Looking Forward optimized

Glancing Back, Looking Forward: A How-To on Heritage

Written byFinnian O’Neill
February 24, 2020

In a world where novelty and innovation reign supreme, centuries-old legacy brands can get passed over as irrelevant. How can you weave your brand’s heritage into a modern identity?

Heritage. It’s a tempting — yet tricky — concept for a brand to employ in its customer-facing campaigns. Done right, it connects with the consumer and instills confidence and trust. But rendered poorly, it can come off like a treacly, desperate attempt to recapture a golden past. Which is not a good look in 2020 (or anytime, really). 

So if you’re a company with a heritage story, how do you incorporate it in a way that’s inspiring rather than...icky? Let’s start by looking at a particularly shining example of how to do it right: Levi’s. This long-standing superbrand has wended its way into the collective consciousness of shoppers worldwide. And that’s due to the fact that it’s touted its ever-present message of American heritage without turning its eye from its forward focus. Click on its “Our Values” page, and you get a long list that’s filled with nothing but innovation, inspiration, and inclusion: from climate consciousness to LGBTQ+ pride.

And these platforms — expressions of the brand’s core values of empathy, originality, integrity, and courage — are backed up with hard facts, seamlessly integrated into site content: 3 billion liters of water saved and 2 billion liters recycled, a partnership that gives old denim new life, details of a worker well-being initiative, and an ongoing LGBTQ+ Pride initiative that donates portions of proceeds to the Harvey Milk Foundation and the Stonewall Foundation. Caring for people isn’t just a stated value; it’s a demonstrated one. The continual reinforcement and celebration of these values shows in the company’s longevity, and even makes it easier to recruit people to move to San Francisco to work there. And these values are seamlessly, and routinely, tied back to the concept of heritage, clearly stated on its “About Us” page: a celebration of, and respect for, the American worker. 

The companies that most successfully incorporate heritage refer to it as a constant inspiration for their future, rather than simply leaning on it for its own sake — and this is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the financial services sector. Take Chase as an example. They note that, since their founding in 1799, they have a “history of demonstrating leadership during times of both economic growth and financial instability.” And that rings true because, well, they have — from financing U.S. railroads at their start to bailing out New York City in the 1907 financial crisis. No brand is perfect, but you can’t doubt the contributions they made. That isn’t the topic at Chase keynote speeches, however. They spend much more time talking about things like using AI as a marketing technique to speak more effectively to the consumerinvesting $350 million in the future of work, and making sure their investing app remains state of the art.

Same with Citigroup, which celebrated its 200th year in 2012 and consistently refers to its history as a supporting theme, while saving the fanfare for improving its technology and modernizing its naming strategy to “Citi” (which alone shows its nod to the past and future at once, and its desire to move past a purely American identity to a truly global one). 

Speaking of American identity, that’s another tricky line to toe. Referring to American heritage in a bubble runs the risk of seeming nationalistic and closed off. All of the above brands have a distinctly American heritage, but leveraged that along with the open-mindedness and forward-thinking qualities that made them truly global brands.

That said, American-themed brand identity campaigns can still have plenty of value, when they’re focused on serving the customer vs just being nostalgic for its own sake. Take Prudential Financial: The largest insurance company in North America (based on total assets) used a mini-documentary in 2018 to make a big statement about its American heritage. But rather than lazily taking on a patriotic tack, it focused that identity to shed light on its impact on Americans, and to highlight a distinctly American problem: the retirement crisis. Called “The State of US,” this documentary series combined personal, inspiring stories with the sobering reveal that, after the 2008-09 recession, half the country is still financially unwell, and retirement feels like an unachievable dream for many.

However your brand derives its heritage, flatly recounting it on its own can be a stodgy concept. But if you use it in a way that’s grounded in helping people — and intently focused on serving the customer through the ups and downs of life — it becomes powerful.  

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