House of Brands or Branded House?

Brand portfolio strategy is an often-misunderstood concept in higher ed marketing, if it’s considered at all. As many of you know, I’ve taken a new post at a different university. Prior to my arrival, the marketing department chose to follow what’s often called a “branded house” strategy. For those new to this concept, brand strategies typically fall on one end of a branding continuum often referred to as a brand spectrum. At one end, you have a “branded house” strategy, where the brand is firmly established and plays the driver role across all product offerings. Harvard is an example of a branded house (e.g. Harvard Business School, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School, etc.).

The “house of brands” strategy is on the other end of the continuum. My old school, Biola University, is an example of a house of brands strategy. It has Talbot School of Theology, Rosemead School of Psychology and The Torrey Honors Institute. Creating new brands or line extensions can help schools reach niche markets they wouldn’t otherwise be able to under their master brand. Toyota used this brand strategy when it created Scion to reach the emerging youth market that saw the Toyota brand as a brand for older people who were more interested in fuel economy than customization.

Some school brands, like the University of Pennsylvania, use a house of brands strategy (Annenberg School, Wharton School) but are closer to the branded house side of the spectrum.

There’s a tendency for smaller schools, like mine, to want to emulate established brands, like Harvard, Nike, etc., and follow a branded house strategy. But these schools often fail to realize the limitations of their master brands, especially when they attempt to reach niche markets. So they stretch their brands across their product offerings only to find that students don’t connect their brand with the product offering, like a Christian college entering the grad school market with a MA program in Artificial Intelligence. The only hope it has is a new line extension.

Granted there are merits to adopting a branded house strategy, like leveraging the established brand, lower branding costs, synergy, etc., but if your master brand cannot connect with the intended audience or make sense to them, then these benefits cease to be benefits. In addition, if you offer a new product under the established brand and it fails or goes sideways, then you could risk damage to the established brand. For example, those schools that started degree completion programs under a brand extension in the late 1980s are likely glad they did given the decline of the degree completion market.

So, it pays to think carefully about brand portfolio strategy and to understand that schools can’t simply adopt a brand strategy just because a well-known company did.


  1. I tried to wrap my brain around this in an earlier post about branding, and found a great article about maintaining a web style guide that illustrates the “House of Brands, or Branded House concept.

    It’s a sticky issue where I work. Working in a Communications Office, one of our responsibilities is building and maintaining the university brand. But we’re also trying to tell the story of the university. It’s hard to tell good stories when you’re too busy being logo police. The struggle for us is finding balance between protecting the brand and growing it.


  2. Hey Drew. Thanks for sharing your post with me. Brand portfolio strategy is a sticky wicket, especially when there is no formalized brand portfolio strategy. I don’t think that the two ends of the spectrum represent “flexible vs. inflexible” strategies, leading to flexible and inflexible policies. For instance, in a house of brands strategy, there needs to be policies for each brand and a rationale on how the brands relate to one another. The only difference in a branded house is that there is one brand being leveraged, not one look necessarily. An example is the John Deere company. They are a branded house, but they use different colors to represent their sub-brands. So a branded house can still have lots of flexibility. If you’re policing the logo most of the time, then that’s usually a sign that there is no formalized brand strategy in place. My first post was about policing the logo. You can read it here if you’re interested,


  3. Rob, I realize this post is a couple years old! But I hope that you might be able to revisit the topic and possible help me by identifying good models of “house of brands”? And regarding these models how are they handling communications strategies that provide for the needs of individual cultures and yet provide a global connection? In other words, it’s like a “left hand right hand” scenario… each need to be their own, you don’t want two left hands, but yet you do want them working well informed of each other.

    Any insight is appreciated!


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