Hudson, B. (2020) The Problematic Past. Brand Heritage Review, Volume 2, Number 2.
THE PROBLEMATIC PAST
October 1, 2020
Aunt Jemima. Uncle Ben’s. Eskimo Pie. These historic brands offer a cautionary tale for chief executives everywhere. None were able to survive a rapid change in social norms, which overnight destroyed powerful consumer brands that had thrived for decades.
American society, and perhaps all of Western civilization, seems to be in the midst of a seismic cultural shift. Regardless of your position on a variety of related issues, it seems clear that historical narratives which have been stable for decades are now being widely questioned. Symbols and artifacts that were sacrosanct or accepted for centuries are now being revised or removed. Anyone who defends tradition is risking attack or cancellation from progressives, while anyone who proposes change is risking criticism or abandonment from conservatives.
Business leaders should be increasingly concerned about the nature of history. This is no longer an obscure subject that can be relegated to discussions at university faculty clubs. The emerging risk applies especially to older brands that feature historical elements in their positioning or communications, but the implications are wider. Almost 40 percent of leading brands in the most recent Interbrand 100 ranking were established more than a century ago. Another 10 percent are owned by companies with origins dating back more than a century.
The problematic past represents an existential threat to any company, because every company has a history. The consequences of mismanaging historic companies or products include public relations crises, boycotts and protests, employee defections, reductions in revenue, diminished brand equity, and legal action.
This situation raises several related questions. What is history? What is brand heritage and how does it work? How does this relate to culture? Why is history potentially dangerous? What should managers do now? How can companies mitigate their risk?
Before explaining the implications of problematic corporate history, it will be helpful to detour through some rather esoteric discussions about the theory of history and culture. Stay with me, as this will eventually become useful on a more practical level.
Historical facts are usually objective and indisputable, but our remembrance of historical events is something quite different. The pioneering sociologist George Herbert Mead suggested that history is an existential process involving the ongoing reconstruction of the past. Historical facts are constantly rearranged into new narratives that align with beliefs and values that are relevant and meaningful now. This interaction with historical symbols helps humans define their identities in the present, both individually and collectively.
My academic research over the past decade has explored the interaction of marketing and history in the consumer marketplace. This covers three interrelated ideas. Brand heritage is an emerging concept within the marketing discipline, which suggests that the historical status of older companies may be linked to their brand identity and consumer appeal. Heritage marketing is a strategic approach and set of activities to capitalize on brand heritage in the present and future. It uses the entire marketing process to develop a strategic position based on heritage, clarify and enhance the value proposition, activate powerful dynamics in consumer behavior, create and communicate relevant messages, and monetize the past. Business history is important to this process, because corporate archives provide the content and inspiration for related marketing communications and new product development.
A few years ago, I developed a conceptual model to explain the consumer behavior underlying historic brands. This was based on the earlier work of Mead, which provides a framework for understanding why some consumers find older brands appealing. The model extends beyond functional explanations of innate characteristics such as origination and longevity, and suggests that consumers project their own historical associations onto older brands in a process of symbolic interaction. Reconstruction and mythology are central to such behavior, because they facilitate the psychological phenomenon of nostalgia, which could be described as a bittersweet longing for the past. This is especially powerful when the identities of brands are intertwined with the personal identities and histories of consumers or the collective identity of a society and its past.
My behavioral model for heritage relates to separate scholarship by Douglas Holt, who argues persuasively that iconic brands have relevance and power because their identities are aligned with the surrounding cultural milieu. Sometimes the identities of brands, the identities of individual consumers, the collective identity of generations, and the ethos of cultural movements all evolve together as they move through time.
Epic brands are those which are able to catch and ride such waves, either intentionally or accidentally. This is illustrated by the case of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, which enjoyed a huge surge in popularity during the 1980s. Holt argues this success resulted from generational factors and changes in popular culture, rather than the skill or prescience of management.
Although they are mere commercial expressions, brands can become symbols of collective identity if they embody mythologies that provide existential meaning for an entire civilization. Holt describes this effect as cultural branding, but he acknowledges the historical dimension of this phenomenon and his work implicitly endorses the role of the past suggested by Mead. He also argues that the most powerful brands embody inherent tensions between opposing elements of their associated cultural or historical narratives.
A Seismic Shift
Cultural myths often remain unchanged for centuries. They provide individuals with recognizable and reliable guideposts for understanding personal and collective identity. The subsidiary historical narratives change over time, but they evolve slowly and incrementally, in manner similar to the movement of tectonic plates in the earth’s crust.
A brand whose success is attributable to the alignment of its identity with larger cultural movements may experience problems over time. If managers who are unaware of cultural influences make changes in its strategic position or communications, they may unwittingly decouple the brand from these subtle demand drivers. The brand moves away from the culture. On the other hand, if the underlying dynamic is a demographic or cultural trend, executives must proactively update their strategy to remain relevant. Otherwise the culture moves away from the brand. Keeping brands synchronized with their surrounding culture is a difficult but important task.
Sometimes a major change occurs. In geology, the pressure on tectonic plates along a fault line builds until they shift quickly and violently, causing an earthquake. Similarly, in human societies, unexpected and unusual events may cause rapid and significant cultural shifts. The inherent tensions in fundamental myths become unstable, resulting in social and political turmoil. If the identity of a brand is closely aligned with a cultural narrative that is suddenly questioned or abandoned, the strategic position of the brand is undermined and its competitive advantage is eroded.
The Problematic Past
Cultural shifts create significant problems for older brands whose identities are linked to historical narratives and may also introduce risk for brands of any age. There are three types of difficulty.
