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Branding – is monolithic best?

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BMW: A monolithic brand. Shown here on the IPcopy news wagon

BMW: A monolithic brand. Shown here on the IPcopy news wagon

Consider a company selling non-pharmaceutical products to the general public (pharmaceutical products raise special issues, not discussed here).

The possible extremes of branding architecture are these:

  • “one product [or product type, or service (type)], one brand”;  and
  • “monolithic”.

In fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and alcoholic drinks, the commonest architecture is “one product, one brand”. Thus, the brands Hellmann’s (mayonnaise), Knorr (stock cubes), Vaseline (skin care), Dove (beauty soap), Persil (washing machine detergent), and OMO (also washing machine detergent) are, in the UK, all Unilever brands, though the average consumer would not know this. Likewise, the brands Smirnoff (vodka), Guinness (beer), and Johnny Walker (whisky) are all Diageo brands, although unconnected in the perception of the average consumer.

With FMCG and alcoholic drinks, a “one product, one brand” architecture does tend to recommend itself. Once a brand is established, the consumer may well be “loyal”, even if only out of inertia, despite the existence of competitive products with similar characteristics. The products do not cost him enough to justify much research prior to purchase; and he is more likely to shop around among retailers for the lowest price for the brand to which he is loyal than to switch brand.  By the same token, the consumer is unlikely to take enough interest to track any rebranding. Johnny Walker and Guinness were originally brands of mutually independent drinks companies, and loyal consumers would have been lost if the drinks had been rebranded when the companies came together.

“One product, one brand” has a special advantage with innovative products.  The company which first promotes an innovative product can use a brand to retain a consumer market independently of patents protecting the innovation.  If a product is innovative, then the public will tend to use the trade mark generically, and this works to the innovator’s advantage provided he can avoid such use becoming so widespread that the mark can be revoked.  The innovator himself in such cases should be advised to use the mark adjectivally, and to write to newspapers, broadcasters, and dictionary compilers when they use it otherwise; this usually maintains registration while simultaneously taking advantage of the consumer’s laxity on the matter.


Hellman’s: a one product, one brand mark

The disadvantages of “one product, one brand” are as follows:

(a)       One still needs an additional, corporate brand with which to address shareholders, other businesses, and potential employees. This is the principal function of the brand Diageo.

(b)       Each launch of a new product has to be preceded by a search for a mark that is clear of existing third-party trade mark rights and registrable in each of the relevant territories.  Especially in Europe, the ever-increasing “trade mark cluttering” can make this very hard indeed.

As a result, consideration ought to be given to “monolithic” branding (the term used by Wally Olins, a guru of branding).  Especially if there are no historical reasons for divergent brands, and especially with products which are distinctive and expensive enough that the consumer can be expected to do some research before purchase, it may be sufficient to have a “monolithic” brand which faces all “stakeholders” including consumers;  the individual products or business lines are distinguished from each other in a descriptive or semi-descriptive way.  Legal effort can then be focused on getting one brand right.  Such an approach facilitates communication with customers when the products form a coherent range, as with most BMW cars other than the Mini: thus “BMW 530 d” signifies a car of body size 5 with a 3.0-litre diesel engine. Moreover, if one starts from scratch establishing businesses and products, then historical constraints (such as in the Johnny Walker/Guinness case) do not exist, and even products or business lines which do not form a coherent range can be monolithically branded. Thus, Sir Richard Branson has established diverse businesses named “Virgin [Descriptor]”, for instance “Virgin Atlantic”, “Virgin Trains”, and “Virgin Money”. Likewise, Gucci have a portfolio of goods that have little in common except that they are personal luxuries, and use the corporate brand in combination with sometimes quite technical descriptions, eg “soft stirrup black brocade leather shoulder bag”. Monolithic branding allows good products or business lines mutually to reinforce each other’s reputation; but if one product or business line gets into trouble, the reputation of the others may become contaminated. Evidently, BMW, Virgin, and Gucci regard positive reinforcement as more likely than contamination.

Mike Jewess 19 February 2014

Dr Michael Jewess was formerly Head of IP at BAE Systems and is now an attorney at K2, the network of patent and trade mark attorneys developed by Keltie LLP.

More on this blog post’s subject, more formally approached, can be found in Chapter 2 of Michael Jewess, Inside intellectual property – best practice in intellectual property law, management, and strategy (Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys, London, 2013), details at http://www.researchinip.com/iip.htm.

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