Brand Heritage - Marketing the Extraordinary

The Holy Grail in Luxury Brand Marketing?  Communicating Brand legacy Without Over-Exposure.


Picture of Carla Pohli

Carla Pohli

Former Hermès CEO, Patrick Thomas, put it on the line with this: “The luxury industry is built on a paradox: the more desirable the brand becomes, the more it sells, but the more it sells, the less desirable it becomes.”

Communicating a brand’s legacy without overexposure is the tap dance that has become the holy grail in luxury brand marketing. Brand heritage is a major asset for the company, a cultural heritage treasure and an emotional journey for the consumer. And because the story can also be our own, we relate.

Through enrichment, like storytelling, luxury brands take us on a journey towards a destination of desire. As we seldom desire what we can immediately have, this rarely applies to our every-day world. People desire what they have to work for, for what is almost out of reach. Where premium and luxury brands differ is that luxury brands position themselves in an extraordinary world.

Luxury is about the extraordinary, about creating desire, something brands use to achieve symbolic value. Perhaps we welcome this process of longing and imagining as part of a brand story seduction.

So why Heritage?

Luxury brands have long relied on heritage and legacy to convey value, with story-of-origin marketing directly boosting brand strength perception. The heritage aspect adds associations of depth, authenticity and credibility to the value perception of the brand, all contributing to heightened  loyalty and acceptance of premium pricing.

Today, a Luxury Brand has to appear both laden with history AND contemporary. As luxury continues to be redefined and democratised, global awareness combined with a focus on quality, uniqueness and innovation will be key for brands to stay on top.

How does this work?

By actively engaging buyers, brands aim to build long-lasting emotional connections. Particularly in times of global market volatility, it is brand heritage that is the main-stream of value and leverage. Brands use longevity to underline reliability in core values and performance, with heritage commodification implying national, historic, and cultural values.

Crafting an engaging story around an exclusive world, and emphasising popular traditional elements is a successful marketing strategy and premise for starting a conversation. Packaging, campaigns, corporate museums and returning to designs or production from the past are some examples of transmitting a structured  memory of the company and brand, capable of bypassing any consumer barriers by speaking directly to their emotions.

Brand heritage, or provenance, shouldn’t be confused with nostalgic marketing. A historical brand owns its positioning and added value based on heritage, the result of direct use of its history as key to the brand’s identity. Many brands have a history but only a few are actually historical brands, able to exploit this asset in a global market where tradition and identity present themselves as key defences against the competition.

A successful heritage marketing strategy requires strengthening brand equity, using technology to create culturally relevant connections with the audience. A panel at The New York Times International Luxury Conference discussed how luxury brands can be found wading into political and cause-based discourse, a potentially risky move. But with new generations of consumers looking for relevance in a brand’s values as much as craftsmanship or heritage, “There is a new way to be a luxury brand today,” according to Cédric Charbit, CEO of Balenciaga. “A luxury brand today is about of course the heritage, craftsmanship and creativity, but it’s also about the values today, what we believe in and what we stand for.”

Does this apply to all demographics?

Becoming and staying relevant to a new demographic is one of the biggest challenges facing brands today. To stay aspirational they need to effectively engage and interact with their target audience to influence them. It’s not just about raising brand awareness, but also about maintaining relevance to a new generation. According to Bain & Co, consumers under 35 will account for more than half of the global luxury goods market by 2025. In 2020, luxury brands need to be taking inspiration from the values and global culture of Gen Y and Z, and build meaningful relationships with them.

Chinese consumers make-up one third of the current global luxury goods market, and are expected to account for nearly half of this market by 2025. Research from the 2019 McKinsey China Luxury Report revealed how younger Chinese luxury consumers “have a less nuanced understanding of the heritage upon which the market traditionally trades.” Many international brands have failed in the complex Chinese market. But there are also heritage brands that have successfully balanced exclusivity and omnipresence using heritage marketing strategies, like Hermès and Dior. 

LVMH-backed Cha Ling successfully merged the heritage and know-how of the French luxury conglomerate with Chinese values and expertise, resulting in Chinese consumers seeing Cha Ling as a brand that uplifts its qualities by acknowledging Eastern cultural values. Neither Cha Ling nor LVMH insult Chinese values by presenting a superior relationship with European heritage. Instead, it venerates a rich Chinese history, transforming it into the company’s greatest asset.

Dolce & Gabbana’s “Eating with Chopsticks” campaign shows how a European brand too focused on its own history (the “Italianità”) can become fossilised in its marketing strategy and incapable of understanding and incorporating foreign cultural elements.

Bringing heritage into the future

History can play a crucial role in the allure of luxury brands, but prestigious pasts are no longer the be-all and end-all for today’s consumers. A 2017 Deloitte study of Millennials across the US, UK, Italy and China found that “quality and uniqueness” are the top factors attracting them to luxury products. As a result, some of the most successful luxury brands are those that manage to make traditional craftsmanship relevant through innovation.

Story-telling is the creation of great branding, and balancing heritage with innovation is key. Many heritage stories will be as yet untold to the under 35 age bracket and can be communicated “fresh” to a brand’s advantage. Focusing on heritage exploration, Louis Vuitton developed “Voyagez”, an exhibition displaying iconic pieces and detailing the history of the brand from 1854 through to the present. After Paris, Tokyo, Seoul and New York, the exhibition arrived in Shanghai, where additional pieces with particular connection to China were added. Knowing how, when and where a product was made is found to be important to young global consumers, with the brands’ backstory underlining uniqueness and value.

In addition to bringing its past to life for a new generation, Louis Vuitton also reinvents classic pieces with modern applications, such as the Louis Vuitton Echo, a smartphone-controlled luggage tracker, and the Tambour Horizon smartwatch.

New opportunities

There is a global, educated audience hungry for what was once the rarefied world of the very rich. Is relying on heritage alone enough to woo an increasingly younger and diverse clientele? While storytelling remains critical, innovation around telling that story is essential for brands to demonstrate relevance. Leveraging Brand history with contemporary contexts builds long-term strategic value.

Luxury brands need to continue adapting to changing times, but losing the traits of exclusivity and prestige might ultimately mean losing their identity. By reframing heritage into brand values and applying data-backed strategies, luxury brands can have a rich and enticing past AND a strong future.

Sources used for this article :

  2. Jing Daily : Successful Heritage marketing resonates with consumers in China
  3. European School of Management and Technology – Berlin
  4. CMO by Adobe
  5. CPP Luxury
  6. The New York Times

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