If someone asks you to stop by and see them at the Marriott in town, chances are you'll need them to be a lot more specific if you have any hopes of connecting.
The chain likely operates several places to hang your hat in the same town, spanning the spectrum from the Courtyard — with its large work desks designed for travelers — to the Residence Inn, where in-room kitchens cater to people staying for a week or more.
But how does a company like Marriott keep its rooms full and avoid fighting with its own properties, even when some of them are often down the block from each other? And how does it make sure customers know the difference?
The trick is in deft brand management: The chain implants a clear idea of what each level of the company's hotels offers for customers. Courtyard, for instance, opened as a no-frills alternative to classic stately Marriott resort, appealing to travelers who don't desire a full pampering.
Juggling multiple brands is tricky and has tripped up even some of the world's top companies, from Levi Strauss to Mazda. So how do successful companies make it work?
"People are more apt to buy products where they have a clear understanding of what it is and what it stands for and products that connect with them," says Allen Schiffenbauer, chief research officer for the Brand Consultancy, a firm based in Washington, D.C., whose clients include Staples, Holiday Inn, and the NFL.
Experts in the field of brand management offer these five key tips.
Multiple Brand Management: Prioritize and Distinguish
Marriott not only knew what to associate with its esteemed brand name, but it also knew what to avoid. The hotelier opened the fried chicken fast food chain Roy Rogers in 1968 and continued to own it until 2002 — but it didn't necessarily want you to know that.
"They did a lot of research with consumers and found out that Marriott stood for certain level of quality," Schiffenbauer says. "[Consumers] said 'fast food company? Wedding? It doesn't seem to fit for me. I don't want a fast food company catering my wedding.' "
Conversely, the company knew customers wouldn't want to think what was supposed to be inexpensive fast food was associated the ritzy Marriott name, so both brands operated separately but successfully, he says.
The lesson here is to clearly understand what the target audiences are for each brand, says Ted Fabella, principal of Molecule brand consultants, whose clients include Coca-Cola, Bank of America, and NASCAR. A company that, say, releases several lines of detergent without making clear distinctions about why customers would want one brand over the other could be throwing money away, he says.
"They have to be pretty knowledgeable about the competitive landscape across each brand as well," he says.
Experts say companies need to be factoring this in from the start: Marriott separated its customers into different categories of travelers and targeted their needs, while still retaining the prestige of the marquee Marriott brand. The pros call it "brand architecture."
"When the products are being designed, it demands a clear understanding of who they're to serve, what the products are all about and how they relate to each other," Schiffenbauer says. "That has be to be clearly defined at the get go."
Multiple Brand Management: Be Realistic About Your Brand Equity
Similar to the Roy Rogers example, you have to know what industries your brand name will carry weight and where it will weigh you down.
Jeans company Levis found this out the hard way when it tried to expand into new markets in the 1980s. Its foray into khakis was a hit because it adopted the name Dockers for the new line. But when it tried to make high-end suits under the Levi name, customers balked. Images of denim formal wear were too hard to shake.
"You would have a hard time finding a Levi business suit anywhere," Schiffenbauer says. "Nobody bought them even though they were good products because they didn't have the permission to extend into that marketplace."
When Colgate introduced its Total line of toothpaste, the company made the decision to launch it as a separate brand, but still under the Colgate umbrella name, says Nigel Hollis, executive vice president and chief analyst global analyst for Millward Brown, a research and consultant firm whose clients have included Kraft Foods. That allowed the company to leverage its reputation while still enticing customers with a new product.
Since launching a new brand requires a significant investment, experts recommend first analyzing your strategy to determine if the investment is likely to pay off, he says.
"You might choose to apply the innovation to an existing strong brand and make it even stronger and even more competitive," Hollis says.
Multiple Brand Management: Stay Organized at the Top Levels
All that work you did to differentiate your brands in customers' minds will go to waste if you're cannibalizing your own business by competing with yourself.
Schiffenbauer says successful companies set up a centralized way of controlling the brands.
"This often turns out to be the most difficult situations," he says. "Having them think about what's best for other brands in their portfolio is not always easy."
Some companies mange this successfully by setting up an incentive system that rewards not just the success of a particular brand but also of the entire product line or company division.
"They have a vested interest in seeing the total of brands doing well, not just their brand," he says.
Most companies appoint a chief marketing officer with oversight of all the brands, so someone is always looking at the big picture and making sure the brands are cooperating properly, Hollis says. Top executives should be encouraging employees to share best practices or else the company will be stuck with what Hollis calls "incessant competition" with different parts of the same company.
Management should also be periodically reviewing the brands through customer surveys and the like to make sure they are not overlapping, Fabella says. Brands evolve over time so companies that don't review and reposition them regularly risk getting their brand defined by their competitors.
How to Manage Multiple Brands: Create a Significant Ad Campaign
Don't launch a new brand without a clearly targeted new ad campaign, experts say. In fact, this is a reason many businesses launch new brands — sometimes creating a whole new product is a better way to shake up your company's image.
"Introducing a new brand is actually easier than changing the perceptions of an existing brand," Fabella says. "People are already sort of embedded with their own perceptions or experiences. To be able to shift that or turn that around is actually a lot harder than people think."
The key to getting distribution for a new brand — such as a new model of a car — is a strong media campaign, Hollis says. Distributors want to make sure you're creating awareness of the product, establishing competitive pricing and otherwise enticing customers before they'll agree to carry the brand.
The initial ad campaign is the best place to establish your brand's identity, Fabella says. He cites a housing developer in Atlanta that was successful at creating several different projects by looking at the demographics of surrounding neighborhoods and targeting their message to people who match those interests and the varying levels of affluence. The houses were similar, but the company established images that would appeal to different customers through advertising.
How to Manage Multiple Brands: Stick to an Overarching Brand Identity
What about companies like GE and Mitsubishi that have to not just handle multiples brand in the same field, but also brands in other areas, from light bulbs and entertainment companies to cars and stereos?
It can be challenging, but experts say the key is to have an overarching identity that consumers will associate with all of your brands. GE did this successfully by making the idea of innovation central to the brand vision and mission statement for years, Schiffenbauer says.
"Typically what happens is there's a sort of, higher level of guiding principles for company," he says. "You find some definition of what the company is all about, then all of the brands that bear that name must live up to that promise."
Like with Marriott, you should be sure the overall strategy is broad enough to incorporate all your products but reasonable enough so it allows you to adapt as you add new brands.
"Changing what a brand stands for can be very, very difficult once the brand gets established in people's minds," he says.