November 1, 2022

New Trends, Old Traditions: How Heritage Labels Stay Relevant

By John Livesey

In an era characterised by rapidly-changing consumer behaviours, brand identity has never been more important. Many heritage brands, however, face a dilemma: how to stay true to their principles whilst adapting to the emergence of new market trends.

So what steps can be taken to reach new audiences without compromising a brand’s integrity? In this long-read Insights piece, we take a deep-dive into some hit and miss examples from heritage labels like Tiffany’s, Saint Laurent and New Balance.

Nowhere left to (Lo)Go

One iteration of the rush to modernise has been the rise of minimalist logos across the luxury fashion industry. The new typography used by brands like Saint Laurent, Balenciaga or Balmain is certainly sleek and striking. 

When taken together, however, these attempts to refresh old brand logos become homogeneous and predictable. Labels quickly become indistinguishable from one another, and lose the value of their individual authenticity and originality.

Design is an easy and important way for brands to offer a sense of themselves to new consumers. But whilst these designs must remain responsive to fashion, conformism is never attractive. Going with the crowd can come at the expense of integrity and independence and risks an ever-narrowing range of options for younger consumers.

From Brand to Bland

Not your Mother’s Tiffany’s?

Another cautionary tale for brands might be the consumer reaction to a Tiffany’s campaign launched in the US at the very start of 2022. ‘Not Your Mother’s Tiffany’s’ was a campaign that attempted to remodel the luxury jewellery firm’s audience: focusing on a younger, more diverse, and less conservative, Gen-Z audience.

The concept was, however, widely rejected online. Many commenters viewed the headline-slogan as patronising towards consumers of both older and younger generations: dismissing the former and pandering to the latter. “Dissing your current customers won’t make new ones love you," tweeted growth marketer Rachel ten Brink. Another Twitter user posted images of campaign posters that had been defaced by graffiti that read "Leave My Mother Alone!".

Given the growing interest in conscious consumption, Gen-Zers are more likely to trust brands that stay true to their core values. The lesson to be drawn from the failure of Tiffany’s campaign is that brand’s should avoid being seen to contradict themselves. This is particularly true when their attempts to develop new audiences are couched in lazy stereotypes about consumers, both young and old. If a brand wants to reach new audiences, it needs to evolve with them.

Remixing Old Favourites  

A far more successful route to modernising the Tiffany’s label can be found in their more recent emphasis on ‘remixing’ the brand. This isn’t about rejecting history, or the company’s core values. Rather, a ‘remixed’ Tiffany demonstrates how this heritage label still has the capacity to surprise us by engaging with new partners, in different contexts, and with different means. 

Perhaps the highpoint of this re-worked method of reaching new audiences came with Tiffany’s involvement in Kendrick Lamar’s 2022 Glastonbury headline performance. The brand produced a custom crown of thorns, featuring over 8,000 diamonds, that featured heavily in the show. For Alexandre Arnault, Executive Vice President at Tiffany & Co, ‘Kendrick Lamar represents the artistry, risk-taking creativity and relentless innovation that has also defined Tiffany & Co. for nearly two centuries.’ Through collaboration with a very contemporary artist, the brand found a way to emphasise their continued relevance, all the while staying true to their core principles: timeless beauty & superlative craftsmanship since 1837.

An extension of this strategy comes with the brand’s partnership with Beyonce. Perhaps the most established music artist working today, contracting Queen Bey was a major coup for Tiffany’s. The two collaborations released so far - last year’s ‘About Love’ campaign, and this summer’s ‘Lose Yourself in Love’ -  represent the perfect way of combining a respect for history with an eye to contemporary trends.

‘About Love’ is packed with references to the brand’s history. In the ad, Beyonce wears the jewel famously sported by Audrey Hepburn in the classic film ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. The clip also features her singing ‘Moonriver’, an iconic song from the same film. With a vintage Basquiat in the background, this campaign draws on the brand’s rich history whilst featuring a very modern day superstar.

The more recent ‘Lose Yourself in Love’ campaign, meanwhile, epitomises the contemporary Zeitgeist. With Beyonce, Tiffany's has not only bagged a major star, but also a place in the otherwise fairly limited press roll-out of her latest album, featuring a song from the LP. Not only this, its visuals place it in the world created by the album, a world inspired by the black, queer lineage of ballroom culture and house music.

