Inside the Mix

GM illustrates how a uniform corporate identity has the power to strengthen individual brands

GM illustrates how a uniform corporate identity has the power to strengthen individual brands

This week's Special Report taking us inside the inner workings of General Motors' gargantuan communications effort (600-plus staffers worldwide) highlights an incredibly important shift the company made in its communications in recent years.

As the report notes, GM isn't just one entity, it's the sum of its parts - in this case, numerous product brands catering to all demographics - plus an extra element, which is the corporate brand.

That corporate brand hasn't always been strong, certainly not as strong as it is now. But when management changed in the late '90s, not only did individual brands get revamped, but the corporate brand, neglected for some 20 years, was also examined and reinvigorated.

For GM in particular, many of its sub-brands stand up as mini-parent brands all by themselves, with a degree of customer loyalty behind them. It may have been tempting to let these units do the brand work, rather than risk diluting the two existing brand messages coming from the sub-brands and the individual models under them by adding a third branding element - corporate branding.

So what are the benefits of GM pushing its corporate brand? Much of it has to do with market expansion and fragmentation. Especially as a company enters a whole new market, or brings a new brand to a market that already has other brands, there is a huge leg up that existing knowledge of a parent brand can provide. Says Tom Martin, SVP and corporate relations director for ITT Industries, it's one thing for, say, an ITT sub-brand to have a niche all to itself, but what happens when GE invests in that space and slaps its branding all over its offering?

ITT was created from the breakup of the old ITT Corp. in 1995, which left a group of manufacturing and engineering companies. Martin's first task upon joining in late 1996 was to put a brand onto this group of companies that were only loosely related - defense, water technology, electronic components, etc. Through brand research, the common theme that came through was that the products were all very reliable, durable, and had to do with critical applications, and the line "Engineered for life" was born. The product brand now had a stronger corporate identity which showed that all the products different people used came from a single source.

A strong parent brand is important in geographical expansion, too. ITT has roots stretching back to the 1920s in China. Martin was there last week and says that the bigger and stronger you are in that market matters a lot in buying decisions. China has almost been a test market for ITT in terms of its unified brand approach.

It has seen tremendous loyalty from the capital the corporate brand has built up there in several decades when rolling out a new product line, despite the presence of newcomers.

It's no coincidence that new companies tend to go to market with a more monolithic brand approach. Martin explains, "Older companies [tend to be] more 'house of brands' than 'branded house.'" Take Microsoft. While it produces many products, there's never any question that they're Microsoft products. The fact that people grumble about them in one breath and then buy them in the next shows the power that a parent brand can have.

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