How these 5 Brands Harness the Power of Heritage Marketing – and How You Can Too

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One thing I mention frequently when writing about cutting through the digital noise to make your brand stand out is the changes the internet has wrought.

It’s hard not to look at some small businesses that have attempted to navigate the labyrinthine world of website design post 1998, Google’s business listings and social media – and failed – and wonder if they’re long for this brave new world.

“Mom and Pop businesses” have been a staple of the landscape for generations, but in many ways it seems like the ecosystem which supported them and allowed them to thrive for so long is being extinguished by the internet and the possibilities it offers.

However, there’s one thing that has been a staple of small business marketing for time immemorial; what I like to call heritage marketing.

What is heritage marketing?

Old factory by river


In my post on the underdog effect and how it can influence buyer behaviour, I discussed how certain brands leverage connections to the past, both their own and the collective one.

Doing so helps engender a homely, pastoral image that can transform even the most goliath multinational into a brand that could easily be producing their goods out of suburban kitchen.

Heritage marketing takes various forms, most commonly in overall branding. The nature of heritage marketing means its effectiveness is somewhat diminished when isolated to individual campaigns – but if executed correctly, it can still be a powerful tool.

There are two key strands to heritage marketing.

The first allows brands to leverage their perceived small size and homespun charm to create pathos (what I dub the “human touch” approach – anything to shoehorn a Springsteen reference in). The second is using it as a way of emphasising experience and expertise (the “old hand” method).

What makes it so powerful?

Heritage marketing is such a potent ally because it works on multiple levels, allowing consumers to project their own imaginations onto your product and business, creating connections that a more focused campaign could never hope to. Better yet, heritage marketing has mass appeal that is rarely compatible with such intimate links.

Tapping into nostalgia does run the risk of appearing mawkish and overly sentimental, but by emphasising your past (or the things in the past which have inspired you), you can help the consumer draw comparisons with their own history without being exploitative.

Heritage marketing also works in conjunction with the underdog effect. By taking a company back to its roots, it immediately humanises it and reminds us of when they were little more than an upstart fighting against the giants of their market, even if the tables have turned since then (as seen in the examples below).

Finally, heritage marketing offers a fantastic way of creating a sense of history and expertise. Once again, your brand or product doesn’t necessarily have to have a lengthy history behind it; often, simply demonstrating that is has been inspired by the past is enough to develop an aura of authority.

Heritage is such a potent tool that some brands are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to make use of it.

Classic examples of heritage marketing

Levi’s 501s

The logo of Levi's

Despite the rise of fast fashion retailers and huge online competition, Levi’s iconic 501 design has never relinquished its place as the most famous style of denim jeans in the world.

The product first launched in 1873 and has only undergone minute, subtle changes to stay in step with fashion as decades have gone by. Features such as the riveting, button fly and the name have remained.

In the 501’s case, they’ve reached the stage now where Levi’s only really need to say the name and the cultural cachet of being the go-to item of Marlon Brando and James Dean in their 1950s pomp does the rest. The style’s beginnings as a staple piece of the blue collar uniform in the US  serves to enhance the jeans’ indelible ties to the American Dream and all it entails.

However, that doesn’t stop them hammering the message home from time to time:

Jack Daniel’s No. 7

Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey logo

Even with the pressures to introduce new exotic flavours, Jack Daniel’s advertising campaigns do a great job of nullifying any suggestion that they’re abandoning their past by delighting in the company’s history.

Though they freely admit that they don’t even know the specifics of their foundation, they even manage to turn that to their advantage, creating a sense of mythos and opening up new ways to play on consumer’s imaginations.

The image of one man working tirelessly at a liquor still somewhere deep in the heart of Tennessee to perfect the taste of his whiskey is one that can’t fail to inspire, and is more than enough to encourage a torn consumer to fall on the JD side of the fence.

Their heritage marketing campaigns run alongside ones exhibiting new products and thus avoid diluting (excuse the pun) the brand’s historical USP.

Harley Davidson

Harley Davidson logo

With eco-awareness at an all time high and the aftershocks of the Great Recession still being felt, most car and motorbike advertising campaigns currently focus on stressing the vehicles’ efficiencies, both in terms of fuel and emissions.