Without abandoning their name or their legacy, these ‘remixes’ draw on both the past and the present, with a musical legend to boot. Tiffany’s have inserted themself into the narrative of a much-hyped cultural event, as well as alluding to a moment in their own history.

Their commitment to donating $2 million to scholarship programmes at several Historically Black Universities in the US also looks towards the future. Without losing its principles, this heritage label has managed to shake off the accusation of being out-of-date and out-of-touch with a masterclass in storytelling. 

Celebrating history

Another brand who have found success in a celebration of their history is Clarks. Unbeknownst to many, Clarks’ Wallabee model played an integral part in the rise of New York’s 1980s Sneaker culture. In their ‘Soles of the City’ short film, Clarks celebrate the under-discussed subcultures that played an important and subversive role in their history.

The film is not a conventional ad. The brand organised conversations with many iconic figures including Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, April Walker, Futura, Ronnie Fieg, Dave East and more. Taking time to find real insight into the history of a signature shoe, Clarks emphasise the enduring appeal of classic designs and the cultural associations they amass. In Statik Selektah’s words Wallabees ‘were part of that Superhero element in Hip-Hop’. A sneaker that had previously been dismissed - not smart enough, not casual enough - has become the statement sneaker across Gen-Z fashion this year. Their reappraisal doesn’t come from rewriting the past but rediscovering it. 

New Balancing Act

Perhaps the best example of a brand that has stayed true to its history, and reaped the rewards, is New Balance.The company name is apt: its popularity relies on a tricky balancing-act, at once staying true to its history whilst cultivating new audiences and markets

Take the label’s most popular shoe: the NB 550. At first it was only your dad wearing them, now everyone’s wearing them. Timothée Chalamet has a pair. So do Chris Pine, Gigi Hadid and Rihanna. Jaden Smith and Donald Glover both worked on their own collab. I’m sporting mine right now.

However, whilst this might be the hottest shoe on the market right now, it’s actually been around for over thirty years. The 550 was originally released in 1989 but lacked the performance-informed technology of its competitors and was discontinued, falling into obscurity for much of thirty years. 

New Balance X Aime Leon Dore; "International Friendship Through Basketball"

The rebirth of the 550 came in 2020 thanks to Teddy Santis, the designer behind Aimé Leon Dore (ALD). Santis - now the Creative Director of New Balance’s Made in USA line - stumbled upon an image of the obscure model in an old New Balance Japan catalogue. Using social media, Santis tracked down an anonymous collector of the original sneakers. After sourcing a pair, the 550 was rebuilt from scratch and has been in-demand ever since, reworked in a number of different colours and collaborations.

New Balance’s faithfulness to the original model has clearly played in their favour. ‘Endless reinvention and design tinkering isn't relevant to NB's modus operandi: If it's good, don't fuck with it,’ Sam Diss, ex-head of content at Mundial Magazine, told GQ Magazine. Across the board, New Balance has invested its focus not on the generation of newer, more eccentric, or ‘contemporary’ products but has rather stuck to a collection of core models, delivering reliability and quality.

Even the use of codes to name shoes reflects a stubbornness in relation to marketing techniques or gimmicks that could be used to sell New Balance sneakers. The numbers that identify each model might seem old-school but separate the shoes from their competitors. These codes create a smart and memorable way of knowing one sneaker from another, and reflect a form of continuity in brand-identity. These are people who know what they’re good at. And consumers trust that. 

Make History the Future

In the last five years, New Balance has been transformed from an eye-roll dad-core hand-me-down to a must-have street-style staple. This isn’t because of a drastic rebrand but a sustained belief in the values (and products) that are part of the company’s long history. 

Examples like New Balance teach us that it’s reckless to break a brand’s identity or history apart for the sake of reaching a new audience. There is value in taking the time to strengthen the magnetism of a classic as opposed to upending its core values. 

This consolidation (rather than displacement) of long-standing traditions and principles comes through investment in upcoming talent and an open-minded approach to seeing what new artists and innovators might bring to a label. Often the best partnerships may come from unexpected place. The worst thing a brand can do is attempt to reduce the significance of their history. Rather, heritage is an important asset, ripe to be explored from new perspectives. 

The 550 is currently one of the hottest products on the market, and the Wallabee has made a comeback. Tiffany’s trended on Twitter moments after their new campaign dropped. These success stories are proof that heritage labels, and their classic products, have staying-power. Consumers just need to be reminded of their relevance.