Destination Brand Architecture: Combined Strength or Constrained Image?

by Tom Buncle
Mar 2010
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How do cities, such as London and Paris, that are more famous than their mother countries fit into a national brand architecture? How can sub-national destination brands assert their distinctive character while still reflecting national brand characteristics? Or should they? And how can national brands benefit sub-national brands? Tom Buncle, an international destination consultant, defines the concept and answers these questions, illustrating them with examples from around the world. He concludes by considering whether brand architecture is worth the effort.

Brand architecture is one of the most commonly misunderstood terms in destination branding. Destination managers often find it a complex concept, particularly when they have to persuade others at national or sub-national level to find a common cause across a range of competing sub-national destinations. There is also a risk that, if ‘sibling’ sub-destinations within a country fail to agree on the brand architecture, then the destination will appear incoherent and fail to gain traction.

So does brand architecture really mean anything? Does it add any value to a destination? Is it a useful marketing concept or no more than post-rationalisation and incomprehensible jargon? Do destinations have a recognisable hierarchy of brands, or are they more anarchic than that?

This article attempts to answer these questions and assesses whether creating a destination brand architecture is worth the effort. It explains the theoretical basis of brand architecture and then considers examples of how this has been applied in practice.

Business jargon is like tax: it is pervasive, most of us don’t really understand it, and we’d all like less of it.

Nevertheless, jargon can be useful shorthand for those in the same sector to communicate with each other about complex concepts, or at least about concepts that would otherwise take a long time to describe. Imagine if the word for electricity or weather didn’t exist. We’d lose the will to live while describing the concept, long before we could engage in meaningful discussion about electric power or the weather forecast.

One litmus test of jargon is that it should be reasonably transparent and comprehensible to the novice, if not lay person. And it should add something in terms of painting a picture or conveying a sense of dynamism that brings a subject to life.

Sadly, the term brand architecture only meets one of these tests: it paints a picture. But the picture isn’t that clear. You’d think brand architecture would refer to the way in which a brand is constructed and what it looks like. It doesn’t – at least not in the interpretation of architecture as the way in which a building is constructed.

So what does brand architecture mean and does it have any value? Perhaps, when thought of as a collection of buildings, rather than just one building, the term architecture has more relevance to branding. There might be a consistency in the architecture of a village, even though it comprises different buildings and streets, each of which might have their own distinctive style, but when viewed collectively imbue the village with a particular character. In this analogy the village equates to the national destination brand and streets equate to sub-national destination brands.

Wally Olins defines brand architecture quite simply as ‘a framework into which every brand falls’ [1]. He differentiates between three types of brand architecture, as follows.

The business uses one name and one visual identity (Virgin, HSBC and Easygroup for example). The risk here is that damage to one product in the corporate family can damage the reputation and sales of the whole family of brands. The sins of the corporate father may well be visited on the commercially distinct son, or vice versa.

The organisation owns several different brands which are all united or endorsed by the group name or visual style, but which stand alone as individual brands (eg Nestlé – Kit Kat, Smarties, Aero; Cadbury’s – Dairy Milk, Flake, Roses; Marriott Hotels – Ritz-Carlton, Courtyard Hotels, Fairfield Inn and Suites). As the individual brands are generally not associated with each other in consumers’ minds, damage to one endorsed product brand seldom affects the others.

The business owns a number of brands, all of which appear entirely unrelated to each other (eg Procter and Gamble, Unilever, Diageo). These types of brands tend to have more of a business-to-business (B2B) focus. Consumers are seldom aware of the ‘mother’, ‘parent’, ‘master’, or ‘umbrella’ brand; their relationship is with each individual brand.

As Olins says, ‘nobody goes into a bar and asks for Diageo’, rather than Guinness or Johnnie Walker. But the parent brand name, Diageo, has significant resonance within the city amongst financial analysts. The brand needs to be defined in the eye of the beholder – the potential consumer or target audience that the business is trying to influence.

Tourism destinations generally fall into Olins’s second category – endorsed. Destination brand architecture comprises the country or nation state and a range of sub-national, regional and local destinations, as well as themed brands that cut across sub-national regions.

