How To Keep A Heritage Brand Competitive

Mark Di SommaDecember 4, 20174 min

Branding Strategy Insider helps marketing oriented leaders and professionals like you build strong brands. BSI readers know, we regularly answer questions from marketers everywhere. Today we hear from Mary a senior marketer from Atlanta, Georgia who has this question about evolving a heritage brand.

We are a well established heritage brand with a strong presence across North America. We’ve recognized that we need to make changes, but there is reluctance from many in the organization to change too much in case we evolve our brand into one our traditional customers don’t like. My own view though is that we can’t be competitive if we stay as we are. How do we reconcile these ideas and move our brand forward in a way that everyone buys into?

Thanks for your question Mary. Yes, these can be difficult decisions. The good news is that consumers take considerable comfort from brands with genuine history and authenticity. They see in them qualities they can rely upon and look to in a world of so much change and so much choice. As Jennifer Aaker has pointed out, heritage brands display powerful “sincerity characteristics” – meaning they are down-to-earth, honest, wholesome and optimistic. They have delivered over time, and consumers are deeply drawn to that.

The danger that heritage brands can face, and that you have rightly identified, is that they can get caught up in their own traditions and these can become barriers to necessary change. In fact, change itself can be seen as a threat. That’s because, as I pointed out in this article, heritage brands derive much of their appeal from their legend and their mythology. “They deliver because they carefully work their history to link buyers to an often romantic view of the world as it was or as we would have liked it to have been.”

The key to navigating your way forward is to take your cues from what’s got you to where you are. What is the core characteristic that consumers have come to trust you for? Keep that. But look for ways to maybe adapt the conversation around it, so that your take is timely and interesting. If you are a family-focused brand, for example, how can you talk about family and what it means to be a family today in ways that engage people? The biggest challenge for established brands is to continue to evolve their story without losing sight of what people most treasure about the brand.

As Mark Ritson has pointed out, the most important judgment is understanding how to use your provenance, heritage and history to your advantage. Tesco, he suggested, should have looked to their origins for proof of why their private label brands should be trusted. Equally, Burberry were able to leverage their history to take themselves upmarket because the brand hailed from a draper who made overcoats for the King of England. Knowing your origins and using them adds both powerful story and compelling proof. It gives you a back story that you can draw on.

From your note, I don’t know what sector you’re in, who your target audience is, and whether you consider yourselves a premium brand or not, so I can only talk generally about some of the other things you will need to consider.

What are your customers’ priorities now? For example, today’s younger consumers are looking for transparency and honesty and they want the relationships they have with brands to be fun. They also have a deep mistrust of what they see as ‘the establishment’ and big institutions in particular, and they are much more fickle in their relationships. With those characteristics in mind, how should you change how you communicate in order to engage and include them? Do you need to update your identity? Do you need to introduce new communications channels or update your product lines? As Alex Bolen, CEO of Oscar de la Renta once observed, “People think of innovation and heritage as opposed ideas but I disagree. If we are heritage brands, we stood the test of time because we have [a] tradition of successfully innovating. Innovative companies should aspire to become heritage brands.”

Secondly, the industry itself may be changing – in which case, you need to make sure that you are up to date with what consumers now expect. If you are a heritage meat or poultry brand, for example, you will need to find ways to acknowledge and respond to public interest in how you farm your animals, whether you use antibiotics, how big your animals grow, what they are fed etc. These changes should be reflected in your packaging and communications.

Finally, and not withstanding the points made earlier about holding onto your core idea, don’t be afraid to kill off something you still hold dear if it will liberate your brand to explore new territory and pave the way for new growth. As Thomson Dawson pointed out, Sears should have applied the principles of mail order to flourish in today’s world of personalization and connection to become the dominant online retailer. Instead, they got overtaken.

Three questions to help you move forward responsibly:

  • What do we keep because it is an intractable part not just of our history but also of our reputation?
  • What do we sell or let go of so that we can clearly signal we have changed? How will doing that free us up to pursue new relationships and new areas of growth?
  • What signature elements do we update so that people see a ‘new side’ of us that refreshes how they value us?

We hope this is helpful Mary.

Do you have a branding question? Just Ask The Blake Project

The Blake Project Can Help: Please email us for more about how we help heritage brands create bigger futures.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

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