The Hovis Problem: New Thinking for Heritage Branding

Brands that have been around for a long time (and many that want us to think they have) have long recognised the value of the heritage story in customer engagement.

23 Sep 2014

by Andrew Hearn

Hovis advert

The Hovis “Bike Ride” ad of 1973, directed by Ridley Scott, is a classic lesson in how well this works: dripping in nostalgia, it tells a story of Hovis as a wholesome, honest food that has been part of your home for as long as you can remember. “As good for you today as it’s always been”, as the tagline went. The story has been replicated countless times in advertising by Fairy, Colgate and others, as well as by luxury brands such as Chanel, which uses its heritage codes to convey prestige and quality.

A heritage story

This has proved so successful, in fact, that most brands now have a “heritage story”. Every company that is more than 10 years old has a heritage section on its website. Sometimes the heritage story isn’t even real: Baileys “Original Irish Cream” was dreamed up (complete with fictional founder R.A. Bailey) in 1983 overlooking the Bailey’s Hotel in London. Other companies, such as the Cambridge Satchel Company (est. 2008) and American behemoth Anthropologie (1993), evoke heritage and nostalgia through their names, products and marketing. It’s not hard to see why: it’s a valuable way of creating an emotional connection, of establishing trust and reputation for your business. But what happens when everyone is doing the same thing?

“There has always been a tension between the backward-looking approach of heritage and the need to innovate and change to remain exciting.”

Heritage brands are finding nostalgia marketing less successful these days. It’s not simply because it is being over-used. There has always been a tension between the backward-looking approach of heritage and the need to innovate and change to remain exciting.

brand relevance

In a recent interview in Marketing Week, Sally Abbott, global marketing director at Weetabix, said: “We could look backwards and celebrate the fact we’ve been around for so long, but that would soon become tiresome for the consumer… We’re very lucky to have that heritage and I feel the weight of responsibility that’s been passed on to me from my predecessors, but our role is to keep the brand relevant for consumers today.”

It brings us to a problem at the heart of heritage branding: there are only so many times you can capture people’s attention by reminding them how long they’ve known you. After a while, you stop looking timeless and start looking old. So what should heritage brands do if they want to continue to engage their audience – how do you solve the Hovis problem?

Heals case study

Last week, I attended a conference on retail history, held at the Centre for the History of Retail and Distribution in Wolverhampton, which was packed with new insights about retail and marketing in Britain. A paper on Heal’s, the furniture company, particularly caught my interest. We learned how, at the turn of the 20th century, Heal’s transformed itself from a relatively humble furniture retailer into a market-leading design brand.

Founded in 1810, by the 1890s Heal’s already had a considerable history under its belt when designer Ambrose Heal joined the company in 1893. He merged its retail and production expertise with the aesthetics of the burgeoning Arts and Crafts movement, led by such figures as William Morris and John Ruskin, that took inspiration from the simple, artisan craftwork of Britain’s pre-industrial past.

With this new aesthetic in its furniture design, Heal’s created a logo and aesthetic identity to match: a perfect marriage of innovative creation built on heritage values. Heal’s didn’t stop there: at the top of its shop on Tottenham Court Road, it established the Mansard Gallery, displaying the most exciting artists of the day – Pablo Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani – alongside Heal’s modern furniture designs. The gallery established the company as an authoritative, exciting brand for consumers.

The spirit of Bacardi

Bacardi (est. 1862) offers an up-to-date example of heritage brand creativity that engages customers. Last week, it unveiled a graphic novella in partnership with prominent artists Warren Ellis and Michael Allred. It’s a memorable experience for their audience, telling the story of Emilio Bacardi and the turmoil of Cuban independence at the end of the 19th century, and is well worth a read as a piece of graphic art. What’s most interesting is that it isn’t a story about how Bacardi has been around for a long time, but about why it holds certain values, and what those values might really mean. It’s called “The Spirit of Bacardi”.

Bacardi comic

Bacardi graphic novella

A creative approach to heritage

A creative approach to heritage doesn’t have to mean engaging with the latest developments in art and digital design (although this is clearly a valuable approach). In its simplest form, it means brands thinking seriously about where they came from and working out how human stories from the past connect to human stories today.

The French brand Maille is set to do exactly this in its new Autumn campaign. It has drawn inspiration from royal banquets, and Maille’s long connection with the French court to create new flavours and a richer sense of luxury for its audience. Again, the focus is on the new, exciting creation that Maille is able to offer – precisely because of its centuries of experience of beautiful food.

“Focusing on sheer longevity, and relying on a nostalgic emotional connection, is no longer enough to stand out in a market full of Hovis stories.”

Focusing on sheer longevity, and relying on a nostalgic emotional connection, is no longer enough to stand out in a market full of Hovis stories. A good story doesn’t just say what happened, it brings out new ideas and new meaning for its audience.

The best use of heritage is what it can tell you, and your customers, about why your company has worked for so long: what are the characteristics that have made it special, and using that to create something new and exciting. In other words, heritage and creative innovation, done well, can mean the same thing.

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