When a company makes a major strategic pivot, such as M&A or entering a different category, leadership often ponders a new name, design language, and messaging. These are all important considerations, but too often one of the most crucial underlying aspects of a customer’s experience is overlooked—the company’s brand architecture…
In today’s digitally-driven B2B marketing environment — one which offers buyers easy access to access to an array of information and a plethora of opinions — companies no longer control exactly where or when customers or prospects encounter their brand. And with 68 percent of B2B buyers preferring to conduct independent research online, it’s safe to say that all B2B brands are digital brands (whether they like it or not).
We need a new website!
It’s no surprise then that a company’s website — the hub of its digital brand — is usually the most urgent and acute pain point for B2B marketers. For companies going through a rebranding initiative, the website often serves as the first real application of the new verbal and visual platform. While this can provide an agile testing ground for the strength and flexibility of the brand, it can also unearth some important brand gaps.
For example, in this evolving landscape one increasingly gray area for B2B marketers is the distinction between how a brand organizes its products, services and offerings (brand architecture) and how it organizes its website’s pages (information architecture). It’s easy to see where the confusion comes from. Since both are customer-facing, shouldn’t a website’s information architecture reflect the brand architecture, and vice versa? If the two systems have similar goals, why separate them?
Too often, companies don’t, assuming that B2B brand architecture and information architecture can be collapsed—most often with the latter serving as the former. This is especially apparent after a rebrand, when a company jumps into website design immediately without having properly addressed brand architecture. The result is a lack of consensus, or even understanding, of the offerings associated with brands and sub-brands in a company’s portfolio.
While brand and information architecture are related, they are not substitutes for each other. Here’s why.
What is brand architecture?
Brand architecture is the structure of brands and sub-brands within an organizational entity. It defines the hierarchy, relationships, and differentiation among brands in a portfolio.
The goal of brand architecture is to find the system that best supports the business strategy and brand goals. Examples of objectives that brand architecture can support include empowering cross-selling or elevating fast-growth, high potential products and services.
A good B2B brand architecture helps streamline how the company’s portfolio of brands are named (co-branded, endorsed, etc.) and identified (logo, typography, etc.). It provides a roadmap for future acquisition naming. Most importantly, it is a communication tool that helps shape internal and external stakeholders’ understanding of what the firm does and how one should interact with its brands.
What is information architecture?
When it comes to a company’s website, brand architecture does not provide all of the information necessary for success. That’s because website design centers around the end-user, i.e., the target visitor and their goals on the site. Website design is all about maximizing the usability and findability of information. Enter information architecture, which focuses on organizing, structuring and labeling content on a website in an effective and sustainable way for the end-user.
Often, a website offers many entry points for how end-users can get information, such as region, product, vertical, or customer type. For example, if you’re a prospect of a global company operating in Europe, you may want to look up information based on your location, as information for North America is not relevant. You may want to go directly to the product you’re interested in. Or, you might want to learn about all of the products and services within your vertical market, say Energy or Financial Services.
Whatever the case, you’ll want to find the information you are looking for as quickly as possible, and enabling this is the main driver of information architecture.
To compare brand architecture and information architecture, think of FedEx. Its sub-brands include FedEx Ground, FedEx Express, FedEx Freight, and FedEx Office. Although this is how employees, shareholders, and analysts may think of the divisions within the company, it’s not how a customer approaches its offerings. While these business units reflect corporate strategy and operations, they don’t speak to individual shopper needs. The customer knows they want to overnight a lamp; they don’t really care if that’s accomplished by Ground, Express, or Freight. To reflect this, FedEx.com’s information is not organized by sub-brand, but by customer need state, such as “shipping,” “tracking,” and “printing.”
When they are the same
Brand and information architecture often overlap, sometimes very closely. This is especially true for companies with fewer brands, products or services. For example, in a master brand architecture strategy (where each product or service is named after and organized under the corporate brand), a company might be able to get away with the same website organization as its brand portfolio.
However, while there may be rare instances when the information architecture of the website mirrors the organization and structure of products or services in a company’s portfolio, it’s not usually the case.
When they are different
Even if a company’s offerings line up with how information might be organized on its website, it doesn’t mean that the company’s brand architecture is the same as its information architecture. On one hand, end-user needs may dictate that it is important for the website to offer several different ways to get to certain types of information. There are also operational considerations. For example, if the website is meant to be a lead generation platform for the company, that can have important implications for information architecture that doesn’t necessarily relate to or impact brand architecture.
On the other end of the spectrum, the brand may have so many properties, such as in a house-of-brands architecture, that it would be inordinately chaotic to try to include all of the products and their related pages on one master website.
Lastly, there may be website content that isn’t part of the brand architecture, such as whitepapers, events, careers, and investor information. While there are definitely branded offerings that could also be present on the corporate brand architecture, such as a branded corporate social responsibility program, there are many more content types that are web-only.
User experience research is key to establishing the ideal information architecture. It helps companies understand what buyers are interested in, where they expect to find it, and how they prefer to consume information about it. While interviews often reveal motivations and considerations, rapid prototyping is a useful tool for identifying user experience preferences, which may be harder for customers to articulate.
Like brand architecture, information architecture is a communication tool. But one with a singular purpose: to serve visitors of a website. Yes, the website is an expression of the brand, but it has a very specific list of functions. And therein lies the fundamental difference: brand architecture is driven primarily by the goals and needs of a firm’s business and brand; information architecture is driven primarily by the goals and needs of the website’s end-users.
So what does it all mean?
While each type of architecture should inform the other, in most cases, one won’t define the other. They are separate but equally important. When done well, both help simplify and communicate information, making it easier for clients, prospects, employees, investors and other stakeholders to understand and interact with a firm and its brands.
The desire to jump right into website design following a rebranding initiative is understandable. Who doesn’t want to make the right first impression? And today, those impressions are made online. But B2B marketers who take the time to think through brand architecture first — even if it’s not part of go-to-market communications — will benefit from having a clearer and more consistent understanding of what your firm actually does and a streamlined platform for achieving business and brand goals.
To learn more about brand and information architecture, contact us.
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