From faded sepia to full colour: Five things I've learned about making heritage brands live

Last year two brands approached us to help them define their future. The Roy­al Auto­mo­bile Club and Liv­ing Streets: one organ­i­sa­tion cel­e­brat­ed the car, one cel­e­brat­ed the pedestrian.

But what the two shared was an envi­able his­to­ry, and role in British soci­ety. And both found them­selves at a cross­roads (excuse the pun) with inkling that revis­it­ing their past would be the key to their future. Work­ing on two very dif­fer­ent her­itage brands I found the sim­i­lar­i­ties in approach as intrigu­ing as the dif­fer­ence in outcome.

Here are my 5 key take home thoughts:

1.Timelines date. Themes reju­ve­nate. If you approach her­itage as a series of dates and dusty old pho­tographs that prove you’ve been around a long time, her­itage will remain sepia toned. Sim­ply dis­play­ing her­itage items will feel too far away to mean­ing­ful­ly con­nect with peo­ple now.

Time­lines have a place, but it’s the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of mul­ti­ple themes across time that makes ideas live and set imag­i­na­tions alight. In our work for Liv­ing Streets we iden­ti­fied a theme around mak­ing the hid­den obvi­ous’. In the past this theme man­i­fest­ed in safe­ty, the bel­isha bea­con or zebra cross­ing mak­ing pedes­tri­ans vis­i­ble to motorists. The brand’s new role is to be a bea­con for walk­ing, high­light­ing the hid­den ben­e­fits of walk­ing to peo­ple every day. Rather than see­ing time as a series of one-off events, themes are evi­dence of DNA that can be reac­ti­vat­ed in a rel­e­vant way.

2. There’s usu­al­ly one defin­ing moment. In long and dis­tin­guished his­to­ries, how do you decide which event is sem­i­nal, and what it reveals about the brand?

Work­ing with the Roy­al Auto­mo­bile Club we fixed upon the rip­ping of the red flag, sym­bol­ic of the moment Britain would become for­ev­er changed by the arrival of the motor­car and those ear­ly motor­ing pio­neers. This sym­bol is clear­ly impor­tant to the Club, evi­denced by the flag rip­ping re-enact­ment that is rel­ished each year on the same day in Hyde Park at sun­rise, pri­or to the Lon­don to Brighton in cel­e­bra­tion of the spir­it of motor­ing emancipation.

We decid­ed that this sud­den rebel­lious dev­il-may-care act, although it pre-dat­ed the for­ma­tion of the Club, was sig­nif­i­cant in what it revealed about the pio­neer­ing char­ac­ter of its founder mem­bers and their con­nec­tion to his­to­ry. We coined the expres­sion Onwards since 1897’, to avoid it remain­ing frozen in time or in re-enact­ment, and as a way to urge the organ­i­sa­tion on in search of oth­er metaphor­i­cal red flags to rip.

Find­ing your moment and fix­ing on its sig­nif­i­cance pro­vides a use­ful anchor. It might also inform a future ral­ly­ing cry, cre­ate a bond­ing rit­u­al, or sim­ply act as sort of mag­net­ic north for future innovation.

3. Con­text changes; char­ac­ter doesn’t. It’s impor­tant to under­stand the con­text, but there’s no sub­sti­tute for lis­ten­ing to real peo­ple, under­stand­ing their pas­sion, and get­ting to grips with the char­ac­ter of an organ­i­sa­tion. It can pro­vide a com­mon thread even if the con­text is very different.

Talk­ing to the staff at Liv­ing Streets and read­ing ear­ly meet­ing logs from their 1930 hand­book, I was struck by the fact that although the con­text had changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly since the organ­i­sa­tion began, a com­mon thread emerged in both the enlight­ened approach of the orig­i­nal founders and the peo­ple who worked there today. I saw that they shared a com­mon lan­guage and sim­ple vocab­u­lary to describe the trans­for­ma­tion­al pow­er of walk­ing. Liv­ing Streets’ peo­ple have always shared the belief that a walk­ing nation is a pro­gres­sive nation; it had just nev­er been artic­u­lat­ed as such. In today’s con­text we expressed their approach to walk­ing as pos­i­tive­ly un-pedes­tri­an’ – a sim­ple, trans­for­ma­tive, every­day act.

4. In the search for con­ti­nu­ity, don’t dis­card dis­con­ti­nu­ity. It can be tempt­ing to dis­miss facts that don’t seem to imme­di­ate­ly fit with your nar­ra­tive ver­sion of events, par­tic­u­lar­ly if they don’t paint the organ­i­sa­tion in a pos­i­tive light. But to ignore these is to ignore real life and the events that formed the brand. Maybe they form part of a man­i­festo detail­ing what we’ll nev­er do again. It might also reveal a new oppor­tu­ni­ty or a new area of growth.

5. Think 50% rev­e­la­tion, 50% imag­i­na­tion. The process of restor­ing or re-think­ing the role of her­itage brands is one of grad­ual strip­ping back and rev­e­la­tion, but to real­ly move a brand for­wards takes an equal amount of imag­i­na­tion. Brands often start out as the sim­ple ideas of pas­sion­ate founders. Over time those ideas become hid­den under each suc­ces­sive mar­ket­ing cam­paign, or via organ­i­sa­tion­al changes. At the same time brand iden­ti­ties lose their edge and con­fi­dence and may acquire the equiv­a­lent of graph­ic bar­na­cles over the years.

The process of grad­ual de-clut­ter­ing and rev­e­la­tion will reveal the orig­i­nal spark and core brand assets, but imag­i­na­tion con­nects it and gives it a future. It gives each ele­ment a role and takes the her­itage some­where new. In the case of the Roy­al Auto­mo­bile Club, for exam­ple, no amount of rev­e­la­tion would have led to us cre­at­ing pat­terns out of some of the most icon­ic tyre treads in British motor­ing his­to­ry. It took imag­i­na­tion. So that’s it. Be patient. Look for con­ti­nu­ity but be alive to the pos­si­bil­i­ties of dis­con­ti­nu­ity. Enjoy the process of under­stand­ing peo­ples’ deep­er moti­va­tions past and present, and mix­ing the colour of oral his­to­ry with black and white facts and pri­ma­ry evi­dence. And remem­ber that reveal­ing is only half of the sto­ry; imag­i­na­tion is what takes you forward.