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South Africa’s heritage brands

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From Ouma rusks to the Oros Man

Heritage Day is intended to be a time to celebrate the rich, diverse heritage of the South African people. It’s now acknowledged that we shouldn’t reduce this occasion to simply a “braai day”, but we can reflect more deeply on the role food plays in creating the cultural heritage of South Africa. One meal, however enjoyable, can’t reflect an entire nation’s shared experiences, but some of what we savour says a lot about us. We reflect on the brands that have become so ubiquitous in the lives of South Africans that they are now embedded in our heritage.

A heritage brand is one that has been around for decades, even centuries. As well as longevity, a heritage brand is generally trusted, associated with good quality, and evokes an emotional connection in consumers.

Food and celebration go hand-in-hand in all cultures, and it’s worth mentioning not just the types of food that make regular appearances on our tables but the brands too. While heritage brands abroad include prestige and luxury brands from America’s decades-old provider of preppy staples Ralph Lauren to the UK’s iconic Burberry trench, Swiss swatches and German engineering, South Africa’s most iconic brands tend to be accessible to all income brackets.

When it comes to supporting brands, South Africans seem to be particularly loyal. A lot of our country’s best-loved heritage brands have been around for over 50 years, many over 100. For products to have such longevity one might assume they are something quite unique, unable to be replicated by competitors, but many of South Africa’s top iconic brands are simple staples: Marie biscuits, Joko tea, All Gold tomato sauce.

So, if not uniqueness, what is it that gives a brand such staying power that we have the same brand of dishwashing liquid next to our sinks as our great grandparents did? Just that. It has been demonstrated that customers are more likely to support brands they feel emotionally connected to, making us more likely to buy the products we recognise from our families’ cupboards when we were growing up.

Another trait that seems to make for a brand with longevity is a compelling backstory. Nostalgia plays a key role in creating a heritage brand, and although we might not consciously think about the origins of each brand as we walk the aisles of a store, endearing stories about their humble beginnings do add to their nostalgic charm.

One of South Africa’s best-loved heritage products are Ouma rusks. In 1939, a group of women were encouraged by their church to discover ways in which they could help to redress the economic havoc wrought by the Great Depression. Using her family’s recipe, Ouma Greyvenstein baked and sold a batch of rusks. The biscuit proved so popular that orders started pouring in … and years later, South Africans continue to show their appreciation to Ouma Greyvenstein every time they “dip ‘n Ouma”. Perhaps the image of a friendly grandmother at her oven on the packaging plucks at our subconscious heartstrings.

Another such figure is the Little Man, the name given to the trademarked baker on every Baker’s Biscuits box. Smart and jolly-looking, his presence in the top corner of a packet of biscuits lets us know this is the same man who baked the biscuits our parents put out for guests or the ones we might have eaten at a childhood birthday party.

Founded in 1851, Baker’s Biscuits is one of South Africa’s oldest food brands. They started out under the name Baumann’s Brothers making biscuits, then called “hardtack”, to feed the naval seamen. A competitor of the company was the first to import a biscuit-making machine, but when they could not operate the machine the Baumann’s bought it from them, giving them a head start in the biscuit game that they still enjoy today. Even if you’re not old enough to remember the jingle that played while the Baker’s Man collaborated with a surprisingly racially diverse group of children in a 1990 ad referencing this ability to churn out distinctively stamped biscuits with the impression of a handmade, artistic touch, you likely still have a favourite in the Choice Assorted box.

Food as a part of our heritage is a source of comfort that makes us feel closer to where we come from. This is why we crave our mother’s home cooking after a particularly hard day, or why there are multiple stores abroad where South African expats will happily pay three times what they would normally for a packet of chips they recognise. 

