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Making Your History Pay: How Harnessing Heritage Helps Consumer Brands Win

September 14, 2021 • Sam Grabel


Apple vs. Microsoft. Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi. BMW vs. Mercedes. Adidas vs. Nike. Whether we like it or not, consumer brand rivalries have a way of pulling us into the fray. We form impressions. We take sides. Few among us remain indifferent. 

When it comes to the relationship between consumer and brand, research shows that people think of brands not as inanimate entities, but as people with personalities. We hate the bank when it charges us a punitive fee, but love the technology company when it launches a new product. Even if we often fail to notice it, there is a distinct human dimension to the interaction. Why else would we develop such impassioned loyalty to one corporate entity over another? 

Authors of The Human Brand, Chris Malone and Susan Fiske, trace this behavior back to our human ancestors, who developed an ability to make two kinds of quick existential judgements: “What are the intentions of this person toward me?” and “How capable are they of carrying out those intentions?”¹ Malone and Fiske argue that we continue to apply this two-dimensional assessment to all our interactions, including those with brands: Is this an honest company looking out for my interests or one seeking to exploit me? Will its product meet my needs or will I be disappointed? 

Malone and Fiske borrow the vocabulary of social psychologists, who label these categories “warmth and competence.” We are instinctively drawn to people—and brands—that exude both warmth of intent and competence. Conversely, people and brands perceived as cold but competent, or warm but incompetent, evoke a negative response, and we usually see little reason to commit to them. It follows, therefore, that we are more open and forgiving to people and companies we perceive as largely genuine, but much quicker to ditch friends and brands we perceive to be inauthentic and untrustworthy. 

This is where the field of heritage management comes into its own. 

The power of heritage is its ability to positively influence how consumers judge a brand’s warmth and competence. This applies even to those not traditionally considered “heritage brands.” A company’s distinctive story becomes a unique driver, helping to set the organization apart from its competitors, and persuading consumers that the brand has always looked out for their best interests and delivered on its promises. We will always feel more comfortable greeting a trusted friend over a stranger. 

The notion that we relate to brands as we do to people appears in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article about strategic branding and positioning. Mark Bonchek observes that each time consumers engage with a brand, they are asking the question, “So tell me about yourself.”² For this reason, Bonchek points out that the most successful brands maintain a narrative that goes beyond This is what we do, to the more abstract but engaging This is who we are. 

Heritage management is all about that narrative. Who you are. Where you come from. Where you are going.

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