Going Back to Brand Roots

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Sophie Maxwell, Pearlfisher.
Sophie Maxwell, Pearlfisher.
Heritage, authenticity, provenance. For brands, these words represent the crux of their assets and difference. For the last couple of years, these words have become firmly entrenched in the strategic planner's lexicon as we comfort ourselves that past success should assure us of a future. In seeking reassurance, however, we should remember that in order to move forward, simply haloing the past is not as safe an option as it might appear. Brands need to be centred around relevance and that means what's now and what's next.

The current flood of ads featuring snapshot timelines of campaigns past are heartwarming and do remind you of your allegiances. While it's nice to reminisce, brands remind you that you're using the same washing powder as grandma did (thanks to Persil) and shopping where she did (courtesy of Sainsbury's). But what do they tell us about tomorrow?

The product brands are at it too - sales of comfort food such as chocolate and pasta have shot up and we have become even more aware of preserving the evidence of our origins. Hovis and Allinson have both rebranded with packs focused on the strength of their visual equities in wholesome everyday goods. Boots, the chemist, has dug into its archives to launch a range of heritage products (below), with some of the most beautiful, dressing table-worthy packaging ever to emerge from an own brand drug store. I snapped them up for this alone but love them exclusively for their looks - reissuing old favourites is cute, but vanishing cream is what exactly? Even Grannie would struggle to remember that.

This attempt at comforting in tough times reminds us how much more personal the relationship between brands and their public has become. These campaigns encourage us that our long-term relationships with consumers really have mattered and that they're now listening as we forge ahead. But this marketing equivalent to a hug-to-make-it-better can only be short term. Reminding us of how good it was doesn't really enlighten us as to how good it will be.

2009 seems to be the year of the anniversary here in London. Two institutions, Selfridges and Marks and Spencer, are celebrating 100 years and 125 years respectively. While it remains to be seen how the seesaw fortunes of Marks and Spencer's will pan out, Selfridges campaign to mark the occasion "open to world since 1909" neatly delivers a double whammy of now and then: classic brand equity (classic advertising and logo, famous flash of yellow, iconic Oxford Street building) and today's most covetous currency, celebrity patronage (a campaign includes today's uber shoppers Paris Hilton, Mariah Carey and Elton John).
When the Weston family took over Selfridges six years ago, they knew that they were taking on an icon, but they also understood they couldn't let it rest on its laurels. What they have achieved in the years since is to excel at their forte, reestablishing in a modern context the real reasons department stores should exist - to display the exotic and the unusual and to create theatre for brands. Historically, department stores have provided a forum for brand experiences long before they had the opportunity to create them for themselves. Selfridges has re-established itself as a master of that ceremony, with the eye of a cultural magpie. We salute, among other things, the extraordinary architecture of their Birmingham store, performance art and, most recently, exclusive products linked to the brand through their own Pantone reference. They provide a perfect example of combining the certainty of an institution's strong foundations with wit, energy and edge. Proof that Allanah Weston has truly taken to heart the mantra of Gordon Selfridge, "Develop imagination, throw away routine."
Moving forward requires change, not nostalgia. If things were truly better before, what is the point of having a future? Instead, we need to remain focused on that future and on what our new needs will be. We can do this by understanding the cultural shifts going on around us and responding not only with the right elements of our past, but with innovation - by challenging categories and the way they are interpreted. Only by doing this can we truly forge fresh creative visions. In the words of Charles Darwin, champion of evolution and the diversity of life: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."


Sophie Maxwell's fashion background as a graduate and now guest lecturer at London's Central St Martins is put to daily use in her role as Head of Creative Insight at Pearlfisher.
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