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The Marketer’s Guide to Modernizing a Legacy Brand

The Marketer's Guide to Modernizing a Legacy Brand

Satoru Wakeshima

statue bust being dusted

Marketers spend tens of millions of dollars each year to persuade consumers to remember and value the storied history, traditions and legacies of decades-old brands—from Kelloggs’s (founded in 1906) and Campbell Soup Company (1869) to Nabisco (1898), Cadbury (1824), Keebler (1853) and Clorox (1913).

But what happens when your consumers and culture move on, rendering your heritage brand less relevant to today’s shoppers? What if your company’s age-old logo and brand identity don’t reflect the breadth of products your company actually produces today? And most importantly, how can you as a brand marketer refresh and modernize a historic brand without losing the consumer love and brand equity that’s taken so many decades to nurture?

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Modernizing for Relevance with Today’s Consumers

The first step in considering how to modernize the visual assets of your brand is to understand that the biggest challenge brands face today is relevance. Even brands that are leaders in their category have their customers bombarded with brand messages by competitors that are hungry for their business. Maintaining relevance is how brands stay top of mind with consumers before, during and after they go shopping. No matter how cherished your brand’s logo, package or product might be, product categories are evolving around you, and your brand has to evolve with it.

Yet change can be hard, and some companies will have fierce internal battles over whether—and how—to change the brand’s visual identity from what they’ve used for years, holding on to these equities dearly. Surprisingly, many companies haven’t conducted proper visual equity research to determine whether the visual assets of the brand—the logo, graphic elements, typography and colors—still have value, are recognizable and ownable, and have meaning and relevance for their intended audiences.

Maintaining brand relevance goes beyond understanding how your product fits into your customers’ lives. It requires a considered approach to analyzing and understanding what your brand assets, marketing and messages mean to your audiences. The meaning behind how your brand shows up is what connects emotionally and culturally with people.

Managing brands with decades of history is both a great honor and a great responsibility. Even safe, evolutionary updates to a brand still need to move the needle—otherwise, why bother? But exploring the possibilities of dramatic change—no matter how uncomfortable it makes us—is also part of the responsibility. Your loyal consumers will often surprise you with just how far they’re willing to go with changes, if it’s for the right reasons.

Consumers Can Lead Brands to Their Future — If You Listen

Consider when our agency updated the packaging for the General Mills cereal brand Chex (below) so that it was responsive to consumer desire for cereal that integrated into their lifestyle of wellness and simple health.

Consumers’ priority on wellness and a healthy lifestyle is echoed in the new packaging for Chex cereal.

Modernizing a brand is often less about leading your consumers to follow you, and more often about catching up with where your consumers already are in their minds and in the choices they make.
While modernizing a brand isn’t about chasing trends, consider that design is a creative medium, like music and art, that’s in perpetual flux and constantly evolves. Heritage brands are represented by visual elements that were born out of their history: a founder’s signature or likeness, a company sign, a family crest. While the values of what these elements stood for can be timeless, how they’re represented needs to be examined regularly to understand relevancy and meaning to the audiences they’re intended to reach today.

As the world spins faster every day, we have all become increasingly accepting of change, and brands need to be prepared to adapt to that speed of change. While no marketer wants to be responsible for changes that lose customers and share on their watch, I see being open-minded to new ways of representing the brand as part of the responsibility of managing a heritage brand.

Balancing Legacy with Brand Updates

Sometimes there can be hesitancy or resistance to design changes for brands or companies that have a family legacy. But we experienced the very opposite when The J.M.Smucker company asked us to re-examine their corporate logo, which was born out of their jams and jellies product brand. But it didn’t reflect the make-up of their business today in food, coffee and pet. Additionally, the logo didn’t express the modern, progressive and innovative organization that they had worked so hard to become.

To our delight, family member, CEO and president Mark Smucker championed a comprehensive process and encouraged us to push the boundaries of possibilities, while still respecting their heritage. The result was a bold, contemporary corporate logo that set the stage for the next chapter in the company’s success.

Sometimes brands can achieve new relevance by simply leveraging what they have already established, but with a renewed purpose. Here are two examples of brands that continue to find new ways to renew relevance:

  • Levi’s has been a symbol of Americana for generations, but they’ve realized it to have different meaning for their audience today. By supporting freedom and equality, the little red tag and brand connect with a new generation.
  • Colgate’s use of a simple smile graphic in their logo supports the brand mission of “sparking optimism in everyone, everyday” and could not be more appropriate for the world’s leading oral care brand. Simply put, a smile carries so much more deeper meaning than white teeth.
Land O’Lakes’ new visual identity emphasizes the company’s heritage as a farmer-owned co-op with supporting imagery and a simpler design.

For a final example of the rewards of balancing heritage with modernizing a brand, consider our agency’s work with Land O’Lakes butter (above). The Saint Paul,Minnesota-based cooperative asked us to update its visual identity as it celebrated its 100th anniversary, while still reinforcing its place of prominence on the supermarket shelf. Our research showed that consumers liked the Land O’Lakes brand (founded in 1921), but were relatively unaware of its heritage as a farmer-owned co-op. In updating the packaging, our designers connected “Farmer Owned” directly to the brand mark on pack, simplified the brand mark to create a bullseye effect for more shelf impact, and updated the design to use photos of actual farms.
And yes, we helped remove the Indigenous American “Butter Maiden” icon—all of which updated the packaging so it told a more modern story. That story was of simple goodness brought to you by a farmer-owned co-op, an attribute that mattered deeply to today’s socially conscious consumers.

In the end, modernizing a brand is far more than just discarding elements that might no longer be relevant to today’s consumers. The promise of successful brand modernization is your opportunity to reinforce new messaging (as in Land O’Lakes highlighting its roots as a farmer-owned cooperative) that brings a product up to date to where your consumers are today—and where they’re heading tomorrow.

Satoru Wakeshima is managing director and chief engagement officer with the New York/Minneapolis-based brand design agency CBX. He has worked with such iconic brands as Clorox, M&M’s, Gillette, Milk-Bone, Coca-Cola, Kraft and countless others.