Weaving in and out of the crowds during the Christmas sales at one of Britain’s larger shopping centres, a digital window display suddenly caught my eye. An enormous Dominic West loomed above the heads of busy shoppers, although for some reason the Hollywood actor had swapped his Jimmy McNulty uniform for a roll-neck jumper and fisherman’s hat. He also sported a frosty beard. Moments later the screen flickered, and text rolled across the image: ‘Dominic West is Ernest Shackleton’.
Unfortunately this was not a well-timed seasonal advertisement for half-price ice picks and crampons. The truth was less exciting. The glossy image was simply British fashion house Burberry’s latest ad-campaign: a glamorous cinematic take on the life of its founder, Thomas Burberry. The advert shows key moments from Burberry’s history, in particular those which purport to have shaped the company’s values and image. Polar explorer Shackleton wore Burberry gabardine (the weatherproof fabric used for its iconic raincoats) in the Antarctic so, presumably, if you’re looking for a coat that can withstand temperatures up to -40 degrees celsius, Burberry is the place to go.
A visit to any UK shopping centre or up-market high street will involve a number of brands for whom “heritage” is a key aspect of their marketing strategy. Burberry, Mulberry, Barbour, Hunter, Harrods and Asprey are just a few of the companies who trade on their British heritage to reassure customers that they are buying into quality and craftsmanship. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these types of heritage brands are usually synonymous with luxury brands, as the time that goes into creating quality clothing and accessories results in higher prices.
So why is this idea of “heritage” so important for certain brands? Celebrity endorsements come and go, new ideas can be copied, innovations can be outdone – but a brand’s history is unique. By centering their marketing around their brands heritage, companies like Burberry are able to leverage strong feelings of nostalgia and pride, as well as inspiration, envy and desire. By flaunting their heritage these brands reassure potential new buyers that they will be joining a long line of satisfied customers. Why risk your money on the modern and untested, when you can be safe in the knowledge that your £1400 trench-coat even withstood arctic conditions one hundred years ago.
However, heritage-based marketing is not only for the top end of the market. Everyday brands have also found they can use a loose definition of “heritage” to their advantage. In 2008, British bread manufacturer Hovis produced a television advert that followed the journey of a young boy through 122 years of bread-based history. Firmly targeted at a lower income audience, Hovis convinces its customers that even through the terror of two world wars its bread remained reassuringly familiar – a constant presence in a turbulent century. Combined with the tagline “as good today as it’s always been”, the marketing campaign increased Hovis’ share of the UK bread market and even had a halo effect on the profit margin of it’s parent company, Premier Foods.
Even Stella Artois, the Belgian beer that only a few years ago was referred to in the UK as ‘wife beater’ due to its high alcohol content (and resulting connotations with binge drinking and violence) has recently presented a new marketing campaign focused around its heritage. Similar to the Burberry campaign, Stella Artois’ grammatically troubling ‘Be Legacy’ showcases important moments from the brand’s six-hundred year history with the aim to inspire confidence in and respect for the product. However, not content with simply referencing the past, Stella Artois also invests in the heritage of the future: copy at the end of each television advert reads ‘what do you want to be remembered for?’.
Even when a brand does not explicitly use heritage as part of its marketing strategy, many have ‘heritage collections’ within their product lines. From Faberge to Banana Republic, brands have worked out that heritage sells.
So, if heritage can be used to sell everything from trench-coats to pilsner, decorative ceramic eggs to wholemeal bread, why are museums, archaeological sites and other historic properties – all of which contain a wealth of heritage material – constantly fighting for funds and visitors? Perhaps a combined approach to marketing needs to be taken. In June 2016 Gucci collaborated with Westminster Abbey (a UNESCO World Heritage site) to showcase its S/S 2017 collection. As models walked, cameras flashed and fashionistas instagrammed, Gucci designer Alessandro Michele reminded us all that ‘Westminster is a piece of [London’s] energy, something the contemporary world has forgotten…history is what is really cool’.
Elle Arscott is a candidate for the MA Heritage Management 2016-17, and has an undergraduate degree in History of Art & Music from the University of Edinburgh. She is interested in international arts and antiquities law, as well as heritage marketing and alternative approaches to heritage site management.