Are corporate brands dead

Are corporate brands dead?

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Recently Jan Rijkenberg raised some interesting points in an article (thanks Jeremy) in which he questioned the importance, indeed the relevance, of underpinning individual brands with the identities of their corporate owners. It does brands no favours, he suggests, to collectivise them as part of the bigger entity. In so doing, he maintains, they lose their individuality and therefore their specific appeal.

It’s a well-argued and reasonable case that cautions against big picture corporate brands overshadowing their assets and diluting their valuable personalities to fit with a bigger body’s self-aggrandising agenda.

Specific roles for corporate brands

Personally, I can see a case for corporate brands – but I think their roles are specific, and that there are clear responsibilities that come with running a diversified portfolio. I also believe that, too often, Rijkenberg is absolutely right.

So, let’s start with when an owner’s brand might be useful. I agree with Rijkenberg that there are specific activities that are much more suited to the corporate brand than the individual marques.

  • The investor brand – if the company is publicly listed, then that entity needs to be speaking in a branded and clear way to investors and the markets. It must explain not only who the brands are but also how they have collectively performed. By allocating this responsibility to the owner rather than the individual brands, the corporate entity is able to talk to the investment market about the same entity they have invested in. Receiving reports from the individual brands would be neither practical nor legal. So, if you are a large beverages company for example, and you are publicly listed, it makes sense to feed back to the markets on how the portfolio as a whole has performed.
  • Corporate social responsibility – for the same reason it makes sense for the whole entity to discuss the programmes it is running at a brand level and a wider corporate level. This enables the efforts of each brand to be seen in a wider context.
  • Internal – the people responsible for managing the brands within a corporate structure should be accountable to the same rules and behaviours as each other and the rest of the organisation. So it also makes sense for example that, in an employer brand sense, a large corporate would want to talk about its collective values and behaviours. We could debate for some time as to whether in many cases these amount to little more than platitudes, but there’s no denying that this too is a corporate-level responsibility and therefore should be linked to that brand.

None of this is contentious. Where it becomes more knotty is when organisations look to overtly extend the ownership of the corporate entity into the brands themselves – as Unilever and P&G have done in recent years for example. From a corporate investor point of view, this makes sense because it provides a clear portfolio footprint. Consumers can see which brands are part of which entity and the hope of the marketers is that the goodwill will halo to the corporate brand, and vice versa.

A question of priorities

The issue though soon becomes one of priority. Which is more important? – the brand and what it stands for, or the corporate and what it stands for? And when the two conflict, who has right of way? The brand – because that’s where the relationships are. Or the corporate – because (they would argue anyway) that’s where the governance and the wider reputation is housed. My reading of Rijkenberg’s concern is that if you subjugate the individual brands to the corporate branding (by featuring it so prominently), you risk homogenising the assets into a bland corporate soup where their personalities give way to what HQ feels happy with rather than what customers love. The danger is that you turn your products into corporate billboards and in so doing transform them from powerful and trusted assets in their own right to small pieces of corporate real estate.

These arguments have much going for them. I worked for years on a major company that got no mention at brand level, despite several attempts to introduce the idea, because time and again the research showed that any such revelation would send consumers packing. It wasn’t that the corporate entity was seen in any bad light. It was just that consumers were extremely clear in their own minds about where the relationship lay and with whom.

A Unilever example

Here’s another complication. If you do decide to tie the brands closely to the corporate, then you need to reconcile contradictions in the wider portfolio. If you don’t, you risk impacts on your corporate reputation – or at the very least you muddy the waters around what you actually stand for. This is the responsibility associated with running a portfolio that I alluded to earlier. In a well articulated and thorough appraisal of the Dove campaign, Angela Celebre & Ashley Waggoner Denton make this great point about the relationship between what the brand espouses and what other brands in the wider portfolio espouse. “Dove’s parent company is Unilever, which is also the parent company of Axe and Fair & Lovely. These brands promote messages that are in direct contradiction to the message that Dove is attempting to promote, which is positive body image”.

It’s a perfect example of how brands can work in isolation of each other from a personality/values point of view (and how they are often managed that way). However, linking them together inside a corporate portfolio quickly draws attention to the contradictions. In fact, I believe that if you are going to link brands to the corporate owner then you can only do it if you’re truly prepared to align all your brands to a consistent ethos. But – and this is Rijkenberg’s point – the challenge is to do that in a way that still keeps the brands interesting. Having Axe and Dove in the same branded portfolio, it could be argued, doesn’t make sense ethically. So which one goes? And what does having them together in the same portfolio say about Unilever’s commitment to its purpose? But if you do sell one off to get the ethical alignment, and it’s a market leader and highly profitable, how do you justify that to shareholders? As I say, things get knotty …

What does your corporate brand stand for?

However, I do think there are times when uniting brands under a strong corporate brand is worth considering. If the brands are new or if they are underpowered in a highly competitive market, tying them back to the corporate brand can give them kudos and authority they might not otherwise receive. Equally, as David Aaker points out, “A corporate brand can be a powerful … endorser because it is uniquely suited to capture the organization’s heritage, assets and skills, people, values, citizenship, and performance. While competitive products may be similar, organizations rarely are. A Corporate brand is thus a potential source of differentiation as long as it stands for something meaningful and positive.”

If your corporate brand stands for nothing, then its presence is superfluous

And that’s the critical point isn’t it? If your corporate brand stands for nothing, if it doesn’t represent a viewpoint, a powerful perception and/or a clear story, then its presence is superfluous. Wallpaper. On the other hand, if its presence adds to the brand it is paired with (as Marriott does for example when it is paired with Courtyard) each adds to the credentials of the other. Then it becomes a virtuous circle: the brand is stronger for being part of the corporate; and the corporate is stronger for having that brand in its portfolio.

We shouldn’t write off the corporate brand as an endorsing mechanism. Used properly and responsibly, it can add dimension and kudos to a brand. But doing so requires care, patience, the willingness to build equity in both marques and deep discipline. Some brands can do that. Many can’t – or won’t. So, Jan Rijkenberg – you’re right. But as with all rules, there are some notable exceptions.

Photo of “Corporate Logo Cupcakes” taken by Clever Cupcakes, sourced from Flickr

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