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Brands that have been around for a long time are sometimes understandably afraid to reinvent themselves. It’s a question we regularly come across: if you’re a heritage brand, what should you change to remain relevant to the times? In fact, should you change at all?

First let’s define “a heritage brand”. It’s a brand that has been around for more than a generation. At least one generation, more likely several. It’s part of our cultural and emotional landscape. We can instinctively all list many such examples.

Heritage brands have been with us for so long that they are associated with certain traits, behaviours and colours. Above all, there is a clearly established understanding and wisdom around what such a brand will always do – and what it will never do.

Right there, in the space between those two certainties, is fertile territory for innovation. It takes courage, if you’ve not done something for the past 50 years or more, now is the time to start. Make a list of all the things that, supposedly, your brand would never do – and then brainstorm around every single point to see whether there’s an opportunity that’s relevant for your brand today, amidst all the emptiness that has been left there for generations.

As part of this process, you should interrogate and understand all the established truths of the brand, and begin to question them, based on current values, in order to find an approach that works for both sides of the brand’s identity – the old and the new.

What current values should be considered? The need for sustainability is an obvious one. Diversity, of course. Transparency and accessibility – not always easy for brands steeped in the mystique that comes with age. It can also be hard, even now, for a heritage brand to engage with the constantly emerging opportunities of the digital world. For a fashion brand, contemporary attitudes to gender could be addressed. There are many others.

Whatever change emerges, it won’t be organic. You have to force it; apply and unleash creativity on a very different scale. This is “deliberate creativity”. In other words, the creative challenge of deliberately doing something with the brand that has been unthinkable up until this point but is now relevant. It’s certainly possible: long-established fashion brands like Chanel and Balenciaga have proved themselves capable of surprising us. Many other heritage brands, in sectors ranging from automobiles to food, have enjoyed a resurgence because they dared to rewrite their own rules. And they’ve done so without tarnishing their histories.

The secret is having the courage to step away from the familiar. Because familiarity is holding you back; it’s a drag on innovation. Ancient Indian wisdom and philosophy sums it up very well: “If you want to cross the ocean, you have to be willing to lose sight of the shore.”

Step away from the reassuring coastline of the past – that place where you’ve always done the same thing. Between the predictable and the unthinkable lies the change you need to make. It’s hard, but I believe it’s necessary. Because the only way for a heritage brand to survive is to embrace modern values.


Harjot Singh is global chief strategy officer at McCann. 

 

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