How to Build Out Your Organization’s Sub-Branding Strategy

Defining a ‘Sub-Brand’

Simply put, sub-brands are tools we use to organize our brands. But, before we can wade into the complexities of sub-branding, let’s pause to define a brand. Your brand is the perception that the world (specifically your ideal audience) has of your organization. It is created over time, primarily through the content and quality of what you offer, your reputation, and the feelings evoked when people interact with your organization. Your brand is symbolized by your name, logo, and visual identity (typography, colors, etc.), as well as through your brand voice and communications.

So, what happens when your offer expands, or when new departments are created within your institution that must be somewhat distinct from your overarching (or ‘parent’) brand? What about when you launch a campaign that would benefit from identifying with your existing reputation and recognition but needs to communicate a fresh and distinctive message?

Enter sub-brands. They exist to help audiences (and internal stakeholders) identify and organize individual departments and initiatives contained by larger brands—effectively shaping your brand architecture. They help eliminate confusion and the potential dilution of your brand’s meaning and recognition.

  • Sub-brands can appear in many different forms—perhaps as merely a byline beneath your existing logo and name, as many university departments and hospitals opt to do, or a completely new logo and name with hints of your existing brand colors and voice, an approach more commonly seen in major campaigns by international nonprofits. Some brands leave no trace in their sub-brands—they’re flexible to fit the needs of any organization. These exemplify two different approaches: a ‘house of brands’ or a ‘branded house’. A house of brands is a set of unique, differentiated brands all owned by one parent brand, which may or may not remain unrepresented—for example, how Unilever owns Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, Lipton, and more. A branded house is a parent brand that contains brands bearing its name/identity—for example, Mayo Clinic has sub-brands like the Mayo Clinic Health System and Mayo Clinic Laboratories, and Harvard University includes Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical School as its sub-brands.

Fear not—this technique isn’t only reserved for the multi-billion dollar corporations and organizations of the world. You can leverage this method to help your organization better communicate with your community as well.

The Elements of a Sub-Brand

However you choose to visually represent and communicate your sub-brand, it is first necessary to clearly delineate the purpose and limitations of the sub-brand.

Purpose

Why will this sub-brand exist? What purpose does it serve? It can serve multiple purposes if needed—both internally and externally—but it’s best to have a clear idea of the reasoning behind its creation. Then, ask what the sub-brand is not. What are its limits? Where do other sub-brands take the lead? If there’s not a strong need for a sub-brand, it’s likely best to leverage your existing brand rather than create unnecessary confusion. When you can identify this purpose in one succinct sentence, you’re starting from a good place!

Audience

First, identify the intended audience—this audience should be an existing subset of (or at least adjacent to) those you currently serve. Consider what makes this audience unique, and how they will be better served specifically by this sub-brand. What can they expect from this sub-brand? What will it mean to them, both in how it reflects what they know about your existing brand or message, and also the new ideas it introduces?

Value Proposition

Like any good business, organization, or institution’s brand, sub-brands should have their own value proposition. What unique benefits does this sub-brand add to the value of the parent brand’s offering? Why should people care? What makes it different?

Alignment

Your sub-brands, even if they differ visually from your overarching brand, should retain certain characteristics that remain aligned with your philosophy as an organization and offer a sense of familiarity. Unless you are a massive conglomerate launching a ‘startup’ brand, your sub-brand should share bits in common with your primary branding. It doesn’t have to be everything or anything in particular—just some things, like a logo, a font, a color scheme, a message, or a tone of voice. Just enough to be recognizable, if you wish to be.

Launch Strategy

Is your sub-brand a campaign that will roll out independently? Or one of many in a set of new departments or initiatives? Since sub-brands can take so many forms and serve many different purposes, it’s impossible to prescribe a templatized launch strategy that will work in every scenario. Instead, consider these sets of questions, in order:

  1. Is the visual identity ready for the public eye? Has it been checked by stakeholders and for audience feedback to ensure there is clarity, consistency (if needed), and compelling design? Have we ensured the new sub-brands will not overshadow our existing brand or confuse our audience?
  2. Does it make sense to publicly or internally ‘announce’ the new sub-brand(s)? Or would it cause less confusion and disruption if it were simply instituted without much fanfare?
  3. If we are to announce it, who needs to know first? What will they need to know? Have we simplified the message and purpose behind the change to be clearly understood in as little time as possible?
    1. Remember that, as with rebrands, when we fiddle with the established perception of our organization in our audience’s fickle and crowded minds, we run the risk of losing their interest or being ousted entirely as a result of simply becoming too much effort to remember and categorize. Keeping the sub-brands and messaging around them as simple (and clearly connected to your existing brand) as you can will increase the odds of the effort being worthwhile.
  4. On which channels will we announce the changes/new campaigns? Will they be new accounts associated solely with the sub-brands, tangentially connected to our existing brand accounts, or rolled out directly within our existing feeds?
    1. Consider where your audience is, and whether the sub-brand(s) has legs to stand on its own as a source of considerable content, interest, and engagement.
  5. What’s our communications plan? What will we say, where will we say it, when will we say it, and with what frequency? Comms plans don’t need to be perfect and should be flexible, but they must be in place to provide guidance to your team and ensure a smooth rollout.

Examples

As mentioned, sub-brands are tricky and difficult to grasp through the written word alone. So, let’s walk through some varied examples to elucidate the diversity and efficacy (as well as mistakes) of past sub-branding efforts by organizations potentially similar to your own.

Oregon Department of Early Learning and Care

The Oregon Department of Early Learning and Care, a client of our very own, was rebranded as a unification of several programs such as Preschool Promise. So, we built out a structure of sub-brands to connect each program under one visual and conceptual umbrella.

This is an example of sub-branding being used to organize and unify distinct initiatives and programs within an organization.

DELC sub-brands

Linn-Benton Community College

Linn-Benton Community College, another of our clients, had multiple departments, sports teams, and more that required a cohesive sub-branding strategy.

LBCC Athletics and LBCC Foundation sub-brands

Conclusion

Sub-branding isn’t always a necessity—it’s just a tool you can use to create clear delineations as your organization grows and evolves. As you can see, we leverage it frequently for our clients, as it’s particularly helpful for organizations in healthcare, education, and public services. If you have any questions about how you can effectively implement a sub-branding strategy for your organization, we hope you’ll reach out. We’re happy to help!

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