Whose heritage is it, anyway?

Marklives | 26 March 2015

Where does #RhodesMustFall leave heritage brands? Mass protests, a social media storm and the occupation of the administration building have pushed UCT’s transformation record into the national spotlight, throwing up some interesting questions for heritage brands.

What do you do if you were the favourite brand of an old generation of consumers who are increasingly out of touch with reality? Or of a specific segment of South Africans?

Can you celebrate your brand history, as communication experts love to advise these days, while remaining relevant in a market that’s changing as quickly as ours? And can you reinterpret history without becoming inauthentic? Is it easier for a global brand to talk heritage than it is for a local one, considering our deeply problematic past?

I imagine all heritage brands have had to develop strategies to remain relevant:

  • Nik Naks, for example, seem to have altered the race of the Nik Naks man over the years, in a move to be more inclusive
  • Castle Lager has done an excellent job at positioning itself as a heritage brand for all South Africans, rather than the white ones of a century ago, and
  • Volkswagen seems to have done a pretty good job at surviving its own dodgy brand history (Hitler was involved in the development of Volkswagen)

Brand stories can be powerful, memorable and good for business. They help to give a brand character, context and meaning.

Here are some thoughts on building and celebrating that brand heritage without sparking a protest or a bucket of faeces.

  1. Include the excluded
    If your brand has an iconic and beloved history amongst a particular set of people, don’t assume that goodwill has transferred to other groups of consumers you are trying to reach. Find ways to incorporate the symbols, rituals and stories of those who were excluded from your brand in the past. Look for commonalities across all of SA’s cultures to build a broader brand heritage. Listen to the consumer; don’t speak on behalf of them.One of the brandy category’s biggest challenges, for example, is the fact that it is such a celebrated part of Afrikaans culture. You can see brands such as Klipdrift trying to broaden this heritage appeal with campaigns like “met eish, ja” that use humour and goodwill to bring together two very different SA cultures.
  2. Keep the present better than the past
    A great brand story helps connect with consumers and stand out from the clutter but it is not enough to drive sales or earn loyalty if your current offering is anything but brilliant.Consumers want to know what you’ve you done for them lately. Don’t take your eye off product and service excellence; focus messaging upon the present, not the past. How can you help your consumers achieve their goals? The rest is embellishment.Volkswagen, for example, only really broke into the US market in the 1960s due to a lingering resentment towards Germany, and, unlike car brands today, its communication steered clear of any reference to the brand heritage. It focused on the benefit to the customer: the Beetle was cute, well-made, durable and inexpensive — and won over the trendsetters.
  3. Know where your new customers are coming from
    It’s all well and good to have a loyal following of consumers who adore your brand but, if that market is shrinking, it’s important to identify future growth markets and put plans in place to win them over.I remember an amused German telling me once that Jägermeister was what old German grannies used to drink. Now it’s a party drink, which is handy for the brand since there aren’t nearly as many grannies in Germany as there are students across the world.Rhodes’s original target market, colonialists and imperial sympathisers, simply isn’t there anymore. Academic institutions have been far too slow and reactive in identifying the needs, expectations and symbols of their new “customers”.
  4. Revolutionise to keep up
    FNB is the oldest bank in South Africa, but it’s a cutting-edge, technological, modern bank that won an award for being the most innovative bank in the world in 2012.The time may be right for a dramatic brand identity overhaul, or an entirely new product and service offering. It requires skill to know which is the baby and which is the bathwater, but all old brands will need to throw something out as the decades go by.Identify current consumer needs, blockages and outdated conventions and make the changes required while keeping the brand purpose core to any innovation.

In a country that is transforming as quickly as ours, brands run a great risk of failing to keep up and becoming out-dated, irrelevant or even off-putting. Like German brands coming out of WWII, there are some serious reputational risks from SA heritage.

That doesn’t mean ignoring history and I do think it’s possible to weave a brand story that unifies rather than divides. If UCT had worked harder to include those who felt excluded and developed symbols and an institutional culture that celebrates the history, traditions and stories of their “new customers”, there would not have been a crisis on its hands.

The golden rule of branding is to make your customer feel good about having chosen you. That applies as much to cars as it does to banks, brandies and educational institutions. A brand’s heritage is useful only if it can help to achieve that.

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