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VOL. 046

A step-by-step framework for building your Sub Brand


Our Sub Brand Summer series was prompted by a client’s question: 

“When does a brand become a Sub Brand?”

In parts 1 and 2 of this series, we’ve explored why Sub Brands are such an important Brand Strategy approach in today's craft beer industry as well as the different types of Sub Brands your brewery can build.

In today’s issue—our final installment—we’re going to tackle this question head on by introducing a concept called the “Sub Brand Ladder.” 

Whether you’re starting at square one and intend to create a Sub Brand or your brewery already has one and you're not sure where to go from here, the following framework will give you a clear path towards scale under this Brand Architecture strategy.

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"The Sub Brand Ladder"

Your brewery’s Brand Architecture isn’t a static thing. Similar to your Brand Strategy and brand itself, you should revisited it as needed—whenever you’re planning to launch a new product, or setting annual goals, working through your ABP, doing some spring cleaning, and so on. 

This applies to your overarching Brand Architecture as well as at the individual product level—no brand in your portfolio has to fly under the same strategy forever. Overtime, as a brand grows in prominence, it will naturally start to slide more rightward on the Continuum.

This is a concept we call “scaling up and down” the Beverage Brand Architecture Continuum (pictured below).

The Sub Brand Ladder concept narrows our focus on this evolution to the middle of the Continuum, as you scale your new product (to, or) from Sub Brand to Endorsed Brand and beyond.  

Some of the ideas we outline below don’t fit neatly into one stage vs. another. And if you talk with two breweries who have built successful Sub Brands, you’ll find that they've taken very different, circuitous (if not serendipitous) paths to get to where they are today.

So don’t get too hung up on whether you need to complete everything in the middle rungs before moving on to the top rungs, etc.

Think of this less as a punch list and more as a tool box you can sift through and select from as you build your Sub Brand.

First steps – Creating a platform 

So you’ve decided to build a Sub Brand. (Nice!)

At the earliest stages of this process, you are building a platform for future brand building work. So you don’t have to create a perfect plan (and besides, your plan will inevitably shift given how fast industry and consumer trends evolve today).  

It’s important to note that the following items on their own don’t make your beer a Sub Brand. But you cannot build a fully-formed Sub Brand without them. (e.g. all Sub Brands have a fanciful name, but not all fancifully-named beers are Sub Brands.)

Some things you’ll need at the first rungs of the ladder include:

1. A fanciful name

Your Sub / Endorsed Brand will need a compelling name. This can be as important as your parent brand itself name, so don’t shortcut this process. 

Learn how to develop a great name here. 

2. Determine your Brand Architecture strategy & develop differentiated aesthetics 

Once you’ve established a compelling name, you’ll need to decide whether you want to initially position this brand as a Sub or Endorsed model. (Take our B.E.A.T. Assessment to quickly orient yourself here.)

Once you’ve made that decision, you’ll need to flesh out the brand’s look and feel. The level to which you do this will depend on whether you’re launching a Sub Brand or an Endorsed Brand to start.

To wit, a Sub Brand will be closely tied to your parent brand, whereas an Endorsed Brand will stand more on its own out of the gate.

In either case, you will need to establish some level of Brand Identity for this new brand.

3. A rough idea of how you intend to scale the brand

How do you want to develop this brand? Do you envision entering multiple categories, or staying nimble and focusing on a limited number of products? Does it make sense to (eventually) scale through Line and Brand Extensions?

Fast forward 5 years: What does this Sub Brand's portfolio look like? And how does this compare with the rest of your business? 

Your Brand Strategy will evolve over time so I wouldn’t worry about getting it perfect at this stage. But roughly charting out how you want the Sub Brand to relate to your parent brand and a few initial ways you think you can help the brand achieve velocity is a good place to start.

(Below): Fernson Brewing recently took the first steps toward creating Sub Brands within their portfolio, including introducing fanciful names and illustrations. Read a case study about this shift here.

Intermediate Steps – Giving it some gas

Now that you’ve established your Sub Brand’s important foundational components (fanciful name, Brand Identity and a rough plan for growth), you can start to lean into this and more formally develop the brand itself. 

There are a lot of fun things you can do here, but at a 30k foot view, you have decided to build a Sub Brand and are now working towards building this brand throughout your market. 

In doing so, you will slide further away from the parent brand on the Continuum (Sub > Endorsed — i.e. pushing away from parent brand and placing more emphasis on the new brand itself.)

