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Q&A with McGraw-Hill’s Liz Austin On Brand Architecture Frameworks

Vivaldi is proud to be working with the iconic McGraw-Hill brand to collaborate on the education powerhouse’s exciting future. In this Q&A, Liz Austin, VP of Marketing & Branding, offers an inside perspective on the potential pitfalls organizations can face when implementing lasting change and a new brand architecture framework.

Liz Austin

Q: In a changing industry context, how does brand architecture help solve some of the major challenges that companies grapple with?

A: Most industries today are changing at a rapid pace. As a result, many companies have legacy brand architecture systems that may have served them well under old paradigms but these systems are no longer truly supporting the current strategy and go-to-market approaches. It’s important to keep a sharp eye on your architecture system to ensure that it fits what your customers need, and how your business model is evolving. In many instances, revisiting your brand architecture can be an opportunity to shift from an inside-out view of how products are organized, to an outside-in view of how customers see them.

Q: If brand architecture is one of the many challenges of the modern marketer, how important is brand architecture relative to other initiatives in order to drive growth?

A: Brands are incredibly important and brand architecture is the vehicle by which customers make sense of the overall portfolio of brands. Brand valuations vary by industry, but in some cases – such as heavyweight consumer brands – they exceed 50% of the shareholder value. So your brand and its architecture are critical to building company value.

If your brand architecture is muddied, confusing, or overly complex, it can impede value creation. For example, if your offering requires a lot of explanation by your frontline employees, that’s a clue that you should take time to assess your architecture. Ideally, your architecture is as seamless and straightforward as possible for customers to navigate, in order to support a frictionless customer experience and an easy decision-making process.

Q: What are some case studies of recent brand architecture changes in the marketplace that you find compelling and why?

A: There was a lot of discussion about Google’s Alphabet play. For me, this was a strong brand architecture move on their part. Although they were bucking the trend of brand consolidation, the creation of the Alphabet parent brand made sense, given how Google had rapidly grown, scaled, and entered into new markets. Different markets can require wildly different approaches, strategies, and cultures. Now, Alphabet can experiment, make unexpected acquisitions, and penetrate new segments – investing in high stakes industries such as autonomous cars and life science research – while reducing the risk to the Google brand which brings in most of their revenue today. So the move allowed Google to remain “Googley” while giving permission to Alphabet to expand and stretch in new ways.

I also love the simplicity of the Google brand architecture. The nomenclature takes a descriptive approach so it’s very clear what users are getting with each Google-branded product. In today’s environment, there’s power in simplicity.

Q: What are the advantages of a clear brand architecture?  

A: There are numerous advantages in having a clear brand architecture. A clear and simplified approach will make it easier for salespeople to sell and for customers to buy, which alone is pretty powerful. But beyond this, another advantage is that you can reduce your marketing investment. Brands are like children, they require constant care, nurturing, and attention to thrive. So it requires careful thought to determine if infrastructure investments across a multitude of brands truly serve your organization. Do you really need bespoke marketing resources and programs for each and every brand, or would you be better off concentrating your investment? Some of those bespoke brand and marketing investment dollars could likely be used to grow and fuel your business in new ways.

Q: What are the major pitfalls that organizations can run into when implementing brand architecture work? 

A: I think in any organization, you have internal and external stakeholders that are attached to certain brands within the portfolio. That’s understandable. It’s important to keep this in mind and communicate your strategy along the way. Also, have solid data and market research to support the new direction. Data and research helps you make more fact-based decisions and removes emotions from the process. Drive with data.

Socializing any changes you intend to make to your brand strategy is also important. There’s a significant education process that goes along with moving toward a more strategic approach to brand management. Most people associate branding with logos and colors but it’s so much more than that!

Q: You have led successful redesigns of brand architecture, what are three tips or guidelines for marketers embarking on a brand architecture project?

A: My first tip would be don’t make any brand architecture redesign recommendations without getting to the core of your business strategy. It’s important that the system works not only for today but that it’s flexible enough to support the future.  Vivaldi was a terrific partner throughout our process because their expertise lies in both branding and strategy, so they understood the importance of ensuring that our architecture approach was joined up with our business strategy.

My second tip would be to talk to as many stakeholders across your organization as you can manage. Talk to salespeople who are out in the field, your senior leaders, marketers, technologists and so on. You’ll uncover many meaningful insights and perspectives along the way.

My last and most important tip would be to start at the top. Work closely with your leadership team to gain buy-in early on in the process.

Q: How does brand architecture help support the brand and growth objectives of McGraw-Hill? 

A: The education business of McGraw-Hill has always traditionally been known as a textbook publisher and that legacy is reflected in our brand architecture. Our organization is undergoing a significant transformation to being a learning science organization. Our business is much more digitally oriented than ever before. So as our business and our markets evolve, the goal is to have our brand architecture reflect those changes.

Note: the opinions expressed by Liz Austin are hers alone. The views, information, or opinions expressed in our Q&As are solely those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those of their employers, in this case, McGraw-Hill.