• Transform magazine
  • April 18, 2021

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Injecting life into heritage brands through design

Nick Dormon (1)

Nick Dormon, co-founder and managing director of independent brand design agency Echo, explores how heritage brands can capture the zeitgeist, balancing tradition with modernity in order to challenge newer brands that successfully ‘imitate’ heritage

Heritage brands are no longer dusty old ‘has beens’. They’ve become a reassuring hallmark for quality and expertise. Consumers have come a long way since the 1970s, where anything of heritage was sidelined for the ultra-modern. Today, this flashy modernity seems hollow and meaningless, with consumers now seeking authenticity and an understanding of provenance in their brands.

Although we all rely on technological convenience, the fuzzy nostalgia of tradition has resurged in popularity. A challenge therefore exists for designers and branding experts to strike the perfect balance between creating a brand that is both rooted in history and future-facing.

The emulsion paint market is a case in point. Farrow & Ball, though conceived in 1946, has gained popularity today because of the sense of heritage it conveys within its brand identity and the range of colours and names. Yet, compared to some of the more aged incumbents like Craig & Rose, the Scottish brand founded in 1829 whose paint has been used on everything from palaces and the Forth Bridge to St Paul’s Cathedral, it is a relatively new kid on the block.

So, what must heritage brands do in order to stay relevant whilst leveraging their past for the better?

Design played an intrinsic part in Craig & Rose’s repositioning as a challenger brand to the likes of Farrow & Ball and Little Greene, both of which have encroached on market share. An opportunity existed to leverage the brand’s unique offering of deep heritage combined with superior quality of pigmentations and finishes, unmatched by its competitors.

To communicate Craig & Rose’s rich heritage and premium performance in equal measure, the brand team took inspiration from heraldic shields, simultaneously symbolising the brand’s Scottish history and the strength and durability of the paint. Each product range includes a unique design constructed from heraldic shapes, rendered in a strikingly contemporary way while underscoring the brand’s genuine heritage credentials. Combined with the addition of ‘Since 1829’ to the wordmark, the result is a premium brand that feels both modern and traditional in one.

Consumers have a strong nostalgia for heritage products, but they don’t want to forgo the conveniences and requirements of the modern world. Luxury car brands, Rolls Royce and Bentley, understand this perfectly. Their long British heritage allows them to tap into deep traditions and desirability that modern-day counterparts could only dream of. Yet, they are underpinned by the latest German engineering to make them the perfect automotive package. With the aesthetics no longer required to express modernity, this has allowed designers to lean towards the nostalgia of the past for design inspiration.

More recent examples include Lifebuoy, the global soap brand founded over a century ago that re-entered the UK market this year to re-educate consumers about the importance of hand hygiene in light of coronavirus. Through its punchy, illustrative advertising campaign and a catchy ‘Bish, Bash, Bosh’ tagline, the company used a distinctly contemporary, not to mention very British sense of humour, to challenge the likes of Dettol and state its presence in the market, without losing its original purpose of encouraging better hygiene.

Yet heritage rebrands can vary in success, depending on how far the brand’s history is present in its new identity. When Saint Laurent dropped the ‘Yves’ back in 2012 and replaced the traditional logotype with Helvetica, the effect was daring yet thoughtful as the redesign had drawn on archival YSL collections from 1966. But when Burberry attempted the same in 2018 by abandoning its beloved knight icon in favour of plain typography, the move was criticised as a complete loss of heritage and an unimaginative pursuit of the minimalism trend that even high-street brands such as ZARA have since attempted.

 And then there was Consignia. Not only did Royal Mail’s complete brand overhaul include a name that nobody could pronounce, the total loss of connection to the former identity baffled and isolated most consumers. Only 16 months later was the £2m rebranding project scrapped and forgotten about: a testament to the power of poor strategy and bad design.

The most successful heritage brands are those that hold onto their original purpose. As newer competitors emerge, design can play a fundamental role in exploiting a heritage brand’s unique appeal - it’s history and tradition - to carve out a new space for it in today’s market. Balancing modernity and tradition is never easy, but when done right, it can successfully put a fading brand back on the map.