Here are my 5 key take home thoughts:
1.Timelines date. Themes rejuvenate. If you approach heritage as a series of dates and dusty old photographs that prove you’ve been around a long time, heritage will remain sepia toned. Simply displaying heritage items will feel too far away to meaningfully connect with people now.
Timelines have a place, but it’s the identification of multiple themes across time that makes ideas live and set imaginations alight. In our work for Living Streets we identified a theme around ‘making the hidden obvious’. In the past this theme manifested in safety, the belisha beacon or zebra crossing making pedestrians visible to motorists. The brand’s new role is to be a beacon for walking, highlighting the hidden benefits of walking to people every day. Rather than seeing time as a series of one-off events, themes are evidence of DNA that can be reactivated in a relevant way.
2. There’s usually one defining moment. In long and distinguished histories, how do you decide which event is seminal, and what it reveals about the brand?
Working with the Royal Automobile Club we fixed upon the ripping of the red flag, symbolic of the moment Britain would become forever changed by the arrival of the motorcar and those early motoring pioneers. This symbol is clearly important to the Club, evidenced by the flag ripping re-enactment that is relished each year on the same day in Hyde Park at sunrise, prior to the London to Brighton in celebration of the spirit of motoring emancipation.
We decided that this sudden rebellious devil-may-care act, although it pre-dated the formation of the Club, was significant in what it revealed about the pioneering character of its founder members and their connection to history. We coined the expression ‘Onwards since 1897’, to avoid it remaining frozen in time or in re-enactment, and as a way to urge the organisation on in search of other metaphorical red flags to rip.
Finding your moment and fixing on its significance provides a useful anchor. It might also inform a future rallying cry, create a bonding ritual, or simply act as sort of magnetic north for future innovation.
3. Context changes; character doesn’t. It’s important to understand the context, but there’s no substitute for listening to real people, understanding their passion, and getting to grips with the character of an organisation. It can provide a common thread even if the context is very different.
Talking to the staff at Living Streets and reading early meeting logs from their 1930 handbook, I was struck by the fact that although the context had changed dramatically since the organisation began, a common thread emerged in both the enlightened approach of the original founders and the people who worked there today. I saw that they shared a common language and simple vocabulary to describe the transformational power of walking. Living Streets’ people have always shared the belief that a walking nation is a progressive nation; it had just never been articulated as such. In today’s context we expressed their approach to walking as ‘positively un-pedestrian’ – a simple, transformative, everyday act.
4. In the search for continuity, don’t discard discontinuity. It can be tempting to dismiss facts that don’t seem to immediately fit with your narrative version of events, particularly if they don’t paint the organisation in a positive light. But to ignore these is to ignore real life and the events that formed the brand. Maybe they form part of a manifesto detailing what we’ll never do again. It might also reveal a new opportunity or a new area of growth.
5. Think 50% revelation, 50% imagination. The process of restoring or re-thinking the role of heritage brands is one of gradual stripping back and revelation, but to really move a brand forwards takes an equal amount of imagination. Brands often start out as the simple ideas of passionate founders. Over time those ideas become hidden under each successive marketing campaign, or via organisational changes. At the same time brand identities lose their edge and confidence and may acquire the equivalent of graphic barnacles over the years.
The process of gradual de-cluttering and revelation will reveal the original spark and core brand assets, but imagination connects it and gives it a future. It gives each element a role and takes the heritage somewhere new. In the case of the Royal Automobile Club, for example, no amount of revelation would have led to us creating patterns out of some of the most iconic tyre treads in British motoring history. It took imagination. So that’s it. Be patient. Look for continuity but be alive to the possibilities of discontinuity. Enjoy the process of understanding peoples’ deeper motivations past and present, and mixing the colour of oral history with black and white facts and primary evidence. And remember that revealing is only half of the story; imagination is what takes you forward.