Just as Dairy Milk, Flake and Roses are part of Cadbury, so Paris, Provence and Dordogne are part of France. The ‘chocolate-ness’ of Cadbury is as evident and powerful as the ‘Frenchness’ of France in each of these subsidiary brands, which are also powerful in their own right. But there is no doubt that these subsidiary brands leverage most of their impact from their parent brands of Cadbury and France, with the possible exception of Paris.

However, there is a significant difference between destinations and endorsed product brands. The link between sub-national brands and the national brand is generally much closer in destinations than in endorsed product brands. A bad experience in a Provence hotel might well damage the French brand. One rude waiter can epitomise an entire country for some people.

Olins’ definition of brand architecture as a framework into which every brand falls is instructive. But to understand its value requires more than just a framework – there must be some linkage between the parent or umbrella brand and sub brands (also referred to as subsidiary or endorsed’ brands; or, in the case of destinations, as sub-national, regional or local brands).

This linkage is usually to found at the level of brand values. Sub-national brands usually share some of the national brand values (eg Provence is French, but it exhibits a different aspect of Frenchness from Dordogne). Identifying such shared brand values and expressing them consistently at both national and sub-national levels will ensure that the Frenchness of both Provence and Dordogne is clear and that they both benefit from positive associations with Frenchness in consumers’ minds. At the same time they need to be able to express their own uniqueness as different areas of France with their own distinctive character.

There is, of course, a risk that this can amount to no more than post-rationalisation: identifying the inherent characteristics of sub-national and national destination brands and retrospectively interpreting similarities as shared values is pointless. However, when the relationship between sub-national and national brands, and their shared values, is properly understood, this is where the foundation of a robust brand architecture can start to be constructed. If understood and expressed properly, these shared values can both enable sub-national brands to breathe and communicate their own distinctiveness, and to reinforce the national brand.

One way of testing whether the result is post-rationalisation is to ask if the shared values, and the way in which they have been interpreted, could be anywhere else. Does the way in which Provence is portrayed, for instance, feel French? Or could it be Italian or Spanish? It is not necessary to have clearly identified all the values associated with Italy or Spain to answer this question. Most destination managers will have a sufficiently intuitive understanding of other destinations' brand values to answer this question. This should equip them to refine their brand architecture to avoid such blandness and confusion, so that the values shared between sub-national destination brands and the national destination brand are sufficiently differentiating to distinguish destinations at both levels.

The trick in successful destination branding is for sub-national brands to leverage value from the national brand, while still retaining their own distinctive identity; and for the national brand to benefit from the diversity of sub-national brands. And all the while there is a thread that runs through both sub-national and national destination brands, like lettering in a stick of rock, which enables people to recognise their provenance. This is what brand architecture is all about.

‘Brand family’ might be a more easily understood term to describe what is meant by brand architecture: in the same way that siblings have their own distinctive looks and characters, but are identifiable as coming from the same family, so too should sub-national and national destination brands. But that term tends to have been hijacked by the design and image-makers to refer to the consistency of design across print and electronic platforms. So brand architecture it is.

Sub-national destinations regularly compete with each other for visitors. They need to establish their own distinctive identity. But, if they also aim to reflect national values, isn’t there a risk that they appear too one-dimensional and insufficiently different from each other to make a mark on potential visitors?

So, how can sub-national destinations be both different and look part of the same country? The answer, as ever, lies in the audience they’re targeting.

When a sub-national destination markets itself in more remote markets, where it is less well-known, it will be more important to stress the values it shares with the national brand, so that it can lever recognition from it. Closer to home, the sub-national destination can afford to stress its individuality to a much greater extent. The Brecon Beacons, for instance, will have significant resonance amongst active outdoor enthusiasts in Cardiff, Bristol and Birmingham. But in London and Glasgow the area might benefit more by promoting its Welshness; and in France, Germany or the USA it might have a greater chance of attracting attention as a wild, natural part of Wales, or even of Britain.

None of these approaches are mutually exclusive as elements of them all may work in these different markets. But this emphasises the need to understand when sub-national brand values can breathe on their own, and when a sub-national destination needs to rely more on national brand values.

