This is a photograph of a replica Mercedes-Benz 500K on display at Auto Classique Hudson.
Mercedes-Benz 500K replica at Auto classique Hudson.

At The History Factory, we are constantly witness to the tension that organizations feel between leveraging their history and wanting to set their sights to the future. This can be extended to brands, which in many cases are one and the same with their parent organization.

Let’s consider some iconic brands for a moment. We all know them: Coca-Cola, John Deere, Wells Fargo, Nike, and the list goes on.

It’s safe to say that these brands—these profit machines—are laser-focused on the future. Whether it’s sales, new customers or wins, the goal is the same: to beat the competition. Win hearts to win loyalty. To do this, brands must differentiate on a number of levels: quality, innovation, execution, customer service and experience. They are results-oriented. But how do we know that we can trust brands to get results in the future, and most importantly, the results that their stakeholders want?

This is where brand reputation comes into play.

Reputation, by definition, is “the overall quality or character as seen or judged by people in general, or recognition by others of some characteristic or ability.”[1] Reputation is shaped by past behavior and experience. And nowadays, it is easier than ever to gauge a brand’s or business’ reputation. In Q1 2016, for example, 69 million unique visitors accessed the Yelp mobile app to either post or read reviews that would influence others’ choices on where to eat, what doctor to visit, what hotel to book, and more.[2] A brand’s or business’ reputation can now be summed up in five stars or less.

There are other ways to judge the reputation of product brands and corporate brands besides Yelp, such as Consumer Reports, or Fortune’s list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For.” Each relies on experiential data to rank the desirability of a company or brand to fulfill any number of expectations of its consumers, patrons or employees. And all of that ladders up to brand reputation.

So what can brands do to shine a light on or improve their reputation? Honestly, if you make a bad product or have a terrible corporate culture, then probably not much. But brands do have the ability to leverage one authentic asset that can directly influence their reputation, and that is their brand heritage.

Take Mercedes-Benz, for instance. They are a shining example of how to use brand heritage to cement a reputation and link past innovations to today, building trust in the future, unknown product creations of tomorrow. Mercedes-Benz capitalizes on brand loyalty and consumers’ interest in auto manufacturing with its museum in Stuttgart, Germany, where the company takes visitors through 130-plus years of its history and seamlessly links the past, present and future. The museum itself is a profit center, which also operates a Classic Service and Parts program for Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts and car collectors. The company has honed in on a heritage management strategy that completely aligns with consumers’ brand expectations, provides value to customers, and generates profit for the company.

Let’s be clear: Another acceptable application of history related to brand reputation can be an effusive testimonial from last week. Some brands bristle at the words “heritage” or “history” because they sound stale and outdated. The reality is, we should be thinking about heritage as an “experience,” and it can be as recent as this morning.

A 2015 article from the Journal of Business Research points out that “previous research highlights the importance of heritage, consistency, and a sense of grounding in consumers’ determinations of authenticity and brand positioning.” The article goes on to say that, “the benefits of invoking brand heritage include conveying a sense of stability, particularly regarding core values; communicating originality; establishing that a brand is the first of its kind; and enhancing brand equity by linking past performance and a brand’s history to a brand’s current potential to fulfill its promise.”[3]

The power of a brand harnessing its heritage is that it is writing its own narrative. Much like the PR strategy of proactively “taking control of the message,” a brand also has the ability to take control of its story to win the hearts and minds of its stakeholders, and solidify its reputation.[4]

Former Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson put that last idea into more concrete terms in one episode of the BBC series while reviewing Denmark’s first production supercar:

So, it is very definitely a supercar. And that’s a problem. Because who’s going to say, “No, I don’t want a Ferrari or a Lamborghini or a Pagani or a Bugatti or a Porsche or an Audi R8 or a McLaren or an Aston Martin. I would rather spend my money on something totally unproven. Preferably from a company I’ve never heard of.” I mean, why would you do that?[5]

That is brand reputation influencing consumer behavioral and purchase intention, at least from the perspective of Mr. Clarkson.

Great brands have years of experience that prove that they deliver consistent quality, stand behind their products, bring new and innovative ideas to market, provide superior customer service, have competitive employee benefits, consistently rack up wins, and ultimately deliver on their brand promise. These facts cannot be disputed. And despite regulatory disclaimers, past performance is an indicator of future success—according to those who are looking to purchase from or support brands they can trust.

So, when I hear companies say they don’t want to dwell on the past lest it take too much attention away from what they want to happen in the future, my response is simple: Your past is what will enable you to project strength in your future. What you did yesterday gives confidence to your consumers today. And most importantly, your past experiences are a unique differentiator that no other organization can claim but you. Optimize your history like the world’s great brands do.

[3] G.M. Rose et al. Journal of Business Research 69 (2016) 936-943
[4] G.M. Rose et al. Journal of Business Research 69 (2016) 936-943
[5] Top Gear, Season 21, Episode 3. BBC.
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