Hercules and the Hydra of Lerna: Hercules grasps his club with both hands and confronts the seven-headed hydra, from the series 'The Labors of Hercules,' Antonio Tempesta, etching from 1608
4 min Read
August 10, 2022

Stop competing with yourself: How to prevent the creation of too many sub-brands

Have you heard the ancient Greek story of the Hydra? This mythical creature was a multi-headed serpent, and all heads could regenerate. As soon as one was eliminated, one or more would grow in its place.

In the almost three decades we’ve spent developing strong brands for nonprofits, we’ve seen this story of Hydra play out time and time again. As brands proliferate within an organization, every event, program, location, or initiative has a catchy name, distinctive color, different typeface, and unique logo. Internally these brands might be perceived to be linked—designed to all include one color, or share the same word in their names. But externally, audiences probably aren’t seeing those connections. Having many identities creates a disjointed experience for the brand, leaving audiences confused and not understanding that they’re all coming from the same organization.

All touchpoints of a brand should communicate the same core brand strategy—so, reinforce your brand positioning and personality—and reflect your organization’s vision and mission. But more often than not, we find that nonprofits have evolved to where there are just too many “faces” of the brand, and lost opportunities to make a cohesive and coordinated impact. Your brand is the impression you make on people. Or should we say impressions? Ask yourself, are the connections between all your different touchpoints, no matter how or where folks engage with you, clear? Or do you have multiple characters competing for the mic?

Brands need an organizational structure. They need clarity. They need brand architecture—a strategy for organizing and expressing the relationships between the primary brand, key programs, campaigns, and initiatives to define the roles and rules for sub-brands.

And spoiler alert: after helping dozens of nonprofits “tame the beast,” or take a clear look at the state of affairs within their family of brands and then coming up with a cohesive strategy, more often than not the answer is to let one brand—the primary brand—do all the talking. Nine times out of ten, the answer to more audience awareness and stronger recognition is to phase out most, if not all, competing branded identities for any sub-brands and programs that have cropped up organically over time.

Even after a more unified brand architecture has been established, and the Hydra has been conquered, a tool is needed to prevent the regeneration from taking place and superfluous identities from returning. Brand architecture is not fixed—it’s an evolving set of services, programs, locations, and initiatives that add up to the brand. Today’s solution will look different from what you will be working on five or ten years down the road. Perhaps you might start a podcast, expand to new locations, introduce new programs, host a virtual event, or start a run/walk. Each of these new initiatives might come with the temptation to create a new brand—or even pressure from donors, funders, board members, or colleagues.

So before jumping into naming and designing logos for new locations, services, initiatives, or programs you launch in the future, create clear guidelines about when unique branding is warranted. When we help create these parameters for our clients, often we structure it as a “choose your own adventure” where we ask some important strategic questions that indicate branding decisions and creative choices that most advance goals.

Some key questions that you might ask and adopt include:

  • Who are the key audiences for this sub-brand or program? Is this audience distinct from who you are trying to reach now? If they’re shared, unique branding often isn’t required.
  • To what extent should audiences engaging with this sub-brand or program clearly understand the relationship to your organization? If audiences should see them as intrinsically linked or unified, unique branding often isn’t required.
  • Are there internal or external reasons why this initiative needs to be treated differently than your primary brand?….Now ask yourself again… really, are there? Usually, there aren’t reasons that are significant enough where the risks of adding a unique identity would outweigh the benefits of a unified brand, and… you guessed it…..unique branding often isn’t required.

Do you suspect you may have a Hydra on your hands? More likely than not, you do! It’s very common, if not the norm, for nonprofits to create and foster unique brands within their organization. This results in audiences having widely varied experiences and impressions and makes it nearly impossible to build a strong relationship.

Simplification is not just additive externally—it’s more efficient internally too. Once you’ve trimmed down the number of branded entities within your organization, you’ll have far fewer brands to maintain, fewer logos to keep track of, and more interchangeability and flexibility with your communications between initiatives.

Not sure where to start? Here’s an exercise you can do to find out if you have a problem, and determine with your team if you have competing brand identities at play. You can also read more about our approach to organizing brands in our free e-book, Brand architecture: Strategies to strengthen your nonprofit’s family of programs, events, and initiatives. Or, if your Hydra is a bit too complex, we’re happy to suit up and reign it in!