brand building

Simple Brands Are Easier to Understand

Just as it helps to simplify your marketing message, it pays to simplify your brand. Simple brands are much easier for customers to understand.

Marketers often inherit this problem – a cluttered closet chock full of brands, sub-brands and product names. Sometimes all these brands have become a jumble, which makes no sense when seen through the eyes of customers.

That’s when you need simple brands.

A series of acquisitions can lead to a tangle of too many brands. So can joint ventures and co-branding. Or product teams may perceive a need to name everything in sight, without regard to customers’ needs for simplicity.

I once worked with an executive who was compelled to separately name his product’s operating system, software and hardware – 3 names for one product! In the meantime, his unit never delivered a product customers wanted to buy.

Brands are like children. They inspire strong attachments, especially from their immediate family. Yet when you have too many brands, it begs the question: How many can you afford to support?

World's Longest Brand Name
Is this the world’s longest brand name? Or do you know a longer one?

Sometimes, existing brands desperately cry out for change:

  • Some brand names are just too long. In my wallet is a credit card I like, but hate the branding of: the “Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World EliteTM MasterCard®“. A  masterpiece of needless brand complexity. I dare you to recall that name.
  • Some brand names are inherently confusing. At a car rental in France, an agent seemed thrilled to rent me a “2008.” But I was baffled: Why rent such old cars? Then she remarked that the car had low mileage. What, had no one driven it in 8 years? When I got to the car, I learned “2008” is the name of a certain Peugeot. I’d rented a “2016 2008.” Go figure!
  • Some brand names are absolutely unpronounceable foreign words. This hits close to home with my Austrian last name, Stenitzer, which I’ve heard mispronounced a million ways – my favorite being “Senator.”Talk about unpronounceable: My first job in marketing was at Sverdrup, a brand even our receptionists could not pronounce. There’s no “SV” sound in English. To help employees grapple with that, I wrote stories about places and things named Sverdrup: islands and an oceanographic unit of measure. Our founder came from a family of explorers, and telling their stories prompted employees to talk about the name – so they could practice pronouncing it.

That’s when you need simple brands.

A complex jumble of brands often prompts companies to move from a “house of brands” (such as GM) to a simpler “master brand” architecture.

For example, GM had way too many brands in its house of brands, which confused consumers. So it eliminated Oldsmobile, Saturn, Saab and Hummer. That saved money, reduced product overlap and helped keep the company afloat. Over the years, GM has discontinued more than 30 car brands.

FedEx logoUnder a master brand, the first name of any product is the company name, followed by a last name that’s a generic descriptor of a product or service. For example:

  • FedEx Express
  • FedEx Ground
  • FedEx Office.

A master brand enables all marketing resources to back one brand – in this example, FedEx. units separately market their offerings such as express, ground and office. Yet even when units are marketing separately, their efforts benefit the FedEx master brand.

That’s how simple brands win.

Sometimes it makes sense to choose a hybrid brand model. Under this strategy, most products sell under a master brand but some freestanding separate brands are allowed with good reason. Think Amazon and Zappo’s.

How do you know when to switch from a house of brands to a master brand? Who should you listen to? What evidence should come into play when change is needed?

Rely on customer data, not employee opinions, as you move to a master brand. Unless you have the mega-budget of a Procter & Gamble, it usually makes more sense to stick with one brand, your master brand.

If there are doubts about whether to migrate, survey customers. Ask them to match your sub-brands with your company brand. Often, they just can’t do it.

As vice president of marketing at Tellabs, I inherited 7 product sub-brands. But we couldn’t afford to support that many brands.

To quickly find our way forward, we surveyed customers at a major industry trade show. Through the survey, we learned that more than 9 out of 10 prospects and customers could not connect these sub-brands with the company brand, Tellabs. Sub-brands had become a source of customer confusion, rather than a source of meaning or differentiation.

Our survey findings made it easy to decide. We needed simple brands. We moved forward with a master brand architecture and retired the sub-brands.

If you can’t survey customers face to face at an event, then monitor customer service calls. Collect data for a month to find out how frequently customers say the sub-brand names.

Wise marketers whittle down a jumble of brands to a single master brand, then focus all of their resources on one brand. This approach works much better than spreading your resources as thin as peanut butter across sub-brands that customers may not even connect with you.

How can you smooth the migration to a master brand? Use a fade in/fade out approach, rather than a quick cutover. Like a DJ, fade out the previous brand and bring up the next brand smoothly, transferring any equity to the new brand and smoothing the transition.

Employ the simplest means of re-educating customers. For example, when Tellabs acquired AFC, we taught employees to answer the phone: “AFC, now Tellabs.” Within a few months, 80% of customers had gotten the message.

Don’t make the transition too abrupt. Give customers time to associate the old and new brand names, so they get used to the new brand. How long that takes depends on the purchase cycle for your products.

Create a simple conversion chart with two columns to share with employees and customers. On the left, show the former complex brand names. On the right, show the new simple brands, so customers can compare side-by-side.

When 80% of customers use your new brand name, you can retire the old one. Surveys will show when you get there.

As hard as migrating to a new brand is on customers, it’s much harder on employees. They’re the emotionally attached to the old brands. They’re the ones who may have invested years of their careers in the old brand.

Employees always, always, always resist name changes. Expect their resistance.

It’s the same kind of resistance you see when the name of a major league sports stadium changes. Despite that resistance, don’t allow employee opinions to outweigh customer data.

Get your business leaders to meet with employees face-to-face. Share the data you gathered from customers, so employees understand why the change is necessary.

Never say you will to “eliminate” an old brand. Instead honor old brands and retire them with dignity.

Swagelok did an excellent job of retiring its legacy brands that came through acquisitions. Decades later, the company continues to honor them on this web page. This page also gathers search traffic from customers who need to replace a decades-old part sold under the old brand name. Smart!

As you move forward with a new brand, celebrate its launch with employees. Butter them up with a nice launch party. Equip them with new business cards, business forms and nice giveaways that they’ll be proud to use or wear.

Will some people resist until the bitter end? Oh yeah.

Marketers need to show some tolerance for long-term employees who keep using the old brand names internally. They’re sort of like people who keep thinking of a bride by her maiden name, not her married name.

Insist that employees use the new names whenever they speak with customers.

Simple Brands Are Easier to Understand - Sears Tower
Quick, name that building! Did you use the old brand or the new brand?

Sometimes, new brand names just don’t stick.

In Chicago, most of us still call that 110-story building on Wacker Drive the “Sears Tower.”

Back in 2009, it was renamed the Willis Tower. Try correcting a Chicagoan about the “Willis Tower,” and we’ll usually shrug it off.

Rebranding is a real challenge. That’s why it’s so important for marketers to focus on making the transition to a simple brand smooth.

Despite brand transition pains, it always pays to make your brand simple enough for customers to understand!