Each one of us will certainly have come across at least some brands that have leveraged this and similar statements. From large MNCs to small eateries, they have all tried to build on their heritage and project continuing trust, even as they continued building and retaining consumers. Some succeeded wonderfully, while many did not even survive. Why?
Brands need to realise that heritage alone does not generate trust. They have to understand themselves before they can make their heritage a differentiating factor. Creating a brand, building it and then sustaining it requires clarity about its core values and insights into the environment. Brands are about perception and to reassure the consumer they need to first stay relevant. They have to learn to listen to consumer and continuously renovate themselves without losing their core. They have to speak the language of the new consumers if they wish to stay in the consideration set and make an impact. Let us pull back for a moment and see how the Congress Party handled this.
‘Trusted since 1885’. The Congress party in India was a strong brand for many many decades. It was built on the history of the freedom struggle, the nostalgia of the pre and post independence years where people looked ahead with optimism and hope. The brand had already built a very strong emotional connect with the consumers. The people owned the brand. Perhaps the strongest in Indian politics. They identified with its core values of non-alignment, vision of a strong nation, economic independence through planned development and long term economic policies, balance of socialism and capital growth, economic reforms, along with its secular and progressive social values. Despite the crisis created by its misadventure with the emergency rule it remained a strong brand that stood for a strong India, national integrity and a potential crusader against terrorism. Yet, in recent years, the brand continued to lose shelf space in every store. Why did the brand lost its lustre in such a dramatic manner. Is this the reality of heritage brands? Certainly not, but it is a typical scenario in marketing warfare.
The Congress failed to realise that the political scenario had changed. The post independence generation that identified with the Congress was dwindling. The current generation had little interest in the independence struggle and how Nehru’s [Congress] vision laid the foundation for modern India. The experience of the new consumer with the Congress brand was in the ‘Here and Now’. The consumer was beginning to associate the Congress with scandals and corruption and they were becoming uncertain about the brand because it was unable to present solutions. The brand had started to become visibly weak and did little to renovate itself, at least in the public perception. It needed to focus on the core of the brand and its work over the years, to reignite the passion of national integrity and national good, and get people to understand that it still had a strong vision for the country. Instead it trivialised itself by mocking and running down competition. Congress itself allowed the competition to change its brand narrative and even allowed them to hijack some of its icons like Sardar Patel to build public empathy for the BJP brand.
On the other hand, the competition [Modi] entered the market aggressively with a dual strategy. At one level it went about creating hope and on the other it chiselled away at the Congress brand and restricted it to a peripheral battles of negatives like ‘Chowkidar chor hai’. This was not an equal battle. The market dynamics and the consumer preferences were changing rapidly but the heritage brand [Congress] was slow to respond. While the competitor leveraged technology and social media platforms for aggressive propaganda at its wildest, the Congress was caught in a time warp and assumed continuing trust in its heritage.
Marketing does not always promise a level playing field, and it challenges you constantly to feel the pulse of the consumer. The congress party had every reason to be proud of the brand but the consumers (voters) ignored it for the new Modi brand, even though the brand had controversial reviews.Congress could have handled the BJP onslaught if it had focused on its own core values while simultaneously launching multiple crusader brands to challenge the BJP single-mindedly and aggressively. They did not. This was a classic case of the brand leaning heavily on its heritage, and not reinventing itself fast enough, even though the consumer loyalty had been shrinking. Neuroscientists will tell you that this was bound to happen because consumer perspective on heritage and corporate image develops over time largely through previous experience. In this case, the environment had changed, The generations had changed and they had no personal experience of the past. Amidst this fading aura of the Congress brand the competition was promoting and building its own brand aggressively with no holds barred. Congress did not have a brand strategy.
‘Congress. Over 100 years of Trust’. What a brilliant heritage! Yet brand Congress forgot that while heritage can be an asset, it does not come into play automatically. It needed to reposition itself in the modern context, recreate the brand story and leverage it with the powerful heritage in the current context. The brand needed to recreate emotions and nostalgia, a reason to believe and comfort with the brand, even if it meant owning up on certain errors in the past. It needed to show strength and character. Brands have to think like a mother who continues to innovate and renovate as she understands the evolving needs of her children. She moulds and transforms herself but constantly reminds them of what she stands for and the core values of the brand that she is reinforcing. Brands become powerful only when they maintain their core values and continuously renovate. The challenge is to figure out how to stay relevant. Congress is not the only brand to make these mistakes. Marketing history will throw up many more.