Amid the recent change of mood towards authenticity and people's enthusiastic quest for what-is-real, I feel there is one particular concept that got left behind. Although on the face of it “tradition” might seem to be equivalent with authenticity, this word somehow managed to get a rather negative connotation in the creative industry and become a less-then-desired quality for brands that strive to stay relevant for generation Y. Traditional has unfortunately become synonym with old-fashioned, and in many cases it’s just another way of saying that a brand has yet to figure out the whole digital-innovative-cool-kids-social-experiential issue. But let’s think about it… Isn’t tradition actually that heritage that many young brands endeavour to build and even borrow/buy from other brands when there’s no other way to achieve it? Isn’t tradition that deeply personal way of doing things that many ubiquitous corporate brands have lost? Isn’t tradition about the real things in life, about the passion and the care, about doing things the right way? And isn’t all this in the end authenticity? So why isn't tradition one of the good buzz words?
So the question is: what does tradition mean to brands today? Can old heritage brands retain the tradition while being innovative and relevant to the new zeitgeist? And can young brands (like start-ups) leverage the tradition element without sounding phoney?
Tradition to me means taking time, effort and the accumulated skills to produce something with that special added something that is of quality, value and lasts. Unfortunately in today’s market, with cost cutting and efficiency those values cannot apply cost effectively, so when companies use the word tradition, everyone knows that it is a false promise from the start. With mechanised production, the unions, their rise and decline, mergers and sell-offs, market monopolies, outsourcing etc, the traditional brands who still exist in name, that grew from one root into trees with many branches cannot be recognised by their now buried foundations. I could think of Apple as traditional, yet modern day. The trouble is, everyone knows they use cheap labour from China and outsourced companies.
The only brand that comes to mind instantly that I would call traditional is John Lewis where every employee has a share of the profit and a real say in the organisation. For those who know them, think of how you would describe them and for every 5 words I'm sure one of those words would be a word you haven't used in a while, a word you would call traditional that gives you that nice warm feeling when you say it. My word was courtesy.
Forming a tradition is what most brands (should) aspire to. I suppose examples include the golden rabbit from Lindt that rich kids get at Easter or even the traditions that Harley Davidson and VW engender in their 'tribes' for showing off their vehicles at 'meets'.
In China, there's a huge premium attached to 'traditional' brands of all kinds (especially food and drink) and it's really remarkable what a passion they have for 'traditional' brands from Europe and the USA - and how their concept of foreign luxury is very closely connected to what they see as our traditions.
I think young(er) brands can go for a 'traditional' feel (just think of Ralph Lauren in the late 60s) and can certainly start traditions of their own (browsing Facebook while riding the bus?). It's certainly a sign that a brand has become close enough to us that we're prepared to form a habit around it or even alter our behaviour to indulge it.
Balancing traditional appeal with modernity is tricky. British Airways has been trying to pull this off for some time (even reviving its old 'to fly, to serve' slogan) but its a tightrope and takes serious skill to walk. I suppose Wally would say you've got to change to remain the same and I agree with him. Even the most traditional brands (Penhaligon's for example) work hard at subtly updating their look, customer experience and products to remain relevant.
Most Australians will be familiar the jingle 'I like Aeroplane Jelly, Aeroplane Jelly for me!'. A small packet of powdered jelly crystals made its way into the hearts, minds and bellies of Australians from the 1930s with this tune that is still a strong identifier of the brand today. Aeroplane Jelly realised several years ago the dilution of their jingle was at risk, as generations of Australians grow older while new Australians have not been exposed to the Aeroplane Jelly ads that once overran televisions. So, the wobbly delicious dessert responded. In addition to generally adopting a modern approach to their brand comms and marketing - from an update of their brand illustrations to setting up jelly-sculpting competitions around the country - Aeroplane ensured they made use of the iconic jingle through running a competition throughout schools around the country in 2008. Leveraging the power of their strongest asset, Aeroplane set off on a national journey to find the best modern day version of their jingle. This prompted response of the Aeroplane Jelly jingle being rapped, turning into a pop song and even sung in different languages.
So yes, old heritage brands can refresh themselves to find relevance among new generations. They are always evolving, changing to stay the same.
According to the dictionary, tradition is “a belief, custom or way of doing something that has existed for a long time among a particular group of people.” But the concept of tradition in our modern world has been diluted. It is associated with old fashioned particularly because it is frequently marketed as the opposite of innovation.
However, brand with the tradition element undeniably has something valuable: it proves a track record of success and it takes away a lot of the risk implicit in choosing one brand over another. This is true in some sectors more than others, since the reasons for choosing brands differ. In the luxury sector, for example, the reason for picking a brand is driven largely by a desire to belong to a group of people and define yourself by their set of values, customs and attitudes. So, for luxury brands it seems like it is often all about building some element of tradition.
I don’t think newer brands are lost because they do not have tradition? The beautiful thing about this concept is that new traditions can be created by forming new ways of doing things distinct to your brand and this is precisely what could add value to your brand in the long run. Starting traditions can be even more fun, engaging and unique than keeping up with them. It is a form of innovation in itself.
Traditions are inherent to brands in a luxury world. Without the heritage, the story of the founder, the artisanship, the archives, without the old way of doing things, the existence and the successes of these luxury brands are unimaginable. These traditions define the very essence of these brands, creating a point of difference that makes them so desirable and coveted by millions of customers around the world.
Last spring Hermes ran an exhibition in the Saatchi Gallery. At the ‘Festival Des Métiers’ event the brand’s artisans showcased in real time the ‘traditions and values of Hermes in crafting the fine object’, from silk scarf printing to watch making, leather saddle stitching and diamond setting, giving gallery visitors the opportunity to experience the brand’s unique savoir-faire. Or take Louis Vuitton, the greatest reinventor of all, that has built a multi-billion empire by staying true, and building on, the very essence of the old brown Damier and Monogram Canvas trunks, produced today, still by hand, in the same fashion as they were in the 19th century. And classic British luxury brands, from Mulberry and Burberry to Asprey, Fortum & Mason and even Alexander McQueen, are all built on traditions that are made contemporary and relevant in the modern world.
The true luxury brands are the greatest paradox, and the leading example of expert brand management. They seamlessly combine old and new, craftsmanship and digital, tradition with innovation, creating magic for faithful connoisseurs and an aspiring generation of millennials today.
What does tradition mean to brands today? Depends so much on the sector - in certain sectors such as retail or food, it is often seen as a real asset. In newer sectors like digital/technology, I would say tradition is hardly relevant at all, and probably seen as negative and old-fashioned.
I think tradition can give credibility to a brand, as long as it's relevant and communicated in the right way, and the balance and emphasis between tradition and innovation is right. Family businesses can succeed here - 'ABC & Son' - best of both worlds: family = trust/tradition, descendants = new blood, innovation. As with most things brand, understanding and responding to audience is key.
Customers are willing to pay top dollar for something that has been made using traditional techniques and expertise. Names like Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith are renowned for their innovative style, but their reputation stems from expertise and an understanding of the traditional methodology of tailoring. Newcomers can too capitalise on tradition if they can back up their innovative styles with proof of traditional training and expertise - if they can prove they've researched their new product/service/offering and really know their stuff. If they're using traditional ways of doing things, ensure it's for the right reasons - benefits to the end product and the customer, not just for the sake of it.
Sadly, however, often tradition means higher price, as it often takes longer, is more labour-intensive, and uses more expensive materials and equipment. Many people either can't afford, or choose not to pay extra for something that's has been made using traditional methods.