Every brand has some form of a brand butterfly, whether they call it a brand onion, a brand architecture, a brand key, a brand pyramid, a brand d.n.a, or a brand unicorn. It’s the one-page blueprint of the brand.
When written well, it can be an invaluable resource. It sparks new ideas and helps guide all of your decisions on whether an idea is “on brand”. When I first learned about brand architectures at General Mills, we talked through the Cheerios brand architecture as an example. Cheerios stands for “nurturing” at its essence, which extends from the toddler first finger food moment to its cholesterol-lowering whole grain. So, a free children’s book tucked in the cereal box would be on brand, but a $10 Dominoes pizza coupon would not.
Yet many brand architectures are full of insider marketing lingo that make them seem ridiculous to everyone else. A brand architecture is most valuable when its easily understood by everyone on the extended brand team. My friend Matthew said that they should pass the “IT guy test”, meaning that the IT guy should be able to understand the brand from reading it.
Too often, brand architectures are written by group committee, which makes them blandly acceptable to everyone but not that inspiring to anyone in particular. Defining a brand promise in a group reminds me of that classic charades scene in “When Harry Met Sally”. They’re all shouting guesses to the charades answer and Jess suddenly blurts out, “baby fish mouth … baby fish mouth”. Everyone stares at him because his guess is complete nonsense, but it sounds right to him because he’s so close to it.
I thought of “baby fish mouth” years ago when we finally settled on “Healthy Haven” as a brand promise for Green Giant. It doesn’t really mean anything without a lengthy explanation but it was the only option everyone could agree on.
There’s diminishing returns the more time you spend on a brand architecture. Time spent debating a brand architecture is time not spent developing ideas based on it. Rather than chase perfection, it’s better to run with an earlier imperfect draft and get ideas into the market to test what resonates.
I came across this great post last week from WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg:
“Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it‘s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world … By shipping early and often you have the unique competitive advantage of hearing from real people what they think of your work, which in best case helps you anticipate market direction, and in worst case gives you a few people rooting for you that you can email when your team pivots to a new idea. Nothing can recreate the crucible of real usage.”
Matt writes form the vantage point of software development, but the idea is just as applicable for consumer products. Physical products may be less flexible, but brands can quickly experiment with promotion ideas, communication experiments, and marketing tests. You’ll learn infinitely more from seeing how your ideas are received in market than pontificating your brand promise.
Spend less time word smithing and more time experience smithing.