Can heritage fuel the reinvention of a brand?

Instead of limiting the future of a brand, heritage can be leveraged to support innovation and reinvention, says brand strategist Tim Riches in this guest post.

Many of the businesses we work with are attempting to reinvigorate long-established brands to become famous for selling new things.tim-riches

Often this revolves around the question of heritage – the ‘story so far’ that has accumulated around the brand. Once an unambiguous brand asset, many companies have come to have a more ambivalent view for a couple of reasons.

One is the emergence of big brands with no history. Brands that come out of nowhere to grow and succeed quickly represent the core of the disruptive technology narrative.

The obvious examples are Tesla, Uber, Airbnb, Google and Facebook. If these businesses can do what they have done, you might think a brand that has been around for decades can be rebooted too; that it just takes a new and better customer value proposition powered by a tech upgrade.

Or more commonly, in my experience, brands are driven by an urgent desire to avoid getting ‘Ubered’, start to view their heritage as a constraint and seek to distance parts of themselves from the old business by creating a distinct identity.

An example is ANZ which in the late 90’s adopted ANZ.com branding, different to the core ANZ brand, in an attempt to distance the offering from bankers. Telstra BigPond is another prime example. While there may be legitimate reasons for doing this, it can reinforce historical views of what brands are good and bad at and will ultimately slow down the repositioning of the master brand.

Putting heritage to work

Most of the time, a better approach is to make your heritage work for you and focus on rejuvenation of the main brand rather than making a new one. The key is finding the right way to think about your brand’s heritage, to connect it to the future priorities of the business.

Two examples of Australian businesses facing this challenge are Telstra and Australia Post.

Both came into being as pieces of public infrastructure and have recently been in the eye of the digitisation storm. Both are ubiquitous brands that lack the luxury of starting over small and niche. It’s easy to argue their heritage holds them back, that their histories lead people to believe they’re not innovative, that they can’t be seen as future-fit when compared with disruptive newcomers.

While they may struggle to be seen as truly inventive trailblazers, the legacy of these brands can nonetheless instil confidence and support successful innovation.

A sense of continuity and reassurance can be valuable, and for Telstra and Post, the value of heritage revolves around the role they have played in the community and economy.

Australia Post is possibly the most high-profile example of an institution defined by its heritage that is undergoing a complete transformation – and starting to show signs of success. From an organisation that once existed solely to deliver mail, today it enables e-commerce transactions, helps people to sort out their lives and connects businesses with customers.

Telstra, on the other hand, began as an engineering company that established and maintained the country’s physical telephone infrastructure. Like Post, Telstra’s services have had great human and societal significance. Historically, this has been brought to life in classic campaigns as far back as when the brand was known as Telecom.

Similar to Post, Telstra’s central role and value proposition of connectivity and enablement have remained constant while its mode of delivery, in terms of technology and services, evolves. The brand’s recent ‘Thrive On’ campaign aims to communicate this evolution from engineering-centric telco to human-centric tech-co.

Heritage, relevance and insight

Regardless of a brand’s heritage, in order to reinvent itself, it must demonstrate contemporary relevance based on insight.

For businesses such as Post and Telstra, this has to come from what the brand can do for people today and in the future. If done right, this can become today’s expression of the brand’s enduring role.

In the case of Post, the motivations and emotions around e-commerce and the emerging area of identity services in the digital realm hold rich potential.

The brand will re-establish its connection as it shows usefulness, importance and performance of these new services while leveraging its heritage into an ‘only from Post’ trust advantage.

Telstra has the reassuring expertise of having run the biggest, arguably best, telephone network for more people than any other player.

The longevity of the business signals stability and commitment that, in a fast moving technology landscape, matters. The sheer size of the company and its customer base will continue to enable it to help more people achieve their connected potential.

Heritage can absolutely fuel the reinvention of a brand but perhaps instead of attempting to reinvigorate long-established brands to get famous for selling new things, it’s more about connecting those new things to an enduring story based on the role the brand plays and how that role evolves with technology and changing social expectations.

This means one of the central tasks of brand strategy for many organisations is to understand heritage, people and future business goals and connect all three.

Tim Riches is the group strategy director at independent branding agency Principals


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