Three Ways to Honor Your Brand’s Heritage While Looking to the Future

In a world where Amazon-Whole Foods and Apple are now the old-guard brands, how can your brand’s past become an asset that connects with employees and customers living a modern life?

Heritage brands today are losing relevance as newer, more transparent, baggage-less brands capture the modern consumer’s imagination. These new options can feel more authentic than those who could claim category original.

In many cases, a company’s history powerfully shapes the way its leadership thinks about vision, strategy, and brand. Heritage is a strength unless decisions made in the past put constraints on the solutions of the future.

When we started our work with Derma E, they were a skin care expert with a 30-year-long reputation as one of the original players in the natural channel, yet they struggled to connect with a younger audience. Despite their strong, ethical point-of-view, their old-school, clinical look felt outdated. We helped them reposition their brand so that once those messages were translated into package design, contemporary consumers could confidently display their products on the bathroom sink.

Real purpose will never go out of style, especially in today’s world. Beyond product and brand positioning, here are three ways to honor your brand’s past while leaning into a fast-paced future.

1. Kill the sacred cows with a pen.

If your brand has any history at all, there is room for your heritage to create a set of unspoken and untouchable rules. Every organization has some version of “we’ve always done it this way” echoing throughout their leadership and employees.

I believe this is because most brands see their heritage as a set of laws, rather than a permission slip to innovation. Anything not written down can be misinterpreted. Innovation begins when you write down all of your brand’s oral history and then edit it mercilessly.

2. Link your brand’s values to your culture.

Brand values are the beliefs defined by what Simon Sinek calls your “why.” When clarified, written down, and shared as part of the culture, brand values guide behavior, actions, and communication throughout your organization and externally to the public.

Your company’s culture and core values are the bedrock of innovation, communication, and effective teams. Today, the most successful companies are the ones that don’t just have great products but are also deeply focused on culture.

In order to win in the market, you need to win in the workplace first. REI is a great example of a heritage brand that continues to enjoy marketplace relevance and an avid fan-base driven by happy, engaged employees who understand how to share the company’s values with consumers.

REI is a brand with a true heritage that honors the past and looks to the future. They have created an internal culture that encourages employees and customers to “be one of us” and go deep. It is personal enough so that people want to share the story, contribute to helping make it real, and express it as one-of-a-kind heritage brand living in the present.

3. Care about human needs more than market opportunity.

In other words: Love your people as you love yourself. REI’s #OptOutside campaign is a great example of a brand using company values to push against the grain of what has become of our annual Thanksgiving holiday. By keeping their doors closed on Black Friday, they have taken a stand for their employees, promoted their values, and accomplished more sales than many of the retailers who opened at 4 a.m. and worked their people into the ground on day one of the holiday season.

For Derma E, once they embraced the realities of a changing consumer and acknowledged that what worked 30 years ago might not be as effective anymore, they saw dramatic results. Their leadership began thinking like their target audience and found a way to share their brand’s values and preserve the history while simultaneously evolving. Streamlining their offering, telling their story, and repositioning their focus to ethical beauty resulted in 45 percent growth in just 12 months. What was once seen as an outdated, medicinal brand now stands worthy of sitting on the vanity countertop of a contemporary woman.

As a business with heritage, you have an opportunity to turn your origin story into a powerful differentiator. As you go, remember that people seek out brands with authentic stories and a purpose beyond the bottom line. The strongest version of your brand story includes the past, present, and future of your how, what, and why.

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Founder, President, & Chief Strategist
David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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