Harley Davidson as a brand hinge on the ideas that the noise one of their bikes can instantly conjure up; freedom, limitless possibilities and an unabashed appeal to masculinity. In one of their most recent campaigns, they took the statistic-driven approach many other automobile manufacturers have adopted and utilised it themselves while simultaneously turning it on its head, hinting at their bikes’ possession of an unquantifiable quality.

And of course, the company’s illustrious history is never far away:

Smith & Wesson

Smith and Wesson logo

Like Harley Davidson, Smith & Wesson are a name synonymous with their industry’s past. Their deference to history starts from their elaborate old school logo and simply carries on from there.

The top left-hand corner of their website – one of the most valuable pieces of real estate there is – proudly states that their wares have been made in the US since 1852. Even many of their new designs pay homage to the sort of pistols we’re accustomed to seeing in the hands of John Wayne or Gary Cooper.

Although you may think that making something as dangerous as firearms would preclude Smith & Wesson from harnessing heritage marketing, the high profile presence on their site of various pieces of responsibility literature ensures a balance is struck. There’s clearly no need to revamp their image – their Throwback Thursday Tweets are regularly some of their most engaged-with:

In fact, Smith & Wesson are so dedicated to maintaining their ties with the past that when I was researching this post, I never once managed to get on their website, instead being greeted by this error:


IT oversight, or ingenious marketing ploy to truly take advantage of heritage branding? You be the judge.


Michelin logo

Car tires are something that you’d expect would need to emphasise their modernity due to the safety aspect of the product. However, given the industry is largely perceived as an oligopoly with a small number of major players, much of the leg work is already done for Michelin.

Instead, they eschew expectations using their friendly and highly-recognisable mascot as a differentiator from the slick competition, and it’s helped them become the second biggest tire manufacturer in the world against some pretty incredible odds, not least because the Michelin Man began life as the nightmare creation of a tortured tire company executed.

Michelin Man

How to make use of heritage marketing

With the examples above, you’re probably beginning to get a sense of what heritage marketing entails.

As I mentioned earlier, there are two distinct strains of heritage marketing, and each has a different set of criteria that it helps to meet:

The “human touch”

  • Use plenty of imagery showing average Joes enjoying your product.
  • Use plenty of imagery showing the individual members of staff of your business rather than the cold, heartless automatons that will soon irrevocably replace their fleshy underlings.
  • Write copy that stresses warmth, family values and a sense of community.
  • Employ product USPs that identify and solve the problems people encounter in their everyday lives.
  • Put added emphasis on user feedback and communication channels between business and customer.
  • Employ a colour palette of bright pastels.
  • Position yourself as the underdog in order to create empathy.

The “old hand”

  • Place emphasis upon the date the company was first founded. Even if that formation date is relatively recent, including it in your logo or masthead serves as a statement of intent that no matter where your brand goes in the future, it will never forget where it came from.
  • Consider using legacy titles. As tempting as it is to give every product you come up with a whip smart pun-tastic title, evergreen products tend to have simple names that either extol their timeless USPs or are even more basic, such as their catalogue number.
  • Use imagery that focuses on the old school and the rustic, such as sepia filters and wooden backdrops. Wet Shave Club do a fantastic job of this, and you can read my case study here.
  • Utilise paraphernalia of times gone by, such as images of the business through history or packaging that pays homage to signage styles of bygone eras.
  • Tying your product or brand to moments in time opens up a huge range of possible associations. Taking the example of the Levi 501s from above, their common association with late 19th century blue collar America immediately demonstrates ruggedness and durability, while their use by James Dean and Marlon Brando in classic 1950s films offers a sense of rebellion and individuality.
    • It’s worth noting here that, even if you can’t say that your product was used by a countercultural icon, suggesting that it takes inspiration from it can also create these subconscious associations.

Of course, these are the most basic, one-size-fits-all criteria – what works for your business will be dependent on a whole range of additional factors that I can’t possible speculate upon (although if you want me to give it a shot, drop me an email or leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to help out!).

Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to subscribe on the right hand side for updates on future posts.

Images courtesy of Petrolicious, Pexels, Levi’s, Jack Daniel’s, Harley Davidson, Smith and Wesson and Michelin.

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