Cultural crossovers exist in South African cooking due to none other than colonialism — think koeksisters and their more syrupy koeksister cousins, vetkoek and magwinya, fragrant Cape Malay samoosas and their spicier East Coast variants prepared, along with the iconic bunny chow, by descendants of indentured labourers from India. While South Africa’s fine dining scene is world-renowned and doing an increasingly impressive job of incorporating some of our favourite flavours, a gourmet gatsby is not the same as one bought from a corner shop, and milk tart tastes best when it’s fresh from a church fête. South Africans, even with our love for many of the finer things in life, appreciate their food when it’s a little like we see ourselves: authentic, unaffected and enduring.

After all, our country has endured a lot, and some might say that we have a few well-justified trust issues. During times of unrest, it is natural for consumers to reach for what is familiar and safe. Tiger Brands and RCL Foods, the creators of many much-loved heritage brands, featured in Brand Finance’s report on the 50 most valuable and strongest South African brands in 2021, as did supermarkets such as SPAR, Shoprite and Woolworths.

Shoppers do appear to be heeding to the calls to “shop local” as we collectively try to rebuild a pandemic-damaged economy. It seems that our best-loved brands will remain in pantries for years to come; which newer, less established brands will join them on the shelf is less clear.

Up and coming brands hoping to weave themselves into the framework of South Africa’s heritage might have a much tougher time than the Ina Paarmans who walked before them. Paarman credits her success to patience, a quality that does not come naturally in the age of instant gratification. Paarman became a household name after establishing a successful cooking school, and later the food manufacturing business we have all come to rely on for trusted recipes and seasoning. In a time where our social media feeds are oversaturated with amateur cooking videos, how does a brand ensure that its voice is not lost in the hubbub?

Before the invention of AdBlock and infinite streaming options, South Africans had a more unified viewing experience. Gone are the days of discussing the most recent Simba Surprise on the playground, or when whistling while pronouncing the number 36 got you a laugh at the office. Now more than ever there is a push amongst advertisers to go viral, something made both more difficult and easier with the accessibility of smartphones and the internet. 

While newer local brands wait to put in the years needed to count themselves as part of South Africa’s heritage, it seems the public will continue to support tried and trusted brands. Maybe there’ll never be another chillingly memorable “I Wanna Be A Simba Chippie” jingle or “O-o-o-o-Oros”, so widely known that it might be considered a meme of its time, but we might eventually accept a newcomer into the select group of cornershop favourites, alongside however many Chappies our change can buy. 

In a country so economically divided, the brands that contribute to our shared heritage need to transcend socioeconomic status. No matter what meal we choose to eat to celebrate Heritage Day, chances are we’ll all be washing our plates with the same green soap. — Andie Reeves

Heritage is built on trust

With more than 100 years in business, AVBOB has a tried-and-tested strategy that’s rooted in building trust and listening to the customer.

AVBOB’s story starts with its formation as an informal group, founded in 1915 to provide mutual support to its members during tumultuous times in world history. In 1918 the grouping was formalised, and would grow to become a household name in South Africa. Despite its size and stature, AVBOB’s current aims still reflect the integrity that comes with caring for one’s community and providing help where it’s needed most. 


AVBOB has delivered 57 libraries to schools across South Africa since the launch of their Container Library Project in 2013

As the organisation grew, its slogan was “AVBOB is everywhere” — and AVBOB was for everyone. In 1947, AVBOB became the first organisation to sell funeral policies to all racial groups, turning against the tide of politics in the country at the time. In this way, AVBOB honoured its promise to render affordable, dignified funerals to all South Africans.

AVBOB aims to serve the needs of South Africans, and it’s plain to see that those needs extend beyond the company’s core purpose as a provider of funerals and funeral insurance. That’s why AVBOB became a mutual assurance society in 1951. As a mutual, AVBOB has no external shareholders who receive dividends. Today, as the largest Mutual Assurance Society in Africa, AVBOB provides a complete, one-stop Funeral Insurance and Funeral Service solution.

As a mutual society, AVBOB shares its surplus profits directly with policyholders. These are distributed in the form of special bonuses and free funeral benefits when AVBOB Funeral Service conducts the funeral of the life insured: a R2 500 immediate cash payment, free transport of the deceased in South Africa, and funeral arrangements, coffin and hearse to the value of R12 500, in addition to the option of a six-month premium holiday for policyholders in the event of retrenchment. 

