My experience with legacy brands such as Kikkoman, Beringer Wines and KFC has taught me that employing the past to work for the future is not as simple as it may seem. For example, any discussion about marketing a brand’s past, revolves around concepts like history, heritage and nostalgia. However, these concepts are related, but not the same. You can have history without heritage, but you can’t have heritage without history. And nostalgia is when you allow your future to be eclipsed by the past. Further, the only concept that should matter is heritage. Let me explain.
A brand’s history is really just a collection of the facts. It is literally the story of the brand. This is good stuff, but on its own, history does not have that much marketing firepower. With the exception of History Channel devotes, the average American doesn’t take well to history lessons. So, brands that market their history risk boring consumers to death and missing an opportunity to connect on a deeper level. A brand’s history is only relevant to the extent that it supports a bigger construct; brand heritage.
If a brand’s history is the story, then a brand’s heritage is the moral. And, as our mothers’ taught us, this is the important part. Heritage is the enduring attitudes, beliefs and values that transcend the history and instructs us how to make sense of the present. If the history provides the facts, then heritage provides the meaning.
Take KFC for example. It has been making chicken for over 50 years, but its heritage is more than chicken. Kentucky Fried Chicken’s heritage is about down home cooking, family gatherings and southern hospitality. This is how the brand has and will continue to fit into our lives over time. People could care less that the KFC was the first Fried Chicken Franchisor. People do care that Kentucky Fried Chicken has the culture of the south running through its blood.
Of course, none of this would matter if brand heritage didn’t provide a competitive advantage. In terms of human psychology, heritage satisfies a real psychological need. For some reason, it’s important for us to know the “roots” of the people we seek relationships with. This is information we use to make decisions about who we are and who we want to be. We are, they say, the company we keep. The same psychology applies to brand decisions. Knowing something about a brand’s heritage helps us feel confident about our brand choice. There is something confidence inspiring about the self-possession of a brand with a strong heritage.
But, I’m not suggesting brands “go retro.” Brands that go down the retro path often fall into what I call the nostalgia trap at the end. While “remember when” marketing may produce some short-term success, in the long run it’s likely to amount to a fun trip down memory lane that is quickly forgotten. Or worse, this approach could have been seen as a kind of arrested brand development analogous to the high school football star desperate to relive the glory days. Brands that let their past eclipse the present emit a sense of desperation that pushes them even further into irrelevancy.
In the end, the difference between marketing at the history, nostalgia and heritage level is the difference between reliving the past and being inspired by it. To successfully leverage your brand’s past you have to rise above its history and understand the heritage that the history has created. Look not for the facts, look for the enduring attitudes, beliefs and values that have guided your product, process or people over time. This is the intangible stuff that guides consumer choice. Then look to the future to determine what parts of this heritage have meaning for today. Only then will you be able to tread on memory lane without tripping.