The three layers of a brand: kernel, codes and promises

The evolution of a brand needs a direction. Considering the brand as a vision about its product category, it is important to know in which direction it is looking. The brand being a genetic memory to help us manage the future, we must know what drives it, what is its prime reason for existing.

All these concepts (source of inspiration, statement, codes and communication themes) work together in a three-tier pyramid that is useful in managing the balance of change and identity.

  • At the top of the pyramid is the kernel of the brand, the source of its identity. It must be known because it imparts coherence and consistency.
  • The base of the pyramid are the themes: it is the tier of communication concepts and the product’s positioning, of the promises linked to the latter.
  • The middle level relates to the stylistic code, how the brand talks and which images it uses. It is through his or her style that an author (the brand) writes the theme and describes him- or herself as a brand. It is the style that leaves a mark.

Identity and pyramid models

Of course, there is a close relationship between the facets of the identity prism of a brand and the three tiers of its pyramid. An examination of advertising themes reveals that they refer to the physical nature of products or to customer attitudes or finally to the relationship between the two (particularly in service brands).

They are the outward facets of identity, those that are visible and that lead to something tangible. The style, as with one’s handwriting, reveals the brand’s interior facets, its personality, its culture, the self concept it offers. Finally, the genetic code, the roots of a brand, inspires its whole structure and nurtures its culture. It is the driving mechanism. There is, therefore, a strong relationship between stylistic codes and identity.

In Volkswagen’s case, its sense of humour is the consequence of solidarity because it demonstrates the rejection of car idolisation, the cult which leads to a hierarchical ranking of drivers and therefore to their animosity towards each other. This idea of levels or tiers within the brand provides a tool which allows freedom for the brand in the sense that the brand no longer has to define itself by repeating the same themes.

The choice of the theme has to integrate the needs of the times. It is founded on the reality of products and services. It corresponds to a concern or a desire of a particular market segment. Alongside these criteria, one must respect the brand’s identity. Brand communication can thus vary in its facets.

Over time it seems first to start with the physique, goes through the reflected image and ends with the cultural facet. Benetton first launched its colourful sweaters, then modernised to appear more dyamic, before identifying with a set of universal values (friendship, racial tolerance, the world village).

This evolution is normal: the brand goes from tangibles to intangibles. It starts as the name of a new product, an innovation and later acquires other meanings and autonomy. Benetton is now a cultural brand and addresses a range of moral issues. Nike moved from product communications to behavioural values (just do it!).

The pyramid model leads to a differentiated management of change. The brand’s themes (its positionings) must evolve if they no longer motivate: it is obvious that Evian had to move from balance to youth. All themes tend to wear off and competitors do not stand still. The stylistic code, the expression of the personality and culture of the brand, has to be more stable: it enables the brand to gently pass without disruption from one theme to another.

Finally, the genetic code is fixed. Changing it means building another brand, a homonym of the first, but different. This is how, even if the positioning of Evian has changed with time, from being the water of babies, to that of the Alps and that of the strength of balance, there is a strong sense that the basic identity has been preserved. Evian never was a water against something, but a water for something, natural and loving, a source of life. It is not for nothing that its label has always been pink: this colour is linked to the brand’s kernel, its essential identity, those traits that are necessary to the brand. Without them, it would be another brand.

Finally, the idea of different tiers within the brand gives particular flexibility to those brands which embrace many products. In managing these products one must respect their individual position in their own markets. They may carry different promises for each product, provided they appear to emanate from a common source of inspiration. In this respect, brands work as a superstructure.

Taking into account the importance of this genetic code, how do we recognise it? All brands do not always have this identity basis. Some of them have only communication codes, or a style. When one says that Cacharel is romantic, one talks about a common style and source of coherence between Anaïs- Anaïs, Eden and Gloria. Its products carry within them a very precise and hidden driving principle.

Consumers, clients and even managers are rarely aware of the brand’s pivotal guiding force. They readily talk of its visible facets and of its codes, but without penetrating the brand’s programme. Nor is the brand’s creator aware of it, but carries it subconsciously. He transmits it through his actions and his choices. Thus when Mr Robert Ricci died in the summer of 1988, his successor commissioned an analysis of the identity of the Nina Ricci house alongside its worldwide bestselling perfume L’Air du Temps.

The death of a creator signals the birth of a brand: respect for it demands understanding. An analysis of identity lies more in the history of the brand than in opinion surveys. The most typical products of the brand are closely examined throughout time: from what unconscious programme do they seem to emanate? Why does Nina Ricci haute couture sparkle with its dazzling evening dresses? Why did Mr Robert Ricci find in the photographer David Hamilton’s ‘fuzzy’ style a sort of revelation, to the point of signing a long-term and exclusive contract with him? What is the link between the dresses, L’Air du Temps and Hamilton?

Once the highest point of the Ricci pyramid is known, the problem of the necessary replacement of David Hamilton’s style becomes less acute. We know what he was expressing. Other means of expression will achieve this without using fake Hamiltons. Long-established brands seeking such an overhaul should undergo an inner search before projecting themselves into the future.

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