As a general rule therefore, the less well known and further away from home the market, the more important the national brand is, because potential visitors will just not have enough awareness of the country’s sub-national destinations. Conversely, the closer the market is to home (domestic or international markets with direct air/sea connections), the greater chance sub-national brands will have of achieving recognition. This is when sub-national destinations have an opportunity to compete for visitors using their own brand identities.

Even if a destination is not recognised in international markets, sub-national brands can still play a significant role in enhancing the overall destination offer, particularly in the country’s brochures and websites. Once people have been attracted to the country and are prepared to investigate holiday possibilities in more depth, there is an opportunity for sub-national brands to present themselves. And when they do, they should present themselves as distinctive and different parts of the country.

For many sub-national brands, a strong presence within national marketing materials is where the greatest opportunity of creating impact and attracting international visitors lies. This guarantees a reasonable level of distribution for sub-national brands and enables them to piggyback on the national brand’s ability to penetrate international markets. There is a valuable synergy in this approach: the national brand benefits by strengthening its offer through the presence of sub-national brands; and sub-national brands achieve greater distribution and market penetration than they could otherwise afford on their own.

Sometimes sub-national brands, like some endorsed product brands, are actually more iconic than the parent brand that endorses them. Kit Kat, Smarties and Aero are part of Nestlé, but, unlike Cadbury’s brands, they probably have more consumer resonance in their own right than as part of Nestlé. For instance, you might ask for a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk in a petrol station, but you wouldn’t ask for a tube of Nestlé’s Smarties. In this case the parent brand (Nestlé), if not irrelevant, adds no perceived value to Smarties, whereas Cadbury’s seems to comprise an inherent element of Dairy Milk’s definitive character and name, as well as to add a positive value to it.

In this analogy, Prague lives independently of the Czech Republic, as Kit Kat does in relation to Nestlé; but Nice is as reliant on France as Dairy Milk is on Cadbury’s. Somehow Kraft Dairy Milk doesn’t yet trip off the tongue with quite the same connotation.

Clearly there are some sub-national destination brands that have a powerful global resonance, without having to rely too heavily on their national brands to pave the way (California, Paris, Rome, London, New York for example). Just as Smarties trumps Nestlé for brand resonance, New York City has a higher profile than New York State; so too does Copenhagen versus Denmark.

The principle that brand architecture unites different brands in a way that both allows them to breathe as independent brands and enables them to leverage benefits from each other represents the ideal. And, ideally, this should cascade as far down the destination hierarchy as possible – from national, through regional, to local brands. In other words, a French village should always feel French, not Spanish or Italian, just as Paris, Provence or Dordogne do.

Identifying the values that the national destination shares with regional and local sub-national destinations is usually a challenge for the national brand manager, in partnership with regional and local destination managers. And the test is whether these shared values actually add value, are plausible, and capable of creative interpretation in a way that conveys the distinctive character of the sub-national destination while at the same time reflecting some elements of the national brand.

In South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) positions itself around the independent-spirited, historical and cultural values associated with the Zulu Kingdom. As a sub-national/regional destination, KwaZulu-Natal differentiates further between sub-regional brands within KwaZulu-Natal, uniting them all under the Zulu Kingdom brand. The KZN/Zulu Kingdom regional brand, in turn, is related to the national parent brand of South Africa through values associated with cultural diversity.

These sub-regional brands are then differentiated within KwaZulu-Natal through a sub-regional brand architecture [2] as illustrated below.

Sub-regional brandPay-off line/sloganExperience
DurbanPlayground of the Zulu KingdomUrban vibe, beach, fun, sport
North CoastJewel of the Zulu KingdomLifestyle, pristine beaches
South CoastParadise of the Zulu KingdomFamily beach holiday, family fun
Ukhahlamba/DrakensbergSoul of the Zulu KingdomReal wonder, adventure, scenic beauty
Elephant CoastUntamed spirit of the Zulu KingdomCulture, wildlife, sea, adventure
BattlefieldsLegends of the Zulu KingdomHeritage
ZululandHeart of the Zulu KingdomCulture and heritage
Pietermaritzburg and MidlandsCapital of the Zulu KingdomCountry, lifestyle, scenic beauty, heritage

In the UK, two examples of brands that perhaps add more value to their surrounding region than it does to them are the New Forest and Hadrian’s Wall. From a consumer perspective these are iconic, recognised destinations in their own right. But for many, their exact location may be slightly hazy. Does this matter? Probably not, as they bring spending visitors into the wider surrounding area, even if they had no intention of visiting it other than to visit the New Forest or Hadrian’s Wall.

