Transforming Brands to Endure

VW’s defining route as a heritage brand is one that should be revered.

What other brands can learn from VW, Carhartt, and Lego heritage brands, to become timeless.

At a glance:

  • VW survived a financial and public relations catastrophe that would have wrecked most brands
  • Modern consumers are flooded with more options than ever, but heritage brands have the luxury of using nostalgia to attract consumers
  • Purpose-driven businesses witness higher market share and growth – on average 3X faster than their competitors

VW has driven a long way since the days of Dieselgate in 2015, when it was revealed that their “clean diesel” cars were artificially rigged to meet EPA standards. For its transmission transgression, U.S. authorities have extracted $25 billion in fines, penalties, and civil damages for the 580,000 tainted diesels it sold in the U.S.

A financial and public relations catastrophe like this would have wrecked most brands, but VW has rolled on. In fact, it delivered 9.24 million vehicles in 2023 through its many brands – a growth of 12 percent over the previous year. The key to VW’s success has been tapping into their value as a heritage brand, utilizing timeless design that remains iconic generation after generation. In addition, they look for ways to tap into today’s consumers’ lives by addressing issues that matter.

What makes a brand a heritage brand?

A heritage brand, by definition, is a brand that possesses higher-than-average levels of brand equity, typically derived from operating for a longer-than-average period of time within their market. Brand recognition is a heritage brand’s greatest asset. Consumers have a familiarity and history with the brand. For car buyers, maybe their parents owned a VW, or perhaps it was their first car, or they saw it featured on the cover of the Beetle’s “Abbey Road” album or more recently as the “Transformer” character “Bumblebee.” 

Heritage can increase a brand’s value even if the consumer has no firsthand experience with it. Carhartt was founded in 1889 to make durable work clothes for manual laborers. For 100 years, it was a staple for blue collar workers. Then in the early 1990s, workwear became a hip fashion trend, especially amongst hipsters and hip-hop trendsetters. With its authenticity and long history, Carhartt became the “it” brand, and that popularity continues to this day.  

How heritage brands can leverage nostalgia marketing.

Modern consumers are flooded with more options than our parents and grandparents combined. Heritage brands have the luxury of using nostalgia to attract consumers. Nostalgia marketing creates a positive, emotional connection by using familiar ideas, concepts, songs, symbols and products from previous years, associating a brand with something for which customers have fond memories. Case in point, the iconic VW Beetle. Few cars in automotive history are as recognizable and revered, which is why VW was able to reintroduce it in 1998 after an almost twenty-year hiatus to great fanfare. Lego is another brand that’s great at leveraging nostalgia, especially by combining Lego with other nostalgic brands. This has led to an AFOL community, which stands for Adult Fans of Lego. Lego has created a whole line of TV themed products to attract these consumers, with shows like “The Office” and “The Mandalorian.”

Heritage brands need to tap into consumers’ lives in ways that truly matter.

But nostalgia isn’t enough. Consumer’s priorities are changing, and they don’t care about what brands have done before. They need to know what brands can offer them now that resonates in 2024. Over three quarters (76%) of Gen Zers said brands should address diversity, compared with 46% of Boomers. And purpose-driven businesses witness higher market share and growth – on average 3X faster than their competitors.

VW ID Buzz

VW once again has found a way to make timeless design timely with the release of its ID.Buzz. This new vehicle is reminiscent of the iconic Microbus introduced by VW in 1949 that became associated with the Hippie movement, but also provided transportation for large families long before the minivan came along. The ID.Buzz combines past and present in a meaningful way by being all-electric, recognizing that environment-conscience consumers share common ground with their Hippie forefathers. Demand is so great for the new vehicle that VW won’t take preorders for fear of disappointing consumers as they try to keep manufacturing up with demand – perhaps a lesson learned from their dark diesel days.

Doing things the right way is the best way to remain relevant.

With today’s fast changing marketplace and faster changing consumers, it can be hard for brands – even long-lasting heritage brands – to know the best route forward. A trademark of timeless design is how it simplifies as it evolves. Timeless brands do the same. Simply remain true to your brand heritage and true to what consumer’s value, and the road ahead will be smooth with be many loyal customers coming along for the ride.

Keys to Success:

                  • Understanding what consumer’s value most

                  • Evolving brand heritage to meet consumer’s lifestyle

                  • Finding harmony between following current trends and timeless design

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