Some of the more potent things you can do at this stage include:

1. Develop your Sub Brand's Brand & Marketing Strategy

– Frame your Sub Brand's positioning 

– Develop a distinct brand voice & personality 

– Develop unique brand values (if markedly different from your parent brand values)

– Firm up the brand's value props, target audience and occasions 

– Develop a unique social media hashtag

2. Build out the portfolio (and explore where you can credibly take the brand)

Develop Line Extension(s) if appropriate 

( e.g. XYZ IPA > XYZ Hazy IPA > XYZ Imperial Hazy IPA… or XYZ Lager > XYZ Lime Lager… )

Line Extensions are a natural path towards growing the overall brand and giving consumers more options for flavor, occasions, packaging format and price points. 

However, you don’t have to develop multiple lines in order to build a successful Sub Brand. 

You can build a strong Sub brand off the back of one product (e.g. Lion’s Paw Lager, Shipwrecked, Cold Smoke). But if your product lends itself to a Line Extension, then this can be a great way to further build out the portfolio. (TLDR: Don't Line Extend without a compelling reason or opportunity.) 

Read more about how far you can extend a brand here.

Create Sub Brand-centric variety packs (if applicable)

This one is dependent on whether you release Line Extensions. But if you do have enough products to fill one out, variety packs can be a great way to drive trial and slowly introduce (and test) new brands in your portfolio. (They also allow you to stay top of mind throughout the year as seasons change.)

And allow me to beat this old drum once again: If you decide to build a variety pack, make sure you view it as a brand building opportunity. So develop a theme that helps you tell a compelling story and capture a specific occasion or audience.

TLDR: Don’t call it a “variety pack” and move on.

Develop a merch program 

Creating a Sub Brand-specific merch line is another great way of building awareness and evangelism. It’s also another avenue for fleshing out your brand voice and personality while driving more revenue.

( Examples: 805 / Howdy Beer / Fat Tire )

3. Distribution / Sales / Marketing Alignment 

In order to scale your Sub Brand, you’ll need to dial in your distribution and marketing plans. You will work with your distributor(s) on this front and this process can include chain retail and national account considerations depending on your scale. 

You will already have a few priorities within your parent brand's portfolio, but you will shift dedicated focus and energy to growing this Sub Brand alongside these other brands.

Other items you can tackle at this stage include:

– Dedicated distributor plans (more emphasis in your ABP / distribution plan / sales rep priority)

– Dedicated marketing budget 

– Sub Brand-specific vehicle wraps & POS / sales materials 

– Sub Brand-specific tap handles

(Below top): Left Field Brewery is taking the intermediate steps of building out the Ice Cold Beer Sub Brand by creating a line extension (a "lime" extension, if you will), variety packs, fun merch and some smart field activation.

(Below bottom): Braxton Brewing does a great job of brand building out of the gate. Their latest release, 
Spur Amber Lager, came to market with its own defined brand voice, identity and launch party. If (or when) this brand achieves velocity, they can begin to scale the Sub Brand Ladder with whichever steps make the most sense.

Final steps – Taking the leap

At this point, the flywheel is spinning and you’re focused on maintaining the momentum you’ve built along the way. 

So as your Sub Brand matures, you’re doing more of the same work you began in the middle rungs of the Sub Brand Ladder: You’re continuing to develop the brand itself, you’re expanding your marketing efforts and budget and distribution reach.

You’re just doing all of these things better—more efficiently, more targeted and on a bigger scale. 

The line between the middle rungs of the Sub Brand ladder and the top rungs is blurry. So rather than trying to pin down a concrete definition (i.e. when you hit an annual CE target, when you hit a revenue milestone, etc.), let's say that you *officially* reach the top rungs when your team decides to take the leap.

“The leap”

Taking the leap means your brewery is fully committed to this Sub Brand and in doing so, you’ve decided to permanently decouple it from your parent brand. You may still maintain some level of Endorsement but at this stage, this is more to let people know that your parent brand exists than it is to offer a quality guarantee.  

Your Sub Brand (likely an Endorsed or standalone brand at this point) is now standing entirely on its own.

(Fly away baby bird!)

This happens naturally over time, and indeed, it’s usually the goal that your Sub Brand becomes more identifiable than your brewery’s parent brand. 

