Thursday, 18 August 2011

Cheese, cigarettes and brand architecture

Question, what has Philadelphia Cheese and Marlboro Lights got in common. 

Answer, well you need to read on and I will explain later. 

Some stories, unlike this column, do not need a hook to keep readers interested and some stick around for longer than people first thought they would. The best current example of this is the phone hacking scandal. This seems to have dragged on forever, but it has done because every time you think it will die down something else comes out that beggar’s belief.

I am sure that you all will have read or watched ad nauseum details of this scandal.  Most interesting to me however was that this story has moved from something affecting a single newspaper to something affecting a global corporation.

So back to the question of what has Philadelphia Cheese and Marlboro Lights got in common? The answer is that at one point they were both owned by the same holding company, Phillip Morris. This is the point with global companies, they can own vastly different products and brands, contentious and otherwise, and the general public never know.

So now a brief lesson in brand architecture, or the way that companies structure brands they own. You can have product brands such as pampers, sub brands such as Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and also corporate/umbrella brands such as Virgin. These are the most dangerous as if something goes wrong with one part, as the others are so closely associated with it, it can affect the others. So if Virgin Money were to suffer a major issue it might creative a negative perception on other Virgin brands i.e. Rail, Atlantic etc. This has not stopped some previously relatively unknown corporate brands start to make themselves known such as Proctor and Gamble with its “proud sponsor of mums” campaign in readiness making the most of its Olympic activities.

A house of brands approach however is the complete opposite. Here a relatively unknown parent brand owns lots of very disparate sub brands and if one gets in trouble, it is unlikely to be associated with another and the holding company.  So when the News of the World got in trouble you may have realised that it could affect The Times or The Sun as they are all part of News International. But what about Fox News, or any of the 120 newspaper News Corporation, the overall parent company, own in Australia alone and I could go on.

What has been most interesting is that the focus and talk around phone hacking has moved from individual product brands to the ultimate owner News Corporation and more and more the largest shareholders the Murdoch’s themselves. The enquiries may be looking at specific products but media coverage and social media chatter now generalises about News Corp as a whole, something that has a house of brands it probably thought would never happen. With the News Corp BSkyB bid gone and the scandal ongoing, no matter how clever you run your corporate affairs, sometimes a single event can pull the critical piece from the Jenga tower and we wait to see if it will all fall down.

Tim Youngman is head of digital marketing for Archant – follow him on twitter @timyoungman