Importantly, member benefits are paid to policyholders over and above the insured value of a policy, and through the provision of these practical measures, AVBOB is able to alleviate some of the pressure faced by individuals and families at a moment that’s challenging financially as well as emotionally. Over the years, AVBOB has allocated billions of rands in special bonuses and free funeral benefits. In 2018, AVBOB’s centenary year, the organisation allocated its single largest special bonus of R3.5-billion to its members.

Deno Pillay, AVBOB Commercial Director

The 2019/2020 AVBOB Annual Report demonstrates the success of its well-thought-out formula to cater to the specific needs of its members. The organisation is justifiably proud of having 2.2-million policyholders and seven million lives assured, with asset growth of 14.8% to R21.4-billion and a premium income increase of 14% to R4.7-billion. 

The feeling is (still) mutual 

The historically popular Shared Value business model has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. For those consumers growing up while the 2008 financial crisis played out, there’s a keen awareness — and wariness — of large corporations making substantial profits at the expense of the average consumer. This well-informed generation has embraced models of business and companies that demonstrably do good and operate fairly. For many corporations, this has necessitated a pivot to a kinder way of doing business, but as AVBOB never abandoned its role as a mutual society, it’s been able to build on shared successes. AVBOB believes that shared value is not a feel-good strategy they have adopted to gain competitive advantage or to improve their corporate image, but is simply and fundamentally who they are.

“In terms of heritage, we have to understand where we come from, who we are, and how we interact with different cultures,” says Deno Pillay, Commercial Director at AVBOB Mutual Assurance Society. “Acknowledging all of those diversities makes us what we are: AVBOB as a mutual society that is there for the people of South Africa. It’s a model that I believe can be replicated. South Africa doesn’t have a lot of mutual societies — there were a lot of mutuals in the past, and they all demutualised — but in Europe, Asia and South America, mutuals are big, and have been shown to play a role in socioeconomic upliftment.” 

Recognising the wide disparity of income and wealth distribution in South Africa and the responsibility of the organisation to all citizens, AVBOB is invested in connectedness through caring and sharing. As a leader in the funeral insurance and funeral service industry, AVBOB continues to build business strategies that cater for the current and future needs of customers. A fully automated New Business Sales application now enables AVBOB intermediaries to meet rising consumer needs, with policy documents and schedules issued immediately, regardless of an agent’s location. The application removes the tediousness of hard copy application forms, and allows applications to be approved in real-time.

“Our business is one of trust,” says Pillay. “Trust is one of the cornerstones of what we do: providing dignified services and ensuring that we are honest and ethical in everything we do. We must always be supportive, listening to the client, and trying in whatever means possible to make sure that the client is happy. In terms of the services we provide, we have to be open and transparent. Being in this business for  more than 100 years, the way that this brand is recognised and acknowledged is testament to the trust that people have in our brand, and in our services.” 

Caring where it counts

In addition to the free services that AVBOB provides in direct relation to their own product offering, the organisation has been able to provide relevant, agile services to South Africans in times of great need. In light of the Covid-19 crisis, AVBOB absorbed the cost of R12-million in personal protection equipment (PPE) which would have been a cost carried by their customers. 

The recent unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, meanwhile, inspired the creation of the AVBOB Disaster Relief Fund through which the AVBOB Group aims to assist as many affected beneficiaries as possible. The current beneficiaries that were affected include Mamphego Phasha Studios, SHAPE Café, MamsFM, Rise Against Hunger, PlugOnLine, NguniBrand, Nguni Foods, NGOConnectSA and six informal traders. 

“As a responsible corporate citizen, AVBOB believes it is critical that we provide assistance to the communities that we serve and which were affected, especially to SMMEs and uninsured businesses,” explains Carl van der Riet, AVBOB’s CEO.

