Creativity: Films Now Have Sub-Brands And Franchises

Creativity: Films Now Have Sub-Brands And Franchises

I’m not sure if you saw Glass Onion over the holidays, but it’s fantastic. Rian Johnson’s modern whodunit stars Daniel Craig’s detective Benoit Blanc, as well as a slew of other actors led by Edward Norton.


The film follows a group of unlikely characters who are invited to a surprise event in which someone kills someone else somewhere with something. I don’t want to ruin it for you. But then something unexpected happens.


The film was a critical success, with most critics naming it one of the year’s best. However, Johnson, who wrote and directed the film, had one major complaint about its release. To his chagrin, the title of his new film was changed at the last minute. The film, originally titled Glass Onion, was retitled Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery just days before its November premiere.


“I tried really hard to make it self-contained,” the 49-year-old writer-director explained in an interview with The Atlantic magazine at the film’s premiere. “To be honest, I’m irritated that we have ‘A Knives Out Mystery’ in the title. I had hoped to simply call it Glass Onion. I understand, and I want everyone who enjoyed the first film to know that this is the next installment in the series, but the whole appeal to me is that it’s a new novel off the shelf every time. But there’s a thousand suns’ gravitational pull toward serialized storytelling.”


Creativity: Films Now Have Sub-Brands And Franchises - Brand Spur


In terms of modern branding architecture, the film went from a shadow-endorser approach all the way across the Brand Relationship Spectrum to a sub-brand strategy, and the director was clearly unhappy with the outcome. One of the simplest and most logical ways to demonstrate Aaker and Joachimsthaler’s famous continuum of how brands relate to each other within a company’s portfolio is to use movie sequels.

It’s a deceptively simple model, but it’s at the heart of one of the most important branding decisions any organization can make. On one extreme, the ‘house of brands,’ the company chooses to make no connection between its various brands and allows each to exist in the consumer’s mind independently of the other brands in the portfolio.


Our film example is Road Warrior (1981), the sequel to Mad Max (1979). Because the original film had a very limited release in the United States, the decision was made to market the sequel as a completely new, standalone film with no reference to the original film.

On the other end of the Spectrum is the ‘branded house,’ where every product is branded with the same name. Our film example is 2018’s Halloween, which has the same title as the original film on which it is based. One that was created exactly 40 years ago.


Between these two extremes, the Brand Relationship Spectrum transitions us from a situation in which each brand in the portfolio is presented to consumers independently to one in which everything is branded the same. There are numerous gradations along the way.

The Artist Formerly Known as Prince once sang that a one-night stand had 23 positions. I’ve been married for 20 years, so I’ll believe him. But I can confirm that the Brand Relationship Spectrum has nine positions, and if you work in marketing, each one is as exciting as anything the Purple One did at Paisley Park.

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Sub-branding synergies
Rian Johnson’s original plan was to mimic the style of Agatha Christie novels while keeping his protagonist, Benoit Blanc, in an entirely new mystery and thus a completely new brand. The goal was not to conceal but also not to reveal the connection to the original film.

This type of relationship is known as a shadow endorsement because it is never explicitly stated but also never hidden. Consider Jetstar’s relationship with Qantas or Mini’s relationship with BMW. Just as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was clearly a prequel to the Aliens films but made no direct mention of that series in its plot or marketing, Johnson wanted to trust his audience’s intelligence while also freeing up his new film to allow for future sequels.


However, Netflix, the creators of Glass Onion, upended this plan. They did not want the independence that a shadow endorsement provided, and instead desired a more solid connection to the original film. As a result, the studio decided to make Glass Onion a sub-brand of the Knives Out masterbrand and ensure that the new film’s marketing positioned it clearly as such.


Although there were no “a thousand suns” driving the name change, there were certainly several very large planetary objects pulling the film away from the independence of shadow endorsement and toward the inherent synergies of sub-branding.


First, this is a general trend in modern branding. During the 2000s, many multinational corporations took pride in creating and acquiring an increasing number of brands. After a decade, the costs of maintaining and growing such a large, diverse portfolio became increasingly obvious, and every wise company did two things.


They reduced the quantitative size of their portfolio of brands. Everyone from P&G to FedEx demolished some of their properties in order to lower their marketing land tax and boost their renovation budgets by focusing on only the largest and best remaining properties. The surviving portfolio was then aligned under as few brands as possible by moving as many of the surviving brands as possible from left to right on the Brand Relationship Spectrum. Zero became a product variant of Coke rather than a separate brand. Picasa was renamed Google Photos. More was reduced to less. Less began to yield more.


Netflix is simply following a well-established trend in modern brand management: attracting as many customers as possible with as few brands as possible. The last 30 years have seen an incredible revolution in product development. There were a few famous sequels when I was a kid – The Godfather, Star Wars – but for the most part, you went to the movies to see a completely new story with characters who would not appear again once the credits rolled. The concept of prequels was novel. As was a film in its sixth or seventh incarnation. Or one that, like Marvel, spawns a whole new series of films that are interconnected to the original.


Hollywood produced a film. They promoted the film. You watched the movie. The conclusion.