Brand Archaeology: Dig Up Your Past

Whenever I flick through old vacation pictures, I tend to recall past holidays as being much better than they sometimes were. The break I had in Bermuda was packed with disasters; nothing seemed to go right on my the holiday in Cebu… I remember them all as being perfectly pleasant. It’s amazing how 10 years can affect your perceptions.

Memory can recall branding in the same positive light.

Recollections of the past become impressions of happy times, and advertising forms part of that panoply of experience. Jingles, advertising images, and television commercials feature in our associative memory as effectively as remembered aromas. So evocative are these memories, you shouldn’t discard your brand’s past when building its future, online or off-.

Burberry‘s comeback almost a decade ago didn’t happen by chance. It was the result of a well-calculated review of the brand’s, and its customers’, pasts. Burberry’s identity once rested on its signature red, camel, black, and white Burberry check, which the company introduced in the 1920s and registered as a trademark. Burberry’s been around for over 150 years, and the accumulated effect of product consistency has established, in the consumer’s mind, a collection of links, or what I refer to as smashable brand components: brand signals that, like the original Coca-Cola bottle, are synonymous with a brand. If a Coca-Cola bottle were smashed into thousands of pieces, the brand would still be revealed in just one shard.

Burberry has built its new branding on a century-and-a-half of smashable devices. Long-recognized styling, consistent materials (did you know Thomas Burberry invented gabardine?), even the Royal Warrant that denotes Burberry as “weatherproofers” by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, all contribute to the perception of the brand and the brand’s total image. The brand is plugged into its heritage and built on this brand equity. In doing so, it’s enhanced its authenticity in the consumer’s mind. I call this strategy “brand archaeology.”

Every brand that’s been around for a decade or so has the potential to excavate its past. I recently reviewed some amazing TV commercials for one of the world’s largest insurance companies. It wanted to build its brand authenticity and strengthen consumer trust. I recommended the company rerun those commercials. They were more than 30 years old, but when focus groups watched them many interviewees wept with happiness. The ads’ soundtracks and images recalled positive childhood associations and evoked trust-packed emotions from the past.

You can find smashable components everywhere. Not only in your brand’s past TV advertising but also in its product design, packaging, slogans, and color combinations. I’m sure if Heinz dispensed with its classic glass bottle, it would save a ton of money. But by throwing that away, the brand would lose much of its equity and heritage. I’m sure you have jingles, tunes, pictures, or catchphrases that served your brand well in the past. Examine your brand’s past, analyze its components, and reuse them to reveal the brand in a new and elegant way.

Brand archaeology is all about not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Identify good stuff from the past, but avoid rebuilding parts that are still there, hidden under dust. Consumers are increasingly busy and decreasingly trusting of on- and offline media. Brand signals must penetrate perceptions if they’re to receive attention. By stimulating the memory, brands can communicate powerfully to audiences.

Branding is all about building trust. Trust hopefully leads to loyalty and purchases. Trust is generated over time, often over years. For brands with an online presence, this can be a major dilemma. Leverage your brand’s past to build consumer trust. Engage your customers’ emotions by communicating your brand’s heritage and tapping into memories.

Excavate your brand’s past and recover its most significant signals. If you have an old brand slogan, use it on your site. That old tune you remember from your childhood? Background your site with it or distribute it as a ring tone. Reuse brand graphics, maybe in a relevant, modern way, but don’t assume new is always the best option. Dig deep: use your brand’s heritage to gain competitive advantage in a market where brands seem to forget that branding is about emotions.

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