The first type of difficulty is brands associated with companies, people or locations that were complicit in behavior which is now universally recognized as illegal or immoral. A notable category involves human enslavement and racism. Many companies in Germany are implicated in the Nazi regime, either as tacit supporters of the government through normal business relationships or as active exploiters of labor from concentration camps. Insurance companies in multiple locations offered policies on slaves as property, while banks allowed enslaved humans to be used as collateral for loans. Several historic hotels in the American South were associated with slavery during the nineteenth century or segregation thereafter. In the non-profit sector, some universities benefited financially from the slave trade, either through direct involvement or by honoring founders and donors who were involved.
In many cases, the behavior was rediscovered decades and sometimes centuries after it occurred. The related recriminations and publicity have created strategic and existential crises for the current leaders of these organizations, who were uninvolved and often unaware of the potentially explosive past.
The second type of difficulty is companies that are engaged in branding or communications which are now considered insensitive. Recent examples include Aunt Jemima, but there are many others. Consumers may ignore the connotations, reject the negative assessments, or consider related concerns to be overwrought. Nonetheless such branding violates current sociopolitical norms and attracts scrutiny from cultural arbiters. Some critics argue that such cases are actually worse than the first category, because these companies are still actively engaged in the objectionable behavior.
The third type of difficulty is probably unexpected, but potentially much more dangerous. This is brands associated with companies, people or locations that are engaged in behavior which has yet to be recognized as illegal, immoral or insensitive. To be clear, this does not refer to behavior that is considered wrong now and discovered later. Rather it refers to behavior that is currently deemed acceptable by almost everyone, but which may be re-categorized at some point in the future as unacceptable. The past can suddenly become problematic.
The Future of the Past
Amidst the current turmoil, the academic discipline of history remains a legitimate pursuit. The historical issues now receiving increased attention are undoubtedly important to our society and its evolution. Many of the problematic behaviors are genuinely abhorrent and should be publicly explored.
Similarly, executives should robustly support and perhaps expand their corporate archival operations. Understanding the full history of brands will be an increasingly important tool for valuation, risk management and compliance. Companies must know what may be lurking in their pasts. They should consider auditing their own corporate histories now, to prepare for the possibility that problems will be discovered and exploited by outsiders including activists and competitors. They also need to maintain careful records about their unfolding future, in case evidence is needed later to defend their brands.
In short, business history is more relevant than ever. But the prognosis for brand heritage is less certain.
During my speaking engagements about heritage marketing, many executives of older companies have expressed doubt about choosing a strategic position based upon their heritage. These concerns always relate to the correct observation that consumer trends and technological innovation are moving forward rather than backward, and the incorrect assumption that younger consumers are not interested in the past.
But now an additional problem has emerged, which is far more difficult to refute. The valorization of the past will be difficult or impossible if the nature of the past is disputed or under indictment. If the next generation of consumers is progressive, no rational company would want their brand to be perceived as regressive.
To make matters worse, the problem goes beyond criticism for transgressions. If the past is unpleasant or dangerous, this disconnects the positive feelings associated with nostalgia. In other words, heritage marketing simply will not work. It will not be an effective tool for generating consumer interest, enthusiasm and demand.
The one positive outlook for heritage marketing can be found in the idea that history involves the creation of novel stories from established facts. As culture evolves, we will develop new historical narratives that provide guideposts and meaning which are appropriate for our altered perspective. This provides new opportunities to discover and valorize moments or people that were previously unknown or ignored.
Redesigning the past is a long-term endeavor, which requires insight about the future. We cannot align corporate histories with broader social narratives until it becomes clear whether the new ideas constitute trends that will remain or fads that will evaporate. We must await a definitive understanding of the new orthodoxy. In the meantime, the process of business history will likely devolve into criticism and destruction.
The End of Heritage
Francis Fukuyama suggested two decades ago that humanity may have reached the end of history. This provocation depended on a particular interpretation of the past, which suggested that history is a process dominated by the evolution of economics and politics. At the time of his writing, the Soviet Union had recently collapsed and it appeared that secular democratic capitalism had emerged as the indisputable victor in a millennial struggle to select the ideal organizing principles for civilization. He further implied that the military conflict and political oppression associated with ideological struggle would naturally subside.
In hindsight, the Fukuyama theory was both simplistic and optimistic. There is no universal consensus about economics, politics or religion. To the contrary, a new period of struggle and oppression seems to be emerging. This provides fuel for the continuation of history, both figuratively as a social process and practically as an endeavor for historians. But the same cannot be said for heritage.
Heritage thrives on social consensus about the positive aspects of our past. It involves a pleasant and beneficial remembrance of cultural movements and historical moments. Undermining the legitimacy of these elements can only result in cognitive dissonance. Even though Holt argues that iconic brands embody inherent contradictions, he nonetheless implies that such inconsistencies must be held together in a static system. Consensus about broader cultural narratives provides the adhesive agent. If that consensus disappears, the system becomes unstable.
Our collective memory is no longer reliable. As a result, corporate heritage marketing efforts may need to pause until the surrounding culture resets.
About the Author
Bradford Hudson is Associate Professor of the Practice of Marketing in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College.
Professor Hudson earned a doctoral degree (Ph.D.) in Business History from Boston University, a master’s degree in services marketing from Cornell University, an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania, and a certificate in strategy from Harvard Business School. He is a former Fulbright Scholar to Canada, where held the Fulbright Visiting Research Chair at the University of Guelph.
Prior to his academic career, Professor Hudson served in a variety of executive and consulting positions. His clients with historic brands included AT&T, Bank of Boston, Cadbury Schweppes, Cunard, Harley-Davidson, and Nestlé.
Hudson, B. (2020) The Problematic Past. Brand Heritage Review, Volume 2, Number 2.