The heritage business

Brands need to create a balance between customer nostalgia for a product’s identity with making modern, cost effective changes, says Steve Gibbons

Brands need to create a balance between customer nostalgia for a product’s identity with making modern, cost effective changes, says Steve Gibbons

My aversion to watching TV ads changed recently watching the Mad Men themed heritage ad breaks. What a fantastic idea, absolutely enthralling. Don’t we all just love wallowing in a bit of nostalgia?

Steve Gibbons, Dew Gibbons

Because of their perceived lack of value at the time, all of those everyday and mundane things that form such an enormous part of the cultural backdrop to our lives are largely disposable and tend over time to become lost to us. So it’s a real joy to be taken back to the 1960s Fairy soap and Milk Tray ads. I’m a small boy in short trousers curled around a coal fire in front of a flickering black and white TV again.

The most compelling bit of my local museum is the decade themed displays of old packaging and promotional paraphernalia that also takes me back to my childhood, salivating over a pack of Opal Fruits (now rebranded Starburst for those of you too young to remember) or being transfixed by the allure of a bar of Pears soap held up to the light.

Nostalgia has always played well in the UK market. Deep rooted inside our psyche is a desire for the ancient. Whereas on the continent they love renting their modern flats, we in the UK still aspire to live in a Tudor pile, whether genuinely Tudor or an ersatz pastiche. The desire for heritage is partly driven by our need to find solid meaning in a rapidly accelerating and fragmenting world where momentary fashions pass us by at ever decreasing intervals.

But also it seems that just now in these very uncertain times our heritage plays an even more important role in providing reassurance and comfort. In the heady days of the late 1990s with Brit Pop, New Labour and Blair’s babes we wanted to look to a brave new future, but in the midst of our current double dip recession, Margaret Thatcher’s iconic but rather unfashionable sturdy black leather handbag recently sold at auction for £25,000. Heritage brands are an anchor in rapidly changing and uncertain times.

You’d possibly be right to think that my worldview is that of a baby boomer and what I regard as heritage is dangerously outdated. But I’m always amazed at how there seems to be a collective memory for these things as if they’re genetically passed down to us in our DNA.

Just recently I heard my 18 year old son whistling Somewhere Over the Rainbow as he did the washing up. This might be unremarkable other than for the fact that I remember my father whistling exactly this tune too as he washed up, and I can’t think that my son would have ever known or heard this.

So what are the lessons from all this for brand owners, and in particular beauty brand owners? How can and should they capitalise on their heritage?

To think of leveraging your heritage as only reissuing that pack and running that ad from the 60s again is limiting, although that of course can be great fun for a limited edition or anniversary. Heritage shouldn’t be thought of as a piece of retro-styling or a reaffirmation of past successes. It has to be made relevant to today. Creating a good fit between the past and the present is key to releasing the potential of a heritage brand.

Many beauty brands are of course a large franchise. Olay for instance has a vast array of products and has extended the brand into many new areas. It does however continue to keep in its line up the original classic pink beauty fluid. It’s probably not a big seller now but it’s important that it remains in the line up. So, on the one hand it’s kept its heritage and on the other it’s made it relevant to new and changing consumer needs.

Rituals associated with brands also play a role in heritage. Through thick and thin Coca-Cola has held onto its glass bottle. No doubt over the years finance directors have put forward strong arguments for its removal on cost grounds but the experience of your hand grasping warm plastic can’t compare to the refreshing cold chill of glass.

I still believe Kit Kat made a mistake in removing the silver foil wrapper we so loved to cut with our fingernails and rub to emboss the logo below. It was a change driven only by cost saving and gave no consumer benefit. But a squeezable bottle for Heinz ketchup, while I suspect it was also a cost saving exercise, did have an obvious consumer benefit and now sits comfortably alongside its glass parent on the shelves.

Closer to home, Elizabeth Arden’s Eight Hour Cream was introduced over 70 years ago, but it’s being made relevant to today’s audience with the introduction of a fragrance free version.

Having a heritage is an enormous asset to a brand; that heritage needs to resonate over the years, both by acknowledging where it’s come from but also by keeping itself relevant. In the end, a brand is a promise and in everything that it does it needs to stay true to that promise.