Rediscover your 'brandcestry' or you'll look back in anger

If you forget what made your brand great in the first place - your 'brandcestry' - then you're history, as BHS has discovered to its cost

Don't look back in anger, writes Gerry Hopkinson
Don't look back in anger, writes Gerry Hopkinson

Poor old BHS. Once a mighty British retailer. Today, lying in tatters. There was a lot that made life difficult for the business, but for my money there’s a basic lesson at the heart of its demise: if you forget your past, you’re history.

BHS forgot this, and instead slid in and out of prosperity by trying to transform itself into something untrue to itself.

It began life as a rival to Woolworths, one of the first ‘five and dimes’, or variety stores, selling inexpensive items to hard-working people. It branched out into food and furniture, but never forgot it was about value for money and honest products.

Then in the 80s, new owners bought BHS and tried to smarten it up for a more upmarket consumer. Unfortunately this didn’t have the desired effect, instead alienating its heartland, budget-conscious customer base.

A BHS executive said in the early 90s: "Customers knew we’d changed, but didn’t know what we’d become."

Of course, businesses have to evolve, grow and adapt to market conditions, but if they lose their soul and forget who they are, how will anyone else know what they stand for?

I call this understanding ‘brandcestry’.

One man who knows how to care for his brandcestry is Bernard Arnault, chairman of luxury goods conglomerate LVMH.

He posted a 16 per cent increase in revenues last year, des­pite challenging conditions for the luxury sector. His understanding of the role of history is his most powerful tool.

Just like people, brands have a back story and a wealth of artefacts that help us appreciate them. If you know someone well, you know where they’ve come from, what makes them who they are and what you admire about them. It helps you champion, support and relate to them – and, crucially, give them the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong.

Every LVMH brand knows where it comes from; how it evolved; the trials and tribulations of those who made it great – and why it’s endured. Whether it’s 20 years old or 500, it honours the past and makes sure it’s relevant.

Our job is to help grow and maintain healthy brands and ensure that people understand what makes them great.

Most brands know their story very well, but few successfully convey it in a way that connects with stakeholders. Great brands, including Fred Perry, Jack Daniel’s and Heinz, have great stories and work hard to retell them in a way that resonates with each new generation.

This is not nostalgia: it’s making the past relevant and meaningful today, giving a brand greater authority and desirability.

Beyond storytelling, a brand’s greatest achievements and darkest moments instil a sense of purpose, provide valuable information and insights, and help avoid repeating mistakes.The past is a rich source of inspiration, guidance and value that brands need to use to shape their future strategy.

So don’t look back in anger (as the song goes), look back with interest and remember what made you great.

Gerry Hopkinson is co-founder of Unity

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