AVBOB recently developed an Enterprise & Supplier Development programme, which aims to support small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) in South Africa, with its first beneficiaries to be announced in October.

As education makes for a reliable investment in empowering a community, AVBOB has made a number of strategic interventions in the learning space. With the launch of their Container Library Project in 2013, AVBOB committed to delivering 60 fully-stocked libraries to underprivileged schools in South Africa. To date, they’ve donated 57 container libraries to schools across South Africa. Partnering with the Department of Basic Education in another initiative that demonstrates their commitment to fulfilling practical and essential needs, AVBOB has invested R135-million in the upgrade of rural schools, and a further R15-million has been granted to the Sanitation Appropriation for Schools (SAFE) project. At the time of the announcement, in 2017, this had been the largest investment in education made by a single organisation in the history of South Africa. The Joe Solomon Primary School in Bloemfontein is the first of the selected schools to be completed and will be re-opened in October.

AVBOB joined the fight against GBV by donating to organisations that assist victims of gender-based violence in underprivileged communities, and proceeded with the introduction of the 365+ Campaign, through which AVBOB sponsors a helpline platform managed by the TEARS Foundation. The TEARS Foundation pioneers this free 24-hour, help-at-your-fingertips service to empower victims of GBV to speak up and find support and resources.

The award-winning AVBOB Poetry Project embraces all of the 11 official South African languages, and has proved exceptional in its support and care of those in their time of grief and mourning. Poems are selected for use in memorial services as a fitting tribute when there is a loss of words. The fourth AVBOB Poetry Competition ran from 1 August to 30 November 2020. Entries grew by 35% compared to the previous year, with 41 149 poems entered — almost exactly double the 20 774 poems entered in the competition’s first year.

A firm foundation for the future 

As new and established brands scramble for relevance and their share of an increasingly savvy generation of consumers, it’s companies that have already established their clients’ trust that have a clear advantage. In uncertain times, organisations have both a responsibility and an opportunity to identify and meet the very real needs of their clients. When they do so successfully, the rewards will be reaped for years to come — and when those rewards are shared with consumers, the benefits to them can only multiply. — Cayleigh Bright

Adaptation vs heritage: Can we have both?

Over the past few years, we have seen countless South African brands take their cues from our increasingly politically, socially and environmentally aware country as a means to stay on top of consumer needs. These brands are not just young, innovative companies on a mission to stay relevant: a growing number of heritage brands are working hard to find authentic ways to engage with diverse consumers in a way that not only captures attention and interest, but stays true to local tradition.

Move with the times

The shift in how we view the world — from what we purchase to who we vote for — is forcing many of the brands we have come to know and love over the years to consider a broader variety of consumers. In today’s unpredictable world, even the most-beloved heritage brands cannot afford to stand still. 

Yogi Sip had to add to its range because the children who used to drink it grew up and required something new

Yogi Sip, a staple of South African culture for over 25 years, is renowned and loved for its drinking yoghurt. The brand, which previously targeted children, was on the verge of losing the very generation it grew up with if they failed to connect with them as they got older. This realisation spurred the launch of their newest range called Kultür, which engages a more adult audience’s preferences and palates to enjoy the product in flavours such as Vanilla Latte and Mojito. 

While some brands like Yogi Sip look to make small but impactful revisions to their products, others are making large investments when it comes to their brand transformations. Supermarket chain Checkers continues to reposition itself as catering for upper-income groups, providing a wide range of retail products to wealthy clientele. From specialty lifestyle ranges of meat, cheese, wine and coffee and upmarket shopfitting and signage to the introduction of brand ambassadors such as Suzelle DIY and Gordon Ramsey, Checkers is keeping its finger on the pulse when it comes to chasing the premium market. 

Their innovations don’t end there: more recently, the supermarket chain partnered with Michelin-starred chef Jan Hendrick van der Westhuizen to create Jan Hendrik’s JAN Innovation Academy, promoting online skills development and education in South Africa. The online platform showcases Van der Westhuizen’s teachings and lessons to inspire, mentor and teach a new generation how to enter the job market, while extending a successful partnership that’s lent a flavour of fine dining to Checkers shelves. 

