Place Brand Architecture Explained: Meaning, Function and Limitations

Brand architecture is one of those terms often used in place marketing and branding. But what does it actually mean? Answers from our place brand research panel reveal that there exist different interpretations and approaches to brand architecture. Below a summary of insights shared by the panel.

What brand architecture means

Relationships is what brand architecture is first and foremost about, according to the panel. Bill Baker (Total Destination Marketing, USA) explains the term as follows:

Brand architecture for a place brand defines the relationships, structure and links that exist between the brand’s key internal locations and partners, and how they fit in the external geographical, thematic and marketing context. It relates to the synergy and advantages that can be achieved when they are sharing strong common attributes or DNA that are in demand by target audiences.

Andrew Hoyne (Hoyne Design, Australia), adds that brand architecture “goes well beyond logos and is driven by understanding the relationship of all the visual and tonal assets.” He further stresses that those can include distinct precincts, programs and events.

Broadly speaking, “brand architecture is about strategical and tactical relationships between different brands in the same portfolio” (Caio Esteves | Places for Us, Brazil). It is, according to Efe Sevin (USA), about “how you coordinate various sub-brands under one name.”

As such, brand architecture is “a key component of all branding projects. No brand plays alone. There are always multiple stakeholders, with different needs and goals related to the brand” (Gustavo Koniszczer | FutureBrand, Argentina).

Or, as Jonathan McClory (Singapore) puts it:

To me it simply means being smart about the different ways an overarching brand is applied to other associated brands that sit beneath or alongside the flagship brand.

Bill Baker (USA) illustrates this with the example of Portland:

Within Portland OR are the sub-brands of Downtown, Pearl District, PDX Airport, the Columbia Gorge, and a host of other locations and entities representing the city for economic development and investment. Portland also benefits from its external brand relationships and associations with the Pacific Northwest, Oregon, the U.S.A, West Coast, and the Oregon Trail.

Gordon Innes (USA) mentions the example of Iamsterdam, which functions as the brand for the tourism arm, CVB, businesses, residents, and students.

Ed Burghard (USA) points out that that brand architecture can be viewed in different ways:

The first is as a construct for managing the brand promise across a diverse industry portfolio. In that context you can elect to either construct a branded house (communication focus is on community promise) or a house of brands (communication focus is on a translation of the community promise into benefit statements for specific industries).

The second is as a management construct of organizations focused on delivering the community promise. In this case, if you select a house of brands construct, you explicitly document how each organization’s mission helps deliver the community promise.

In either case, “brand architecture requires places to think about how geographic scalar levels (neighbourhood, village, city, hinterland, region, country, nation) are linked (or not) through name awareness, association and image”, as Robert Govers (independent advisor, Belgium) notes.

At a symbolic/communications level, place brand architecture “is about articulating a unified identity based on the ‘place’ reality” (Sonya Hanna, UK).

But the term brand architecture can also be understood in a different way. As Juan Carlos Belloso (Spain) notes:

There are two different ways to see or understand the concept ‘brand architecture’. The first one is using signature architects and architecture to differentiate and promote a specific place. We all remember the effect of Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and how the city used renowned worldwide architects to transform the city and make it attractive and differentiate it. There are many other examples, such as Dubai, Sydney opera, etc.

The other way to look at it is understanding the uniqueness of architectural heritage and assets of a place to use it to differentiate the place and to make it attractive. We have also examples of this, such as modernism architecture in Barcelona.


The benefits of brand architecture

In a corporate context, brand architecture helps the business determine “which resources should be allocated to which brand and how the brands are related within an organization” (Joao Freire | Grounded Brands, Portugal). He suggests that place brand architecture “gives a sense of mission”, which can help unify key players, concentrate resources, increase efficiency and create synergies.

Gustavo Koniszczer:

The beauty of brand architecture is that one can finetune weight and visibility for each of the brands or sub brands that compose the whole spectrum of communications. Then you can go from monolithic to independent models, according to needs and possibilities.


How brand architecture works

If brand architecture “is an extremely relevant aspect for destination brand management and has to be taken into account when developing a brand strategy” (Joao Freire), the questions arises, how to do it?

A key job of place professionals in charge of brand architecture, according to Andrew Hoyne, is to “ensure each asset or initiative does its specific job effectively, as well as playing a role in supporting the overarching positioning.”

In practical terms, here’s the approach which Efe Sevin recommends to cities:

For cities, I encourage DMOs and city managers to think about all entities that communicate with outside audiences if they want to build a comprehensive brand architecture. See whom they are reaching, see what they are talking. And establish project-based partnerships.

  • The microbrewery in the city might be much more effective in reaching potential short-term visitors in the region.
  • The Chamber of Commerce might be able to create more credible promotion campaigns to attract potential investors than the City Hall.

Crucially, brand architecture is not static but should be adjusted when needed. Joao Freire:

Destination brands are dynamic living entities that are composed of many different stakeholders and challenges. This dynamism implies that place brands can and do change over time. When this occurs, it is the responsibility of the different stakeholders to act when changes are needed.

In short, developing a brand architecture means to establish and nurture relationships among key stakeholders, and to agree upon specific use of visuals and narratives. In the experience of Tom Buncle (Yellow Railroad Consulting, UK):

This is usually achieved by sub-national brands evoking elements of the ‘mother’/’umbrella’ national brand. This strengthens their association with the national brand, increases recognition for the whole family, and presents a picture of a place full of fascinating diversity.


Challenges and limitations

Here a few of the challenges and limitations which our panelists observe in connection with place brand architecture:

“…setting up a place brand architecture is more difficult than setting up a brand architecture for products and services. This is because some strategic decisions are not necessarily based on efficiency of the markets but on political arguments.” (Joao Freire)

“A mistake we see many cities make is having multiple brands, with no real cohesion, which creates brand confusion. If brand architecture is used correctly, this can be avoided.” (Gordon Innes)

“With proper planning and thought, it is simple to do. But if it’s not done right, it results in a very muddled brand, which is a drawback for any place branding effort.” (Jonathan McClory)

“…while corporate brands are applied to products/services within an organisational framework, PB’s are applied to products/services and sub-places within a political and geographical framework. As such PBA is a political issue arising from intended strategy (DMO and/or governmental organisations), and the geographical context of place, all of which raises conflict in relation to authority, cooperative structures and outcomes.” (Sonya Hanna)

“The biggest mistake many places make is in constraining sub-brands and demanding they fit the straitjacket of a national brand. If they are not allowed the flexibility to breathe as brands in their own right, they will add nothing to the national brand and will appear withered and dull.” (Tom Buncle)


More about the panel and previous answers here.


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