Mark Ritson: Brand heritage is more important than you think

As my DNA kit Christmas present demonstrates, heritage has a bigger role than most marketers imagine in defining how you should position yourself.

Mark_Ritson_full_body_cross_arms_small_featuredMrs Ritson has become increasingly obsessed with her ethnic origins. It all started with old yellowing pictures of a Jewish great-grandfather and a fascination that maybe a country girl from Australia might have more genetic secrets than she had imagined.

So, for Christmas, I was instructed to buy her one of those DIY DNA kits as a present. Given I was also inextricably involved in our children, she also insisted, in a very festive yet threatening manner, that I buy one for myself too.

This, my wife knew, would be something of a sore point for me. Unlike my wife’s family, the Ritsons have traced their full family tree going back to the start of the 17th century and there is not a lot to report. You see I am a Cumbrian, almost exclusively and entirely so. It would take you well under a day to walk the country roads from Sandwith to Wasdale to Wigton but on that journey you’d pass the birthplace of all my relatives. And I mean all of them. All 256 names up my family tree, all three centuries’ worth, come from a small secluded part of Cumbria you can traverse in an afternoon.

To truly understand a brand with a decent amount of heritage you have dig into the archives and study the origins, the founders and the history.

This troubles me. Deeply. I’ve taught at some of the greatest universities and business schools on the planet and it was very clear from even my first day in the classroom that a significant proportion of the smartest people in the world are crazy blends of all kinds of genetic diversity. You are as likely to meet a half Icelandic Indian at London Business School as someone whose four grandparents all come from the same town. At MIT I lost track of the strange and wonderful concoctions I was lucky enough to teach. Hitler had it all wrong: the very best of us is a blend of as many kooky races as possible.

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So the idea of a DNA test and the subsequent confirmation of my Lake District uniformity filled me with existential disappointment. But I was under orders. So we swabbed out cheeks, sealed our test tubes and waited for the DNA fairy to come back with the results.

When the email did arrive my wife could hardly contain herself. A second later she was grinning from ear to ear as her Hebrew status was confirmed. About 8% of her genetic material could be traced to people of Israel. The rest was English with a smattering of Western Europe. With the excitement over, my wife asked me to open my email. With a big sigh I opened the document.

At first I was pretty sure it was a mistake or I was reading the legend of the chart wrong. I had virtually no British DNA at all. Apparently, I was Spanish, then Irish, with a smattering of Finnish and a bit of Eastern Europe. Somewhere back in time, long before records began, there had been a lot more genetic to-ing and fro-ing than I had anticipated on those dark Cumbrian nights.

And over the remaining days of the Christmas holidays my whole countenance changed. Things that I had never been able to fully account for – my love of Rioja, and Guinness, and more Rioja made perfect sense. My passion for Picasso was now so obvious – he was a fellow countryman. My enjoyment of Yeats – ditto. My favourite city in Europe really is Madrid and now I knew why – it was home!

I started doing things I had previously had no interest in. I watched three Almodóvar movies back to back and (kind of) enjoyed them. I made a turkey paella – half in jest but also because I suddenly decided it was a meal I had not tried in a long time. I washed it down with a very good Spanish cava, which, to be honest, I had bought long before my son-of-Spain status had been revealed. But I drank all of it while muttering “muy bien” in a deep guttural tone that quickly became my new method for annoying my wife. I went back to work last week filled with a new-found belief in my own genetic diversity and revelling in neo-Spanishness.

In a weird way there is a direct parallel between my festive genetic discoveries and the work I and many other marketers do with brands. I’ve spent my life working on big, often very old, brands trying to work out what their positioning should be to enable them to succeed in the future. Somewhere on consulting missions working on Dom Perignon and Hennessy and Donna Karan and De Beers, I learned that consumer research is useful but ultimately not enough.

Good qual and quant data can tell you a lot about how the brand is perceived today and where it sits perceptually versus its competitors. But to truly understand a brand with a decent amount of heritage you have dig into the archives and study the origins, the founders and the history of a brand. It’s only with that new found understanding of where the brand comes from and why it was created that you can distill the magical brand associations that made it special enough to survive when almost all of its original competitors are long gone.

The trick with most great brands that have reached the point where they are older than the customers that they serve is to use history and origins to work out the brand position and then apply that position disruptively to the current consumer world of 2017. What worked for a brand in 1970 will surely not work today. But if we can identify and explicate the meanings behind that tactical success, we can re-apply them and come up with a different but equally successful execution today.

Studying a brand’s history is not just about looking back, it’s also a way to understand where the brand is going. Just as my new found genetic identity changed my whole mindset over Christmas, knowing a brand’s heritage is an invaluable guide to help navigate its future.

“No compres caballo de muchos fierros, ni te cases con muchacha de muchos novios.” As my countrymen often say.