According to Euromonitor International, authenticity was the “standout consumer value” of 2017.

For brands in pursuit of authenticity, a company’s heritage is the ultimate resource. Whether it’s to construct a new messaging strategy, re-engage with current customers or court new ones, heritage is the necessary proof that authenticates a brand’s core character and values.

For heritage brands in particular, authenticity is a key differentiator over less established competitors. After all, they rely on their heritage as a central plank of their branding strategy—these companies have proved their integrity and trustworthiness for centuries. For these brands, the past is a direct line to authentic brand content that can lead the company forward. Levi Strauss’ recent rebranding effort is an example of a brand reacquainting itself with its roots.

Building a Bridge to the Future from the Past: Levi Strauss

In its latest global ad campaign, Levi Strauss attached core brand values to its product that have been an important part of the company since its founding in 1853—values Levi Strauss himself exemplified when he donated his very first profits to charity. The Levi Strauss Foundation continues to address the most pressing social issues of our time.

This is a photograph of a newspaper with the front page headline story about the death of Levi Strauss, merchant and philanthropist.
Levi Strauss was commemorated as a retail pioneer as well as a philanthropist.

Consumers are desperately searching for brands that embody the same values they believe in. With thousands of product reviews at their fingertips, millennials are not likely to patronize a brand purely based on name recognition. For heritage brands like Levi Strauss, which have stories of moral fiber dating back to the founder, history is in their favor.

In an interview with Fast Company, Chief Marketing Officer Jennifer Sey said, “We’ve been very vocal supporters for many decades on issues around equality and non-discrimination. We were one of the very first companies to support same-sex partner benefits. So whether or not people know this about us, it’s true.”

Contemporizing Brand Identity by Looking Back

History and heritage don’t need to be explicitly expressed in a company’s branding to convey value. To say that every new logo design within the rebranding process should have something from the past is extreme, but ignoring heritage leaves room for a brand to become something it is not. In the case of Levi Strauss, it wasn’t a radical change to the brand’s logo, name or identity that the company pursued, but a shift toward an authentic messaging strategy.

When it comes to rebranding, it is important to find the sweet spot between honoring your heritage while remaining in touch with current trends. If properly leveraged, heritage can be a useful asset for an authentic rebrand.

Carl’s Jr.’s 2017 rebrand is an example of a younger company finding success using heritage in its rebranding process.

This image shows a comparison between the old and new versions of Carl's Jr. logo.

The fast-food chain, founded in 1941, has traded its well-known bikini-clad supermodels for messaging that is laser-focused on quality, innovation and history. Carl’s Jr. is proof that pivoting toward heritage can conquer superficial marketing tactics. Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s are now using their heritage to stake a claim as the rightful “Pioneers of the Great American Burger.”

Pain Points Made More Painful

The rebranding process is usually initiated by a pain point that needs addressing. Whether the goal is to increase sales, re-engage with current customers or court new ones, the rebranding process can be both thrilling and stressful. From a heritage standpoint, this process is a time to authenticate messaging that may have been diluted over time.

Yet few brand disasters compare to Gap Inc.’s 2010 rebrand. Hoping to drive sales during the holiday season, the 49-year-old clothing and apparel brand sprang a new logo on an unsuspecting public. The backlash was immediate.

Virtual torches and pitchforks were raised against Gap’s new identity through thousands of Tweets and Facebook posts. The worst: a faux Twitter handle with thousands of followers and Gap rebrand simulators mocking the company.

Within a week, the company responded by reverting to its old logo—one that is still in place today.

The reason behind the failed rebranding process? Suffering from a long drought in sales, the company called for a redesign—one it called “a more contemporary, modern expression.” The crusade neglected almost 50 years of history behind a logo that many loyal customers revered. Instead of looking at what had made the brand successful for so long, the company darted into the future with two hands tied behind its back.

Dunkin’ Donuts is a more recent example of a company overlooking its history in the rebranding process. Dunkin’ is currently tiptoeing away from including “donuts” in its name to increase its position as a coffee brand.

The story of Dunkin’ Donuts began in 1948 when the first restaurant opened in Quincy, Massachusetts. The company has a long history of innovation beginning with the 1972 release of its trademarked Munchkins donut holes.

Coffee is not in the name, but it is definitely in the brand. Dunkin’ Donuts has held the #1 spot in customer loyalty for its coffee for 10 years. The concern is not in favoring coffee above donuts. In fact, all statistics point to coffee as far more important for the company in terms of revenue. However, dropping donuts from the brand dismisses about half of what has propelled the company forward all these years.

When starting the franchise, founder William Rosenberg’s goal was to “make and serve the freshest, most delicious coffee and donuts quickly and courteously in modern, well merchandised stores.” It is still too soon to tell if the soft California launch is a misstep.

If the past tells us anything about the rebranding process, companies with strong corporate heritage should be encouraged to leverage their backstories. The benefits usually far outweigh the risks and can truly help these brands achieve the authenticity they seek. Rebranding should be a thrilling time to drive sales and boost productivity while simultaneously authenticating messaging.

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