How to make a heritage brand relevant today: A guide

In today’s disrupted world even the most established brands can’t stand still. The best heritage brands have to blend innovation with tradition – after all it is this ability to continually evolve and adapt that has kept them in business so long. But how do organisations that have so much history look to the future with their branding?  How much do you take from the past and when does heritage weigh you down rather than elevate your message?

New branding for a well-established name can signal a positive change within the company - change that takes strength from its past but looks with confidence and optimism to the future.  Unlike brands that are constantly looking to reinvent themselves, heritage brands often have trust and credibility that has been built up over the years but might have rooted traditions and know-how, often passed on from generation to generation, who can sometimes feel stuck in the past, struggling to stay relevant.

For a heritage brand, innovating can even feel like risking losing what sets it apart. While some brands have built a tradition of innovation, others have used their heritage to ignite innovation.

So, working with a heritage brand is a delicate dance between the past and future.

When we recently rebranded Charles Wells, one of the UK’s oldest family-run brewers, we were faced with the challenge of taking a well-known, loved and respected brand and not only renaming it but creating an identity that was both modern and innovative, but still deeply proud of its history.

Here’s the learnings we took from the experience:

To keep a heritage brand alive you need a great story to build up from 

We recognised that the story of a brand ignites engagement, and with the Wells family we didn’t need to look too far to discover a history full of vision, passion and energy.  From the great, great, great grandfather who gave up a life at sea for love and bought a brewery, to how 140 years later they sold their old brewery to get out of the mass brewing business, it’s clear that innovation and leaps of faith are part of the family DNA.

We have taken these stories and made them visible and made them relevant to customers today by embedding them into the fabric of their marketing and pub interiors. Stories need to shared to be kept alive.

Use the past as inspiration for the future

We looked to the past to learn from the five generations of Wells family history. Looking through their archives we found a distinctive W repeated time after time and used that as a starting point for our inspiration.  However, we needed more than just a nod to their past, we wanted something that had deeper meaning to support them in the future – and that’s where the triangles came into play.

The simple triangle shape that we used to build the W represents the three ingredients of hops, barley and yeast that is added to water to make beer. From simplicity comes complexity. 

Listen to what customers want today

Innovation though doesn’t stand still. It needs to be agile and innovative and at Wells & Co. we had this in abundance. They took their story of their past but used that heritage to build a new brewery where they will welcome customers in to share their story, taste the beers and get involved in the brewing process, effectively bringing their history to new customers every day.

This is where traditional brands can be clever. Taking the credibility, their expertise and their years of experience in honing their product or service but listening to what customers today want – be that craft and artisan beers in Wells & Co’s case – they can play on their heritage while building a new audience for their brand. Weaving storytelling into the mix to help engage these new customers and take them on the journey that existing customers might have done previously allows them to understand the values of the brand and reach a point of engagement faster and ultimately become a convert quicker. 

Heritage brands needn’t be dying brands with ageing audiences. It is about taking the learnings from the past and weaving them with the demands from the present that help establish brands with longevity that can continue to thrive yesterday, today and tomorrow.

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Find out more about Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) Europe, London, North America, and Singapore.  

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