As an example: How many people know Voodoo Ranger vs. New Belgium? Or that Dale’s Pale Ale comes from Oskar Blues? Or Dead Guy comes from Rogue?

There are a few other items that you can do to commit to taking the leap. These can include: 

Filling out your digital footprint

– Create a Sub Brand-specific website. This can be a landing page, or a robust eComm site, depending on your needs. Here are a few examples of this out in the wild: Voodoo Ranger (New Belgium) / 805 & Mind Haze (Firestone Walker) / Skip Day Hard Seltzer (Fernson Brewing) / Arrogant Bastard (Stone)

– Create Sub Brand-specific social channels (unique handles and content, Custom Spotify playlists, etc.) ( Examples: @Drinkdales / @VoodooRanger / @HowdyBeer / @DrinkDeadGuy )

– Building assets (sales materials, POS) and tools (distributor portal on your website) to support growth and marketing

Fully realized team and budget

Start treating this Sub Brand like its own standalone business. To do this, you will need to put in place the systems and processes like any other business (staff, budget, SOPs, etc.)

– Build a dedicated in-house team to focus on the Sub Brand (e.g. Marketing Director, Brand Director / In-house designer, Social Media Manager / eCommerce Director) 

– Develop Sub Brand-specific marketing plan with a real budget (refining and executing what you framed during the intermediate phase)

– Building a dedicated sales program

Brand Architecture

– Build strategic partnerships (co-branding, sponsorships, stadium & concert venue placements). This will allow you to tap into additional audiences, continue building the brand and further enmeshing yourself in the community. 

– Complete marketing / sales / distributor alignment. This is builds on and clarifies what you established during the middle rungs of the Sub Brand Ladder.

Other moves to solidify your Sub Brand can include:

– Shift to move volume (multi-packs—variety, 12-pk and even 24pks) + channel-specific formats (single serve program, stovepipes in C-stores and concert venues)

– Create Sub Brand-specific standalone taprooms and venues 

– Create signature events / festivals / field marketing plans  

– Influencer marketing & partnerships 

– Ad Campaigns (Super Bowl ad? I don’t know… let’s dream big here.) And if you can’t swing 7 million for a 30 second commercial, then what else can you do? What is your Sub Brand’s Super Bowl?

Here are a few major brands that are taking the leap in real time (right now in 2023). Follow along over the coming years to see how these outfits flesh out their brand families.

Oskar Blues > Dale's  /  Bell's > Hearted  /  Rogue > Dead Guy

(Below top): Garage Beer is a great example of a brewery scaling the Sub Brand Ladder. Garage Beer started out as a Sub / Endorsed brand from Braxton Brewing. This set them up to bring in an outside investor and spin the brand out as its own property. We'll explore this concept—scaling up and down the Beverage Brand Architecture Continuum—in a future BBT issue.

(Below middle): A handful of brands that have taken the leap, including Fat Tire, 805, Dead Guy, Wild Basin and Dale’s.

Another cool highlight here: 805 is a best in class example of a beer brand that leans into content marketing and lifestyle positioning. This work includes bespoke video content, co-branded merch releases and partnering with influential brand ambassadors. 

(Below bottom): The skeleton in the room — We wouldn't be here talking about Sub Brands if it weren't for the success New Belgium has found through its Voodoo Ranger family. They're doing some super fun world building, including a standalone website (complete with an 8-bit video game), custom merch, unique social channels and brand voice and on and on.

When does a brand become a Sub Brand?

It’s a question of intent. 

Thousands of breweries have beers with fanciful names. But this alone doesn’t make a beer brand a Sub Brand.

It’s the intent to grow that specific brand as a more individualized family, complete with its own key messaging, value props, brand voice and personality that will push you across the line.

The Sub Brand Ladder isn't a punch list for you to check off over time.

These are stepping stones, or foundational blocks in the platform that allows you to move forward and build your Sub Brand (and your entire business) along the way for years to come.

Ready to build a Sub Brand?

Shoot me an email if you'd like to discuss working together on building your brewery's Sub Brand.

[Podcast] How to scale the Sub Brand Ladder

This companion podcast will walk you through scaling a brand from infancy to fully-developed Sub Brand (and beyond).

Sneak Peeks (works in progress)

Ready to learn more?

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Craft Beer, Rebranded

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Craft Beer Branding Guide

The Craft Beer Branding Guide outlines how to brand, position and launch a new brewery or beverage company. This is a must-read for any brewery in planning.

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