So, do the New Forest and Hadrian’s Wall exist entirely independently of their surrounding areas, in brand architecture limbo? Again probably not, because they still draw some of their character from the surrounding area.

The New Forest leans more towards the rural south west and Dorset in the way it projects its character, than it does to the east and Hampshire and its more urban-minded population. But it trades off both in its projection as ‘the rustic southern English countryside that people have always dreamed of’ [3] and a sense of ‘rural chic’ [3] that is reflected in its tourism product, particularly outstanding hotels and restaurants.

Hadrian’s Wall, on the other hand, relies for its very physical existence on its history as the north west frontier of the Roman Empire. It is deeply rooted in the history and culture of the north of England, from Cumbria to Northumberland and Tyneside. It also comprises a UNESCO World Heritage Site, runs through a National Park, and contains a National Trail and a National Cycleway – strong icons indeed.

For those who doubt the value of their surrounding area to these brands, just imagine if they were switched: if the New Forest was in the north of England and Hadrian’s Wall was in the south, would they still feel the same?

The significant point is that, whether or not they have a formally-structured brand architecture, they have an inherent one. Understanding this, and projecting the relevant values of these iconic destinations and their surrounding areas, can make both the destination and the area stronger and more distinctive.

This article has argued that the primary benefit of, and the most effective means of implementing a coherent system of brand architecture, lies in identifying and projecting shared brand values between sub-national brands and the national brand. These may not always be exactly the same brand values, but there should be a clear relationship between them.

Expressing these shared brand values creatively is a challenge for national tourism offices (NTOs) and their creative agencies. Shared values need to be communicated through verbal and visual messages and in imagery, tone, and creative treatment.

Spain has employed the ‘Smile’ device and consistently applied the famous, and now long-standing (since the early 1980s) Spanish sun logo designed by Miro, el sol de Miro, to convey Spanishness in all Spain’s national and sub-national brand advertising:

Several years ago, Holland employed the technique of using its definitive national colour, orange, along with a cultural theme.

Holland’s brand architecture is transparent here: cultural brand values unite different cities (Amsterdam, The Hague) and the country (Holland); and the subtle and amusing visual references to famous paintings by well-known classical Dutch artists (Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring) evoke the Dutch national character, implying an educated, self-confident people with a sense of humour, who welcome visitors on an equal, non-patronising, and inclusive way. This is a clever expression of national brand values through city destination promotion.

Some sub-national destinations, and particularly cities, create a strong link to their national parent brand through inclusion of the country name in their logo. Glasgow and Zurich have cleverly managed to leverage impact from their national brands in this way, while at the same time creating a clear identity of their own. As distinctive cities in countries whose international image is primarily driven by perceptions of their scenic, rural landscape (Scotland and Switzerland), they have both leveraged impact from, and added texture to, the image of their countries.

However, in both these cases, they only achieve real impact if the audience already understands and appreciates the values associated with Scotland and Switzerland, as they rely heavily on their parent national brand for positioning.

Some commentators have predicted that the anarchic and empowering nature of the Internet spells the death of branding. Technology can change how people do things, such as find information and make purchases, but it doesn’t change what people like and how they feel about places. As long as people continue to buy a dream when they go on holiday, rather than buying merely on price, the emotional associations that a destination evokes will still require a relationship to be established between potential visitors and their intended destination. This implies that the principles of branding, whereby a destination relies on its distinctive character to inspire people and become memorable, remain true, regardless of changes in technological channels of communication and distribution. Stories and character still count.

In fact, changes in the way people communicate can enhance destination brands and their power, rather than destroy them. User-generated content and Twitter can empower people to become brand ambassadors – but only if the destination delivers on the ground.