From a product to a brand

Done right, a heritage brand can maintain its local appeal while still undergoing a rebrand. Vriesenhof Vineyards is an example of how clever marketing can be used to help a brand pivot effectively and successfully in a fast-paced, unpredictable climate. The Stellenbosch-based company was bought in 1980 by ex-Springbok Jan “Boland” Coetzee. Over time, their customer base (fondly known as “The Jan Boland Coetzee fan club”) began to age and a new generation of wine drinkers entered the scene. It was with this in mind the company underwent a rebrand in order to appeal to a new market of wine lovers. The rebrand included a new logo, label and tone of voice that is both quirky and cultured. This combination of history and playfulness ensures the brand can play in the digital space, while maintaining respectability and trust in its old-school thinking.

Food, beverage and retail are not the only brands working hard to stay relevant during changing times. In 2018, Absa bank launched a new visual identity as a standalone African bank. The name and brand change transformation saw Absa’s logo replace Barclays branding on thousands of assets that included offices, ATMs, uniforms and even stationery. This pivot was less about a name and more about making a statement that showed Absa as a leading African bank, possessing both a rich African heritage as well as the technical know-how to further unlock the continent’s potential.

If you find yourself feeling stuck in the past, remember that there exists ample proof that it’s possible for heritage brands — those founded in tradition and know-how — to adapt to a new environment and innovate without losing their roots in the process. — Loren Shapiro

Lockdown and localisation

Restrictions in access and movement, both locally and globally, have limited access to products and services since pandemic lockdowns began — especially to those items that weren’t deemed essential. Conversations about how we consume, what we consume, where the things we consume come from and how they are produced have become central to our understanding of the new normal.

At the beginning of the lockdown period, the grinding halt to international trade caused by closed borders was bound to lead to shortages that would change people’s consumption habits, and many import items were not available at all. Some of these shortages still persist 18 months later, with retailers lamenting that containers of goods are still waiting to clear customs at ports. For example, anyone who regularly buys fabric can tell you of the numerous items that are and have been out of stock for months because of delayed and backlogged imports.

Since the pandemic hit, consumers have changed their buying habits and are supporting local products and services more

And so people must adapt, being physically unable to access various goods and services at a time when consumers need or want them requires new approaches. In 2020, almost two-thirds of consumers sought out new suppliers that provided similar offerings to those that they were used to. They explored brands that they may have overlooked for reasons of higher price or less convenience, which now seemed trivial compared to complete absence. Brand loyalty became situational as people had to make do with what was available. 

For many local and heritage brands, global lockdown meant the removal from shelves of foreign competitors. Locally produced heritage brands that could already claim the recognisability and loyalty of many South Africans were able to maintain their market share through legacies of regional production and procurement. For small local brands, prime placement on shelves due to competitor absence meant that they reached wider audiences.

But availability wasn’t the only reason that people shifted their buying habits. Abiding by lockdown restrictions was framed as putting communal needs over individualistic impulses and desires — making personal sacrifices for the greater good. Many who were able contributed to fundraising efforts to help people survive their catastrophic losses of income, especially for those in the service industries. Fashion houses made scrubs and face masks. Criticisms of hyper-consumer culture and the unsustainable, exploitative practices it encompasses became more commonplace. In online spaces, there was a heightened awareness of global sociopolitical issues such as black lives matter, anti-Asian racism, workers’ rights and widening inequality — all of which were brought into stark relief by the pandemic.

Beyond the limitations caused by restrictions, people having these conversations began to develop new personal habits that centred on ethical production, environmentally sound practices and local procurement. With ample time on their hands, these consumers were willing to do the research to find out which brands aligned with their personal ethics. Brands that want to engage these consumers need to demonstrate their commitment to the communities that produced their products, the sustainability of their products and their interest in broader social issues.

Additionally, many consumers used online services more consistently across the board as a means of accessing contactless, socially distanced services. 

