pivoting. I thought that if I kept illustration in the name, that would be easier for people to latch onto. Illustrating is this known thing. Icon design is a thing and people know it, but it’s not as widely accepted.
  • 40:16 It took me a while to really understand that, by not doing that focus, I was splitting my audience’s focus. It’s not necessarily about having a sub-brand, although it affects your brand as a whole, but it’s about you taking a bold move and pivoting. Especially in the early stages, where you haven’t built a huge company around this thing, it’s easier to pivot then. The further you get into it, the harder it will be to pivot. Don’t wait to say, “I am Emily Carlton, Illustrator,” and put that all over your site and all over everything. Project that constantly.
  • 41:02 People are still going to call you a designer, and that’s fine. Roll with it, and talk about your new focus when you get the opportunity. Own that and take that with you, and make that your thing. Even though focus only seems to be split in two ways, there are many things that come with that. You’re trying to project these two different things, keep up with those, and talk to people about each one, and clients come to you for both. It’s confusing. It’s time to own that.