Branding Basics #14: The Law of Sub-brands

Branding Basics - Law of Sub-Brands graphic


Why do companies use sub-brands?

In many cases, corporate ego is mixed with the intention of capitalizing on a well known core brand to launch into new territory. The branding strategy is based on a promise. We will increase overall sales by endorsing the sub-brand’s product, which will add the credibility needed for the new customer segments.

For the concept to work – to become relevant in new markets – the new product must never conflict or trade sales with the core brand. They can piggy-back, but must make sense, and work in harmony with the core product.

Ralph Lauren - Purple Label adSub-brands can have their own personality, but they must relate and support each other in upholding the corporate vision. For example, Ralph Lauren is incredibly consistent in his corporate vision. He famously once said, “I don’t design clothes, I design dreams.” From the original Polo Ralph Lauren line in 1968 until now, the lifestyle vision has never wavered. The common thread, as Mr. Porter describes it, is “an accomplished, refined life”. Purple Label (luxurious, traditional, tailored men’s clothing) or RRL (Americana-inspired rugged casual wear), Ralph Lauren is synonymous with classic style.

Harley Davidson is a lifestyle brand “that has come to symbolize freedom, rugged individualism, excitement and a sense of ‘bad boy rebellion’.” So, it made sense for Harley Davidson to extend into riding jackets and other motorcycle accessories, as they support the core product (motorcycles) and reinforce core brand value of “enjoying the ride”.

It doesn’t make any sense for a counter culture brand like Harley Davidson to sell kitchen clocks on their website. That’s all I needed to see to know Harley, the company, was not doing well. Why would they so openly dilute their brand? Sure, Harley’s traditional customer base is loyal, but they are getting old. A quick check on Industry Week told me that as of last Fall “…the company admitted the air has gone out of sales growth and said it would lay off a part of its 6,500 workforce as its tries to strengthen marketing both domestically and internationally.”

Agenda_01_Branding_Basics_Zippo-1Sub-branding has the ability to take the brand in exactly the opposite direction and destroy what good branding has built. Tobacco sales have been declining for a long while, so it’s no surprise that Zippo’s sales have fallen as well. In 2011, as part of a “diversification plan” Zippo the windproof lighter company – expanded into the fragrance market.

They released a fruity smelling Zippo’s Women’s Fragrance that looks close to a real Zippo. The perfume sprays out where the flame would be on a real lighter. It’s strange, and I’m embarrassed for the company. By the way, all of the fragrances are now permanently “on sale” in the Accessories section of

When companies try to create a market, they must be mindful to not cause confusion and dilute the original brand. No new offering should detract from the soul of the parent brand, that particular concept that sets it apart from all other brands.


Take Away from Law of Sub-brands

“What Branding Builds, Sub-Branding Can Destroy.”