With the holidays upon us it’s officially open season on carbohydrates. But instead of bemoaning inevitable holiday weight gain, let’s take a moment and see what our sugary friends in the snack isle can teach us about brand relationship strategies.

Most businesses manage a family of offerings, and the perceived relationship between those “sub” brands and the parent or “master” brand matters. From financial firms with multiple fund lineups to non-profit arts organizations in the performing, presenting, education, and retail businesses, a strategy for managing the relationships between parent and product brands—so that credit and equity accrue in the right places—is a must.

It just so happens carbo-companies Mars, Nabisco, Pepperidge Farms, and Entenmann’s provide clear, memorable examples to help frame your thinking around brand relationships, which exist on a continuum from product-focused to master brand-focused,

So grab a glass of milk and dig in!

Product branding

Skittles, Snickers, and Twix are all made by Mars, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the packaging. This is called product branding. Each offering has its own identity and (yes!) value proposition, and the master brand is relegated to small type on the back. (I, for one, have affinity for the Twix value proposition!)

With product branding, all the equity is at the product level, and the success or failure of one offering is insulated from the success or failure of others in the family. Microsoft, for instance, entered the gaming (Xbox), search (Bing), and MP3 player (Zune) markets using a product branded strategy—while not readily apparent, Microsoft is indeed behind all three.

This is a great market share strategy, and as Microsoft has shown, a sound strategy for breaking into new markets. But the downside for many—particularly non-profits—is that unless people read the fine print they don’t know who’s behind the offering.

Endorsed branding

Next, look at Nabisco products like Oreos and Ginger Snaps. Each has its own visual identity, but the ubiquitous Nabisco triangle now provides a consistent endorsing agent. We call this endorsed branding. As above, the relationship is still largely at the product level as it’s unlikely you’d ever go into a supermarket for “Nabisco product cookies.” But the Nabisco imprimatur might persuade you to purchase Oreos over Stop & Shop brand sandwich cookies.

The strategy works for gaming companies like Electronic Arts (EA) as well. As a gamer, your relationship is at the game level, but you may choose one hockey game over another because of value you associate with EA through recommendations and past experience.

Source branding

Now, let’s look at Pepperidge Farm. For the first time there’s a uniform visual/verbal brand system at work, and the source brand (Pepperidge Farm) and the product brand (Milano, for instance) share almost equal billing.

Source branding is a great strategy for cross-selling as one’s affinity is shared across both brands. Whereas you’d never go into a store for “Nabisco product cookies,” you might go into a store for “Pepperidge Farm cookies,” and if they were out of Milanos you’d be fine grabbing Brussels. Similarly, if you’ve had a good experience with an Adobe product, or a particular type of Samuel Adams beer, you’re likely willing to try another in the family. By pairing the source and product brands within a common visual and verbal brand system you have an opportunity to build equity at two levels at once.

Master branding

Finally, let’s look at Entenmann’s, the last stop on the continuum. Here all the energy is put into building the master brand as the products are afforded no unique identity and are instead given generic names like strudel, cake, and danish. Google officially switched to this kind of master branding strategy for many of its core products back in May.

For organizations looking to extend a single value proposition across a number of like products, master branding makes a lot of sense. And for small to mid-sized businesses and non-profits, master branding is a great way to make the most of limited resources as you’re only managing one brand instead of several. And should you introduce a new product, for example, you don’t need to have 17 meetings and hire a consultant to figure out how it should be presented visually.

Analyze and migrate!

Food coma? Well, before you nod off, think about your goals, opportunities, and resources, and how your family of brands is positioned. Is your master brand earning appropriate credit? Do you have offerings positioned at the product end of the spectrum that should be migrated towards master branding? Do you have products—with resources behind them—that might benefit in the marketplace from a bit more autonomy?

And, because there’s no one-size-fits-all solution and organizations must often employ a mix a strategies, do you have a visual and verbal brand system in place that’s robust and flexible enough to support it all?

In this age of social media, having the right strategies in place can help you keep your online outposts appropriately tethered, too—and make the most of your resources. We’ll pick that up next time.

Until then, happy holidays!