Sub-Brands: Danger Ahead
Professional services firms often feel compelled to create separate sub-brands for their latest new service line or initiative. Beware! Sub-brands can create a slippery slope of problems. Before you know it, there is a hodgepodge of logos and identities that have been created without the rigor of a true branding effort. And years of studies indicate that too many sub-brands tend to create client and prospect confusion; rather than signaling expansion or innovation, sub-brands can often dilute your main brand.
When is a sub-brand appropriate?
Is the sub-brand promise of value truly different from the overall firm brand?
If not, a sub-brand probably isn’t necessary. The new service line will get more mileage out of remaining closely aligned with the already successful firm brand.
Can the sub-brand reach a market that the firm brand cannot?
If the target audience won’t consider the new service without a separate brand, then a sub-brand can make sense. The sub-brand is particularly helpful if you are using totally different people, processes or technology and there is not an overlap with other firm services. For example law firms have found it helpful to spin off their eDiscovery groups into a sub-brand. Why? They are staffing these services with different people, using vastly different fee models and are often physically located separately from the parent law firm.
Is the potential sub-brand’s target audience different from the firm’s target audience?
If the target audience of the sub-brand is clearly defined and distinct from that of the parent firm, a sub-brand can make sense. Additionally, if the sub-brand audience segment would never consider using any other firm services, then that strengthens your case for a sub-brand.
Does the sub-brand have the resources and infrastructure to stand on its own?
It takes a full campaign—not just a brochure or a trade show booth—to anchor a sub-brand in the minds of the target audience. So for many firms, this kills sub-brand initiatives. There is often just not enough budget or manpower to effectively promote both the parent brand and the sub-brand.
If you can’t answer yes to all of the above, you should probably create your new service line using your existing brand.
Buyers prefer simplicity. They already feel overwhelmed with choices.
Sub-brands dilute the main brand. Buyers have limited shelf space in their minds for storing the names of brands. Three or four brands sit comfortably—any more makes them all harder to recall. (Think of rental car companies and how easy it is to name the first three and how hard to name the next five.) If a firm launches sub-brands, it complicates the fight for top of mind position.
Sub-brands create market confusion, particularly if several sub-brands overlap each other. The clients will start to question what each sub-brand stands for and how one sub-brand is different from the next.
The business development process is often hindered by sub-brand efforts. Prospects often worry that they will get two sets of bills or two different project teams if they use two sub-brands. So sub-brands often hijack the sales process by creating issues or obstacles that distract from your pitch.
Sub-branding is more expensive—you need manpower and a promotional budget to try to drive the sub-brand name into long-term memory, versus only worrying about the parent name.
A portfolio of sub-brands is less flexible and dynamic, which is why the largest professional service firms generally steer away from sub-branding.
Consider that IBM, one of the most successful marketers of all time, has literally hundreds of products in almost as many markets. Yet every one of those products both carries and reinforces the IBM brand.