There’s no denying the unique edge of heritage brands; the organisations around us that possess a set of qualities that can’t be bought, only built. Simply standing the test of time adds immeasurably to their sense of credibility and depth, but in the ‘new world’ of today, is it enough to rely on your history to build a strong brand? Does reliance on legacy hold you back from relevancy?
We sat down with Tamira Hamden, Head of Brand and Digital Communications at the iconic Oxford University Press, to discuss how organisations can shape brands that stay true to their long-standing roots but resonate with today’s audience and tackle today’s challenges.
“I believe strongly that brand is not marketing. I think it’s its own discipline. I think historically speaking people kind of shove it in with marketing, or shove it in with advertising, [or] shove it in with communications, and I think it’s much more closely aligned to business strategy. For that reason, I think any organisation that is serious about being here for a long time should have a Chief Brand Officer on their executive committee.”
The importance of brand is almost old news now — it’s in every company (give or take)’s lexicon and universally accepted to be something one should ‘consider’ or ‘develop’ in order to make a real difference in their sector or industry. However, seldom is it taken seriously enough; often seen as a side gig in higher education. Truth is, universities and higher education institutions are facing greater challenges today than ever before — learning in a post-pandemic world, the accelerated shift to working more digitally, the rise of alternative routes after sixth form, and the increase in fees to name a few. In order to truly overcome these challenges, brand needs a seat at the top table, and no conversation around how to grow your brand can start without recognising its significance as a crucial cog in your strategic planning.
In Oxford University Press’ case, one significant challenge they were facing that led to their rebrand was simply, perception. A Voice of the Customer piece identified that their business strategy (what they were aiming to achieve) and their brand (what people thought about them) weren’t matching up. As author and brand expert Marty Neumeier says, ‘brand is not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is,’ and under this logic, their brand was elitist, unapproachable and existed within an ivory tower.
“We were looking at positioning ourselves as this approachable, digital-first partner and service provider within education and academic research. The two pictures of us just didn’t marry and thankfully, we had a leadership team that was willing to listen. […] So we surfaced. [the rebrand] and we were like, listen […] we’ve set a big ambitious strategy, we want to continue fulfilling our mission and ensuring that we’re here for another 500 years…We are risking the success of that strategy if we continue going the way that we’re going because our customers are flagging problems with the brand — obstacles to the brand — that they are finding and we’re not addressing them.”
This highlights the importance of audience research, and recognising when the time is right to reposition a heritage brand. Of course, change can sometimes feel uneasy when tradition and years of trust building have played such an important role in the development of a brand — but change doesn’t mean erasure of the past, it means telling your story in a way that resonates with the audience of today. It means evolving your purpose because the world around you has evolved.
This harmonious relationship between the past and the future is where opportunity lies. As Tamira shares, “we actually went back to go forward.”
“I think one of the most fascinating things about brand is how quickly the customer can read when it’s not genuine. […] So what we didn’t want to do was go wildly off-piste and do something that was not credible to the brand and what it was here to do, and we wanted to find something more compelling than ‘we exist to spread knowledge’ because Google exists now.
[…] So we had to find, through these 500 years that we’ve existed and all of the many pivots that we’ve made […] — what’s been the through line? What we found was that, throughout, whether it was Bible publishing, or whether it was taking a huge gamble and publishing this tome of an academic work called The Dictionary that we weren’t sure if anyone was going to buy […], we’ve always taken the right risks for the ideas that we thought were worth championing. And for me, that’s brave.
That’s challenging in the DNA of a company. That’s something that is worth defending and preserving whatever century you’re in, and whatever platforms exist to disseminate knowledge and to pump ideas out into the world.
If we could exist as a sort of filter and a helpful friend in aiding people to discover those ideas that were worth knowing — that were worth learning more about — that was something worth protecting, and that was a personality and a position that I could build a strategy around.”
That’s not to say that organisations won’t be met with push back in the midst of a rebrand. Indeed, when the brand strategy has been solidified, the visuals follow suit and often — especially for heritage brands — people can feel uncomfortable losing the logos, colours, and typefaces they’ve been familiar with for decades. Take active university alumni as an example; the brand ambassadors that fly the flag for your institution. What if they showed resistance to change? The answer, albeit slightly sharp, is that you can’t put the wrong people’s considerations first. If the demands of a university have moved on, so must the brand. The show, as they say, must go on — and target the needs of a new primary audience.
A great example of a heritage brand building on their past to shape their future is the BBC — an institution adored by many people, that wears many hats, but also faces challenges when it comes to perception. Similarly, to higher education organisations, they have a complex brand system and architecture, which is why Oxford University Press looked to them for inspiration during their own rebrand process.
“All of [their] programming is aimed at totally different segments of a wider market. They have to defend their position as a sort of national institution and public service. They also must defend their position as a media outlet and a broadcaster in an age where trust in media is at an all-time low and they manage to stay relevant — they manage to stay pertinent and important and sort of a fundamental part of the tapestry of British life.
They use brand strategy and a brand design system that is world-leading if you look at the thinking behind it. It’s phenomenal what they managed to achieve in terms of audience segmentation, categorisation – helping all those brands live together under one kind of parent brand. live in awe of them and in awe of every rebrand that they do to make that system sharper and clearer and more easily accessible to their viewers.”
Get in touch
If you would like to explore how your heritage brand can leverage the power of legacy as well as forward-thinking strategic branding to uncover new opportunities for your organisation – get in touch with us at The Brand Education.
Listen to the episode
Listen to the full podcast below or search The Brand Education on Spotify. Don’t forget to leave us a review so more people across the sector can find us and tune in.