The destination experience will become even more important: personal experience can rapidly become public knowledge as people Twitter and blog about their destination experience. Customers will increasingly become brand champions or brand vandals, depending on their experience. Brand architecture can help destinations, and tourism operators within destinations, understand how to project the destination brand values that will ooze from every contact visitors have with the destination and encourage more people to become brand champions.

Can brand architecture ever work at a supra-national level? Sometimes, but it is often fortuitous, rather than planned.

Supra-national destination brands are few and far between and generally have less impact than national brands. This is because they encompass too many disparate countries that are themselves quite distinctive. Finding shared brand values for regions as large as Europe, South America, or Southeast Asia, which are genuinely meaningful to potential visitors, is close to impossible. These regions lack cohesiveness and contain too many stories. They don’t have a sufficiently concise competitive identity. And there is always a risk that such a wide-ranging regional brand is dominated by one of the more powerful and distinctive countries within the region.

However, where a country is not particularly well-known, it can sometimes aid consumer recognition and begin to define itself by leveraging brand values associated with the wider region within which it sits. But, as with Zurich and Glasgow above, this will only work if the values associated with the wider region are sufficiently positive, strong, and widely recognised.

There is an inherent risk that the individual country never emerges from the wider region’s shadow. Generally, this is a technique that a lesser-known country would use to break into the international tourism marketplace.

Malaysia has successfully leveraged the wider values associated with Asia to reflect its cultural, culinary and topographical diversity, through its slogan ‘Malaysia – Truly Asia’. This, of course, only works for those who have a reasonable understanding of Asia’s diversity and regard these elements in a positive light. Malaysia’s approach appears to have been successful in terms of both widespread awareness of its slogan and jingle and increased visitor numbers. However, some argue that Malaysia now needs to stand on its own feet and identify its individuality, rather than relying on its association with the wider region, or it might not maintain this growth.

In India the promotion of a Europe brand works to a degree. Europe is an aspirational trip for many Indian people. It is seen as cultural, historic, clean, beautiful and relatively uncongested. The concept of ‘Enchanted Europe’ sums up ideas of old world charm and contemporary shopping opportunities.

However, in reality, the imagery most associated with Europe as a holiday destination for many Indians is the natural beauty, fresh clean air, lush green landscapes and snow-capped mountains of Switzerland, followed by cosmopolitan London and Paris.

Switzerland’s image as the embodiment of Europe is largely a result of Bollywood studios’ use of Switzerland as a romantic film location, in contrast to the hot, congested, over-populated environment in metropolitan India.

This can benefit other European countries, which can leverage the brand values associated with Switzerland as the dominant brand. However, this is more a case of post-rationalisation than pre-planning between European countries.

On a more structured basis, Caribbean countries leverage the brand values associated with the Caribbean as a kind of über brand to spearhead their market presence. This works because the Caribbean is almost as much an aspirational concept as a geographic definition, particularly in Europe. It can therefore lend credibility and a certain cachet to even the most unknown Caribbean destinations.

The Caribbean Tourism Organisation reflects this in its logo, which conveys a sense of vivid, colourful, and varied cultures, landscapes and experiences throughout the Caribbean, thereby simultaneously working at a supra-national level and reflecting the diversity of Caribbean countries.

On the other hand, supra-national associations sometimes carry negative connotations. Unfortunately, this is usually beyond the control of individual destinations.

Simon Anholt argues that Africa suffers from 'continent brand effect' [4]. Knowledge of individual African countries is quite limited outside Africa, with some notable exceptions, which are mostly established tourism destinations or recognised as significant regional economies (for example, South Africa, Kenya, and Morocco). Outside Africa, peoples’ perceptions of lesser-known African countries therefore tend to be mostly informed by negative news reports about violence, famine, disease, disaster, corruption and conflict.

Even well-meaning charitable efforts to remedy the African deficit, such as Live Aid concerts for Africa, have tended to reinforce perceptions of Africa as a doomed continent [4].

'… Brand Africa, with its simple message of ongoing catastrophe, is promoted with skill, dedication, creativity and vast financial and media resources by aid agencies, international organisations, donor governments and, most prominently, by aid celebrities like Bob Geldof and Bono.'

