In a world infatuated with the new, sometimes the most powerful thing a brand can do is take people back to a time and a sentiment that feels comfortable and familiar.
Perhaps it’s human nature to look back and smile at how things were. Certainly, according to Trend Reports, “Products and campaigns that help keep memories alive and maintain tradition appeal to the emotional side of customers, and create a strong connection between brand and consumer.” But building a sentimental brand, and steering it between the rocks of vapid romanticism and empty sentimentality is not easy.
Powerful sentimental brands tend to pivot on three ideas: time; family; and stability. Those are relatively easy wins at a campaign level (because they are powerful emotions that work strongly in a confined timeframe), but building these ideas out into a brand that harkens back to what was and still feels relevant over a sustained period of time takes patience and skill.
The strategy works most effectively when the interest in what the brand offers is timeless. Hennessey for example continues to produce a significant percentage of the world’s cognac and is steadfast in that focus. Many alcohol brands – whiskey and wine in particular – use time to prove craft, but, as this interview reveals, Hennessy fuses legacy and focus to stand out as the cognac maker that both defies trend and embraces modernism. For Hennessy, 1768 is more than a date. It’s a proof point. Time and family are the evidence not just of excellence and endurance, but of why other drinks don’t come close.
Another powerful consumer motivation for sentimental brands is “un-change”; a real wish for some things to stay as they are. Some brands stay timeless by continuing to evolve in order to be current. Strong sentimental brands though defy fashion by locking onto what consumers want to keep intact. Patek Philippe, for example, fuses a story of craft with a view that no one person ever owns one of their watches. They simply look after it before passing it on. That sense of intactness; of having an heirloom that will last the ages provides the brand with a powerful backstory for not responding to whims. Patek Philippe talks to the very human wish to pass on things of value to those we love the most.
The third way to build a sustainable sentimental brand is to be a mythical mainstay; a brand whose story and narrative is so deeply embedded in a nation’s perceived psyche and self-narrative that the thought of it not being there is unthinkable. Brands like Levis for example lock into a powerful sense of frontier-ism that also talks to the timeless sentiment above. They are literally a sign of stability in marketplaces swarming with start-ups, unicorns and brand-bangers.
Contrast the approach that enduring sentimental brands take with that of brands that were strong historically but never escaped that history and as a result have steadily lost traction. Professor Jay Lorsch makes the great point in an analysis of the decline of Sears that “gradual crises are often much more dangerous than sudden crises. When a sudden jolt occurs, firms often mobilize resources and attack the problem with a sense of urgency. However, when a decline occurs over many years, beginning with small decreases in performance, managers often find ways to rationalize the diminishing results”. That, according to the article, is what happened to Sears.
So perhaps the greatest skill required for sentimental brands is the ability to negotiate the passing of time itself: to monitor and adjust to changing attitudes around the very things that people yearn to see as immutable. By quietly altering the pitch of their history and message, sentimental brands defy decline by reworking their strategies and tweaking emotion. The reason for this is simple. Memories distort realities. We “remember” things that never were, only that seem like they were – and sentimental brands skilfully play to that revisionist narrative. They present a connection to the history consumers want to think happened.
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