The growth of online engagement across all platforms meant that consumers had direct access to brands. Being online, consumers could explore a range of competitor brands and decide where to spend their money based as much on a brand’s social engagement as their product offerings.

Ultimately, for brands that embrace the changes in consumer perspectives and adapt the way their businesses communicate, there is potential to expand and solidify their market share, especially as every new wave of the pandemic cements the reality that this isn’t going to be a short-lived phenomenon but rather a paradigm-shifting event, the extent of which we still haven’t fully grasped.
— Anita Makgetla

SA ‘heritage’ brands  … That aren’t ours

Ours is a land that has been made home to many and welcomed all. Throughout our history we’ve celebrated some notable cultural mashups and crossovers, but unbeknownst to many, numerous local staples that we thought were ours have been merely adopted as our own. 

Aromat

Aromat is sprinkled onto our national DNA. Some families pass heirlooms across generations; most families grow up with a bright yellow Aromat shaker in the spice drawer. Owned by German food company, Knorr, the much-loved seasoning hails from Switzerland. Flavour king Walter Obrist introduced Aromat to the world in 1952 and South Africa took to it faster than colour TV. There’s hardly a spice, if it can truly be classified as a spice, as well stocked in South African homes. 

Zam-Buk actually comes from the UK, but perhaps because we’ve used it for so long it feels like ours

Kiwi

If South Africa was a person, they would shine their shoes with Kiwi shoe polish. Australian founder William Ramsay gave the company its name because of his wife’s New Zealand nationality. Our connection with Kiwi is intimately tied up with our love of looking our best: shoes shined, pants pressed. The packaging also feels like a ubiquitous part of growing up in South Africa — a classic flat tin with a signature swivel latch that blackens your fingertips for shine like firelighters whitens them for flame. 

Carling Black Label

Carling Black Label has sponsored Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates’ traditional pre-season friendly since 2011 — South Africa’s best-supported clubs, playing the land’s favourite sport, sponsored by the country’s favourite beer. Developed by Canadian Thomas Carling in 1840, the beer grew to become a national favourite, and South African Breweries began brewing it in the 1960s. Black Label has been a fixture in bars, music videos and sports matches ever since. Enjoyed as a draught or in the much-loved 750ml bottle, Carling Black Label has been made locally for a lifetime and is enjoyed by millions of South Africans.  

Sunlight

Sunlight has been cleaning our dishes, underwear and everything else that can be cleaned in a bucket or zinc of warm water since the turn of the 20th century. Recognized as the first packaged soap, Sunlight was founded by English brothers William and James Lever in 1884. Across South Africa, we clean with Sunlight, to the point  that it’s the gold standard that other soaps and detergents try to impersonate. Discovering that Sunlight isn’t South African is like living through an M Night Shyamalan movie. Some even believe that the green in the South African flag represents the classic green Sunlight soap. 

Maggi

Founded by Swiss pasta extraordinaire Julius Maggi, the eponymous company would bestow a great gift upon South Africa: 2-Minute noodles. Noodles weren’t the same again, and South Africa and Maggi are much like the handshake emoji: seamless agreement. From the packaging to the flavour sachets, Maggi 2-Minute noodles were such an instant hit it became part of our vernacular. When families drive past McDonald’s and parents say, “There’s food at home”, they’re talking about 2-Minute noodles. Maggi has acknowledged the love South Africans have for them, celebrating it with flavours like Durban curry. 

McCain

When South African consumers go to the shop for frozen vegetables, a mix bag for a stir-fry or peas for a mince curry, they buy McCain. The brand was established by Canadian brothers Harris and Wallace McCain in 1957 and was etched into our national consciousness with the iconic tagline, “Think again, think McCain”. Since they’ve come to South Africa, we’ve struggled to think of anything but McCain. 

