3 Tips for Marketing a “Legacy” Brand

January 30, 2017

Companies that have been in business for extended periods of time face a marketing dilemma. Their time in business has undoubtedly created a legacy. And assuming that legacy is positive, they have the option to include the notion of “heritage” in their marketing messaging. Yet how much focus should be put on company legacy? Does it serve to make the business feel old and stale in the context of newer, nimbler competition? Or does it set the business apart as a bellwether who is strong, stable and dependable?

The answer (no surprise) depends. It depends on factors such as the competitive environment, the context for the marketing and of course the key customer care-abouts. What follows are some guidelines to help marketers make informed decisions on when to play up, and when to avoid, marketing their legacy.

1. Consider the competition

Yes, you may have been in business for 50 years. But what about your competition? Is your legacy really a differentiator? If you are in good company and legacy is a key messaging point in your industry, it may be time to downplay its importance. Avoiding a “me too” approach and focusing instead on true differentiators could be a good way to stand out in markets crowded with legacy messaging.

If, however, you are alone in celebrating decades of existence, there is a definite opportunity to use your legacy to your advantage. The critical question is how your competitors are positioned against you. Often start-ups new to an industry that has been dominated by a legacy business will point to their small size and nimbleness as an advantage. Legacy alone will not help in this situation. What is it that your brand’s legacy affords? Is it a stable platform for innovation? Is it a proven track record of success upon which to build? Celebrating a legacy for a legacy’s sake is obviously not the answer, but using that legacy as a foundation for something new and different can be a powerful combination.

2. Consider the context

The context for the marketing is another critical point of consideration when deciding on whether to leverage a legacy message. Launching a new, innovative product? The focus may be better spent on new features and game-changing functionality. Sure the company’s legacy of innovation may be part of the story, but it is far more important to focus on what is new and different.

Promoting a broad, brand-building CSR-type message? Legacy could be very appropriate to tie in, especially if you have a history of community engagement. The key is to answer the question “will my message be made stronger by reinforcing my time in business?”. And when a rich heritage story can be woven throughout the answer is typically yes.

3. Consider the audience

Just having been in business for a long time is not necessarily a reason to celebrate. What is it about your legacy that matters to your audience? Do you have a solid history of customer collaboration? Long-term client partnerships or joint venture? A track record of innovation based on prospect needs? Just saying that you have a legacy is meaningless unless it resonates in some way with your target audience. So looking through their lens is a critical decision making step. Making your legacy relevant to their business success should be the goal in communicating.

For example, General Electric, perhaps one of the original “legacy” brands, is in the midst of addressing this very issue with its recent “digital industrial” campaign. While it is impossible to ignore GE’s history as an industrial company, it nonetheless needed a way to credibly connect to the digital age. Creative execution aside, the decision to highlight GE as a “digital industrial” presents a unique approach to leveraging the company’s rich legacy while still positioning the company as forward-leaning.

In summary, a legacy message can be a powerful marketing tool when used appropriately. The keys to success are understanding the competitive landscape, considering the context and making sure that the audience is at the center of the decision.