Celebrating the past or the future?

Brands and heritage

I recently got to spend a couple of days in Bucharest, my home city. Every time I go there I find it fascinating to look at local brands and see what they’re up to. The brand scene in Romania is, like in any emerging market, an amalgam of good, bad, and ugly, with huge potential, but with little real vision or business mindset. There’s always plenty to pick on, but on this occasion I’ll choose an intriguing trend, which I feel is rather valid internationally – or at least in markets similar to Romania.

Many Romanian organisations have started building their brand around celebrations. 555 years from the founding of the city. 60 years since we started operating. 20 years since the first broadcast. 4 years since our merger. 11 months since the launch of that product. One anniversary after the other, it struck me how overused this PR tool has become in Romania and the amount of money organisations invest in planning and communicating events and promotions around anniversaries. It seems to me that Romanian brands are really keen about celebrating the past.

Being aware of your own history and proud about your heritage has always given brands a boost of confidence. Celebrations are fun too – they excite and entertain people, generate buzz, all great! But when the past becomes a brand’s main (and sometimes only) story, it goes to show there’s nothing else to talk about and that the organisation lacks vision.

A strong brand shows the world where you want to go as a business, what you want to achieve, what your vision is. The past, no matter how glorious, is still the past and bragging about it won’t help you much in building a successful future. Look at Kodak, or Nokia. No point in them celebrating the anniversary of their first products, even if they disrupted their respective markets at the time. These stories are admirable and a bit romantic, but won’t excite anyone into buying their new products.

Apple doesn’t care that much about anniversaries. Nor does GE - and their founder invented the light bulb, so there's plenty to celebrate there! Google doesn’t spend much energy making a big fuss about their anniversaries either (no, those doodles don’t really count). They’re a bit busy inventing the driverless car or “solving death”. Even heritage brands like Burberry leverage their long history only to establish the authority they need to be able to shape the future of fashion retail. They excite their customers by showing them an exciting future, not by throwing street parties on their birthday.

The world’s greatest brands celebrate their heritage, but usually in the context of their future vision. They understand that a past of achievements only means a duty to create an equally successful future. Consumers want to be inspired. They want to see that the brand they buy into has a vision. They want to feel they belong to something that’s going somewhere. Celebrations and PR events are fun, but they don’t stick. Brands with a strong idea have a stronger sense of who they are today and a clear vision of where they are going tomorrow. These brands are able to craft stories beyond anniversaries, and create stories that engage and inspire consumers in the long term.

Today organisations need to learn from their past to understand the future, but celebrate their future in order to build a strong brand. It’s not about predicting the future - it’s about showing an ambition to shape it.