Zam-Buk

This feels offensive somehow but it’s true: the real makoya is not South African. Doubling up as an antiseptic ointment and a multipurpose balm, Zam-Buk was formulated in England in 1902 and soon became a firm favourite in South Africa. Packaged in a timeless green and white tin, Zam-Buk is well-loved because of its affordability and multipurpose uses. Presenting the best attributes of Vicks and Vaseline in one tiny tin, the balm is known for its signature smell and long-lasting ingredients. Zam-Buk seems like it can soothe anything — regardless of where it comes from.

Conclusion

We might have been mistaken to think that these brands were ours, but we were never wrong for loving them and bringing them into our homes. In South Africa, we appreciate quality and value for money. We show love to those who show love in return and in doing so build heritage, together. These brands are household names because they have served our nation for generations and continue to do so. 
Nabeel Allie

Why heritage matters so much

What makes a story worth telling? Is it an adherence to the truth or simply a compelling narrative? People have pondered these and other problems for centuries, but authenticity in origin has only recently become the conceit of brands.

Heritage, loosely speaking, is the boilerplate by which most brand stories are created. Planting your raison d’etre firmly in the soil of commerce is a little too gauche for today’s consumer, and so capital “H” Heritage is a way of sidestepping the cynicism of the consumer class for something more palatable. 

In the past, the story of a brand’s heritage was crafted over a long time, but with today’s short attention span, a quicker fix is required, along with some yarn-spinning that gets added into the origin stories of many prominent brands

Full disclosure: telling a brand’s story is an absolute necessity: entire professions are dedicated to just that. From a marketing standpoint, it’s important to differentiate oneself from the competition and consumers have the right to know what values they endorse through their purchasing power. 

And like the evolving nature of stories and, by extension, heritage, “palatable” quickly becomes “acceptable” and eventually “encouraged, to its most extreme proportions”.

Every aspect of the story is detailed by the brand then dissected, interpreted and shared by the consumer in a never-ending drive for transparency and authenticity. Whether or not you subscribe to this open-book version of marketing or not is hardly the point; what matters is that you keep reading. Attention is a powerful currency: a king-maker for those who have it and a death-knell for those who don’t. So in an attempt to ensure their own survival, brands turned to nostalgia and myth-making so closely associated with heritage.

At this point, the formula is old hat: the eponymous creator, driven by nothing but passion, guiding a brand through all manner of misfortune to triumph commercially and artistically where others failed. These stories, as we have come to consume them, are made up. This is not to say they are lies, but they are certainly manufactured — in the sincerest way possible. It’s not malicious to speak of success or invite recognition. Still, there is undoubtedly a level of yarn-spinning that went into crafting the stories that have since become the de facto origin stories for the world’s most prominent brands. 

Heritage today is no less manufactured. The difference lies in the mode of delivery and the acceptable window of anonymity. In years gone by, the story of a brand’s heritage would be crafted over time. However, this brand of long-form storytelling does not gel with today’s ever-shrinking attention spans. And so, a quick fix is required, a means to circumvent people’s dismissive nature. The perfect way to accomplish this is to employ tropes so recognisable they become nearly impossible to dismiss.

A critical factor to consider is that heritage, by definition, is something passed down. It is a remnant of the past accessible only in reproduction. The spate of “modern” brands mining the not-so-distant past trying to emulate this mystique is doomed to failure when the walls of inaccessibility are brought down. Any endeavour, regardless of field, is rendered less impressive if the person accomplishing it is your colleague, a family member, or your neighbour, Mark. My friend is starting a heritage brand next year! A statement like this is patently absurd, but brought up with the correct level of sincerity and packaged for the right audience, a heritage brand can be made almost out of thin air.

This is probably true for the most respected brands in the world. At some point in their beginning, they were merely upstarts trying to cement a legacy out of nothing. The absurdity of their dreams was only validated over time. Their grandiose claims may have been silly 50 years ago, but now it all makes sense.

The desire for authenticity will never go away or even fade. As it becomes easier to detach oneself from the tangibility of the real world and retreat into a digital bubble, heritage, even as a tenuous claim, can be a lifeline for a brand seeking relevance.
Tshiamo Seape

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