On sub-branding: Don’t let your sub-brands distract you!

Just because I’m the Brand Fairy and have been a keen observer of brand best practices and trends over decades doesn’t mean I’ve never made a mistake. In the past, I indiscriminately listened to those self-styled online business experts without cultivating critical thinking skills or an ability to curate useful information amidst the flood of bad advice.

Too often, as small business owners (here I am talking mostly about solopreneurs and those with less than five employees) we receive mixed signals from the so-called experts: on one hand, many advise us to focus on a niche market; others tell us to diversify product offerings to capture the widest possible audience.

In an attempt at reconciling these two contradictory ends, many of us try to sub-brand various components of our businesses. In theory, each of such sub-brands has its own “ideal customer.”

I tried this approach in the past and it did not work.

Not only that sub-branding my sole proprietorship did not increase my sales, but also it diluted the principal brand and prevented me from focusing on building a strong brand message. In the end, having the sub-brands became the worst distraction. Hoping that doing so would diversify my business, I created three silos and divided my precious energy into three separate entities without having a cohesive narrative that unites them into one.

From the consumers’ perspective, this exercise in sub-branding only added to confusion. Many thought I was operating multiple, separate businesses. No one could understand how these three sub-brand components were related to one another.

What are sub-brands?

In a typical brand architecture, there are several different types of sub-brands:

  1. Legacy sub-brands: When a big corporation acquires another company that has been well-established for a long time, the former often decides to keep the latter’s brand banner for a certain period of time or indefinitely. For example, Bank of America acquired Seattle-First National Bank (Seafirst Bank) in the 1980s, but for two decades, Bank of America kept the Seafirst brand for all its branches in the State of Washington due to Seafirst’s historical importance and familiarity.
  2. Geographical sub-brands: Some companies, for historical reasons or others, choose to maintain separate brands for specific geographic areas. Thus, Carl’s Jr. is found in the western states while the same fast-food chain is called Hardee’s in the eastern part of the United States.
  3. Sub-brands based on target demographics: For instance, In 2002, Victoria’s Secret launched Pink, a line of apparel and lingerie designed to appeal to young adults, to compete against Abercrombie & Fitch and similar rivals. Another example is Toyota Motors Company, which markets the Lexus cars for the upscale customer base and once marketed the Scion cars (2003-2016) for the younger buyers.
  4. Sub-brands based on price ranges: Some companies maintain differentiated sub-brands based on the price range of their products. Starbucks Coffee Company, after acquiring its regional rival Seattle’s Best Coffee, transformed the latter from a legacy sub-brand to a sub-brand for lower-priced coffee sold through supermarkets and (in the past) served at fast-food restaurants.
  5. Sub-brands based on types of services offered: Federal Express (now FedEx Corporation) used to be a company that specialized only in overnight airborne courier services. After FedEx’s takeover of several ground transportation companies and Kinko’s self-serve photocopy stores, FedEx turned each of its new components into distinct sub-brands: FedEx Express (the traditional air courier), FedEx Ground, FedEx Home Delivery, and FedEx Kinko’s (which later became FedEx Office). Among the five examples listed here, this is the only kind of sub-branding that still maintains the cohesion of the principal brand banner (FedEx) while also differentiating different product lines.

Too often, badly executed sub-branding efforts do not benefit or strengthen the principal brand. In an ideal situation, all sub-brands must work together to build the principal brand by extending the power of the central branding (examples: FedEx, Virgin, Coca-Cola). But when you are a solopreneur whose central brand is yet to be solidly established, creating multiple sub-brands will only have a detrimental effect on building your brand as a whole.

In all of the above scenarios, these are all big corporations. They have resources and money to dedicate separate staff for different divisions and even maintain separate headquarters. In the case of the legacy sub-brands, they have inherited the existing offices and employees. In many cases, each of the sub-brands under these big corporations behaves like they are autonomous corporate entities. When you are the only person in the company, sub-branding almost always results in spreading yourself too thin. Often you will also feel torn between several sub-brands you may maintain: given a limited advertising budget, which sub-brand will get prioritized and which one will be sacrificed?

Sub-branding is not for solopreneurs or small business owners

Having learned my lessons the hard way, here’s my advice to my readers: If you are a small business of fewer than 10 employees, you do not have a capacity (or any compelling reason) to sub-brand your business. In fact, doing so will dilute your primary brand.

The goal as a small business owner is to drive customers to all that you offer. You want your customers to come for a product or service you are selling and walk away learning about all the other things you have to offer. All products and services, therefore, should be under a singular banner. Unlike big corporations, you cannot afford to divide your resources and the prospective customers’ attention into multiple sub-brands.

If you cannot make sense of this because you have too many disconnected and unrelated products (and thus feel like you have to have a different brand for this or that), then you have too many products. Instead, you should try to pare them down so you can focus on what you do the best.

Clarification: Sub-branding that works and that doesn’t

This is a quick edit in order to prevent confusion.

In general, sub-brands that simply extend the principal brand do not usually become a distraction; instead, they enhance your main brand as every sub-brand is clearly identified with the principal brand. (Example: FedEx Corporation — FedEx Ground, FedEx Express, FedEx Home Delivery, FedEx Office.) A caution, however, is urged so as not to extend your brand to vastly irrelevant product categories and instead end up diluting the public perception of your brand.

The “bad” sub-branding that I refer to is a situation in which a small business owner maintains multiple brands that are disconnected from one another and cannot readily be identified with your principal/umbrella brand by casual observers. (Examples: Hilton Worldwide Holdings — Hilton, Embassy Suites, DoubleTree, Waldorf Astoria; Albertsons Companies — Safeway, Albertsons, Vons, Shaw’s, Acme, Randalls, Jewel-Osco, Tom Thumb.)