Consequently the dominant image of lesser-known African countries tends to be largely negative and characterised by disaster and risk. While this might induce sympathy, it effectively precludes these countries from most peoples’ consideration as potential holiday destinations. Worse still, it affects these countries’ ability to compete in all other economic sectors.

Anholt [4] continues:

'Because there is so little public awareness and knowledge of the individual countries, every country ends up sharing the same reputation. Even a relatively prosperous nation like Botswana ends up sharing perceptions of violence with Rwanda, of corruption with Nigeria, of poverty with Ethiopia, and of famine from Sudan.'

This ‘continent brand effect’, Anholt argues, emphasises the need for individual African nations to develop strong brands of their own to counteract these negative associations [4]:

‘It is Brand Africa that defines the brand images of each country, but it should be the other way round: Africa should be the summation of those individual national reputations.’

The concept of supra-national brand architecture, which has not been consciously created, but exists by default, is no friend to Africa.

So, is brand architecture worth the effort? Does it really add value or is it little more than post-rationalisation?

The short answer is yes, it usually is worth the effort; and yes, it should add value if constructed and applied properly.

Brand architecture is perceived as perhaps one of the most difficult branding concepts to understand. It is in fact quite simple. It is about the relationship between national and sub-national brands. At its simplest it refers to the synergy that is achieved when sub-national (including city) brands are clearly related to the national brand and obviously part of the same ‘family’.

The national brand is reinforced by sub-national brands, when they reflect one or more of the national brand values in their own brand. And, conversely, sub-national brands leverage recognition from their connection with the national brand through demonstrating shared values. In other words, Lisbon should always look Portuguese, not Spanish; so should Porto. Similarly, Sevilla and Valencia should always feel distinctly Spanish.

The guiding principle behind brand architecture is that there should be a link between parent and sub-brands which benefits both. If it does not achieve this, it may well be no more than post-rationalisation and should be reconsidered to find the most powerful linkages between the different brands.

It is important to recognise that reflecting national brand values in a country’s brand architecture does not mean that all parts of the country should look the same. Quite the contrary – the purpose of branding is to differentiate one destination from another. This applies as much to sub-national destinations within the same country as it does to the country when competing with other countries for visitors.

Sub-national destinations must have the flexibility to differentiate themselves from each other, adding variety and fascination as part of the national brand jigsaw, otherwise the destination will seem one-dimensional and bland. However, at the same time, they need to share the national brand’s DNA. The extent to which sub-national destinations can effectively project their own brand, and how much they need to rely on the national brand, will depend on how well-known they are in the markets they are targeting.

Visualising brand architecture as a village which has its own distinctive character, but is made up of individually distinctive buildings and streets, is probably the most instructive analogy to illustrate the role of destination brand architecture.

It is important to recognise that, like a destination brand, destination brand architecture begins as an organic concept; it is not created by humans, and certainly not overnight. A country, its relationship with its component parts and their shared values, have existed for years – in the landscape, history and culture.

Mere humans can only identify what these shared values are and project them consistently to emphasise the personality of place. The brand architecture exists naturally. It is up to brand managers to unearth it and use it to help raise the profile of a country and its component destinations by projecting shared values that appeal to today’s travellers. It cannot be forced. That would be post-rationalisation. It really is that simple.

  1. Olins W. 2008. The Brand Handbook. Thames and Hudson
  2. Seymour, J. (2008). The Role of a Destination Website in the Process of Destination Branding. Tourism KwaZulu Natal Occasional Paper No. 61
  3. Interview with Anthony Climpson, Employment and Tourism Manager, The New Forest District Council. February 2010
  4. Anholt S. July 2007. Brand Africa – What Is Competitive Identity?

Tom Buncle is Managing Director of Yellow Railroad, an international destination consultancy that helps countries, cities and regions improve their competitiveness as tourism destinations. He has undertaken branding, marketing, eco-tourism and pro-poor strategies for destinations in the UK, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. Tom is a former Chief Executive of the Scottish Tourist Board and international manager of the British Tourist Authority in Southeast Asia, Norway and California. He has recently produced a Handbook on Tourism Destination Branding for the European Travel Commission (ETC) and United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).