Why The Most Successful Brand Transformations Look To The Past

Nostalgia is a powerful weapon


In a recent interview with us, Erin Ilgen, Manager of Brand Experience at Lexus, defined a successful brand strategy as one that aligns with the values and beliefs of your company’s culture. ‘It needs to authentically represent and affirm the characteristics and strengths of your business,’ she said. ‘In addition, the brand strategy needs to speak to your consumers. It needs to emotionally connect with them in a way that they believe that your brand is aligned with their needs, wants, and individual tastes.’

This is not an easy thing to achieve. Many companies fail straight off the bat simply because they haven’t developed a brand that resonates with consumers, even if they offer a good product. Then there are those companies who were once an established, relevant brand that people loved. As one generation ages, they naturally want different things, and the generation that replaces them become your target market. They rarely want what the generation before them wanted, and the love there once was for your brand is no longer where you need it to be. The world itself is also changing. Modern markets are more complex and global than before, and a brand's customers, competitors, and business models are constantly in flux. Where a company would once sell their products exclusively in local markets and therefore only really have to consider the demographics of those communities, today the transparency of information the internet and social media has brought means your brand can be positively or negatively impacted around the globe in seconds.

The decision to rebrand a company or product is not an easy one to make. Even if your market seems to be moving away from where you have positioned yourself, nobody really likes change, especially when you are invested in something yourself. Rebranding is also a costly and risky process, and there is every chance that it could fail anyway.

There needs to be real substance to a rebranding if it is going to work, you can’t just change some tagline here and there. You can also not meekly follow your consumers from whim to whim and try to please everybody at once. The most successful brand transformations require a careful balance between authenticity and agility. You have to stay true to yourself - your company’s history and values - or you will seem fake to your audience. At the same time, you have to make sense of the natural changes that arise from the ebbs and flows of time and stay agile in the face of these changes in the future. You have to build a narrative that people can understand which bridges the gap between what you were and what you’ve become. Consumers need to be able to say ‘why’ you exist, and this reason should not be so rigid that it becomes archaic, but not so flexible that it is wishy-washy.

Two companies that always spring to mind when the topic of brand transformation comes up are Old Spice and Burberry, both for very different reasons but in both cases, they were able to harness their history and core principles and bring them to a modern audience.

In the early 2000s, Old Spice had been losing ground in the young men's personal hygiene category for years, its deodorants and body wash weren’t selling. It was seen as a fragrance for the older generation. Bill Brace, vice president of Old Spice’s owner Procter & Gamble North American skin and personal care, says, ‘We recognized that the grooming category had shifted and that product performance was no longer enough. With young guys moving to more expressive scents, we needed to forge an emotional connection with our target.’

Old Spice’s rebrand was so successful because it recognized its core appeal. It used its history and the perceived knowledge of masculinity that it had accrued through this time, translating it into a new ad campaign driven by Wieden + Kennedy. They changed the name of its signature brand ‘Glacial Falls’ to ‘Swagger’ in order to appeal to a younger audience. They then built a highly successful ad campaign out of the new name, with the Man Your Man Could Smell Like campaign featuring former NFL player Isaiah Mustafa a highlight, particularly on social media where it gained tremendous traction. Sales of the Old Spice Body Wash rose 11% in the 12 months as a result of the rebrand.

Burberry, on the other hand, had to deal with a different set of problems. Their decision to license out the their check design had led to the brand becoming hugely devalued. There was a time when you could not get into bars and pubs if you were wearing the pattern in the UK because it was so closely linked to hooliganism. When Angela Ahrendts took the reigns in 2006, she bought these licenses back and set about a wholesale rebranding exercises to restore the company back to its former glory.

Firstly, she handed creative control to Christopher Bailey to bring a consistency to the products and stores that had been lacking. She jacked up the prices so it was once again seen as a luxury brand. More than this, though, they looked to the past. Writing in HBR, Ahrendts noted that ‘Burberry is 156 years old; its coats were worn in the trenches of World War I by British soldiers, and for decades thereafter they were so much a part of British culture that the company earned a royal warrant, making it an official supplier to the royal family. Sir Ernest Shackleton wore a Burberry during his Antarctic expedition. Movie legends wore them on the silver screen. For more than a century the Burberry trench coat was cool. But when I became CEO, outerwear represented only about 20% of our global brand business. Fashion apparel and check accessories were leading our strategy. The more we examined the situation, the clearer it became that this wasn’t consistent with our luxury vision.’ She made a key decision. To go back to the trench coat. ‘We clearly saw the way forward: We would reinforce our heritage, our Britishness, by emphasizing and growing our core luxury products, innovating them and keeping them at the heart of everything we did. I have to admit that some managers were cynical. A lot of them had been at Burberry for a really long time. I’m sure they left saying, "Focusing on trench coats—that’s our strategy?” But most of us were confident that it was the right plan.’

The company value rose from £2 billion to more than £7 billion during her tenure.

The secret to both of these rebrands was that they moved forwards but they didn’t let go of the past to do so, rather they embraced it. For companies looking to rebrand, this is a vital lesson. The saying goes that a man who sees no future will always return to his past, and the same is true when people look at brands. If you look at a company and can’t see its future, you will naturally look to its past. Nostalgia is a powerful tool, and exploiting it while manoeuvring for the modern market is the most successful way to rebrand.


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