What your business can learn from the heritage brands owning digital

Coco-Cola, Heinz, McDonald’s: all brands that been around for far longer than upstarts like Apple and Google. They’ve seen plenty of changes come and go. So it’s hardly surprising that these heritage brands have taken the internet in their stride. They’ve learned how to adjust their message to suit the newest of mediums. So what can newer businesses take from the old-timers?

Be global and local

The telephone wasn’t even invented when Heinz was founded, back in 1869 – but it’s doing better than ever. How? One big factor in its digital success is its willingness to be global but still accommodate all those small-yet-vital cultural changes.

"Take one look at the US and UK Heinz websites and Facebook pages, and you’ll note not only a difference in products, packaging and currency but also a difference in tone and subject matter," says strategic branding coach Sammy Blindell, author of How to Build a Brand. "Small companies are now going global, particularly post-Brexit, and this cultural and geographical customisation is something they all need to consider."

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Adapt or die

It’s not necessarily the strongest or most intelligent of the heritage brands that have survived, but rather those best responsive to change, says Carlo D’Alanno, executive creative director at Rufus Leonard.

"Burberry has grasped the digital opportunity and transformed its business from being a niche player to establishing itself as a digitally savvy brand among other industry leaders such as Apple and Google," he points out.

Digital technology is central to the brand’s way of thinking, he says. For Burberry, that means treating customers the same way no matter whether they are online, in Tokyo or London, in-store or on a tablet. "And for a luxury brand, that's pretty exceptional. It’s using live streaming at fashion shows and social media channels such as Snapchat, Periscope and Instagram. And it’s upgraded its mobile site, which has resulted in mobile revenue tripling."

Read: How important is a logo to a brand?

The BBC, he says, has revolutionised an 80-year-old state-subsidised bureaucracy to a world-wide global news provider. "They now command a 26 million-strong monthly audience worldwide, roughly a quarter of the user base of eBay or AOL. BBC News is the sixth most visited news website in the world."

What do these – and other top heritage brands – have in common? They’ve changed with the times, but they’ve never lost sight of who they really are. "They have a clear understanding of what makes them tick," says D’Alanno. "They have a brand promise with a unique offering, that knows who it's for, and brand positioning that’s distinctly different from its competitors."

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Plan like a pro

Shell was created in 1907, and it’s still going strong. Part of this success, says Simon Wright, managing director of Greenwich Design, is its dedication to digital, with departments dedicated to making digital work across 140 countries. A small business can’t match those deep pockets, but there’s plenty it can do to mirror the digital commitment.

"Many of our big brands see themselves as technical innovators," he says. "You can’t consider yourself as such if you are not engaging in digital fully."

Planning is an essential upfront investment, he points out. Otherwise you’ll attempt to be on too many different platforms and the message will get diluted. "If Twitter or Pinterest is not the best way for a business to communicate, then that needs to be understood. There are so many platforms and apps to choose to talk through, that it’s worth putting some time and effort into the planning – and that’s something that small businesses can commonly miss out on."

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Market smarter, not harder

Mini is an archetypal heritage brand which has transformed itself through smart digital marketing. "Traditional advertising may have got the headlines, but it’s their rich social content where their brand has really been built," says Mark Cullen, planner at branding agency Good.

"Their strategy continues to produce both user-generated and curated content that somehow manages to reinforce the brand’s personality and make drivers look great simultaneously. 

"They’ve also understood how digital can enhance the buying experience. They were among the first to let you design your car online, and their email strategy stays in touch throughout the customer journey. Some of this is expensive, but much of it isn’t."

Small businesses can learn plenty from Mini, he says. "Think mobile-first. It’s how most people now look at websites, search, chat and increasingly buy. It’s not all about desktop website anymore. Define your brand first – great social content grows from your brand, not just your budget. What’s your brand’s personality, values and purpose? 

"And measure everything. This is the advantage of digital, and is fantastic for small businesses. Measure engagement, and if something isn’t working – change it."

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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