Brand heritage - what makes a brand great?

What makes brands like Mercedes, Disney, Gucci and McDonald's great? They have had the time to build a meaningful and relevant past - a heritage.

Heritage: a master brand builder

If there is any one single characteristic and attribute of a brand that provides sustainable competitive advantage, it is heritage.

We all know, buy, and experience brands that have a great heritage. For some of us, it is Mercedes, Philips or Disney. For others, it is McDonalds, Heineken or Gucci.

What makes these brands great, what they all have in common, is that they have had the time to build a meaningful and relevant past - a heritage.

Heritage is born in, and nurtured, over time. Customers need time to buy and use the brand, time to make the brand a part of their lives, and time to endow the brand from one generation to the next.

Heritage speaks of status, character, social class, and a history. It speaks of a traditional way of life that is of value to present and future generations. It speaks of inheritance, of shared experiences, and of a common history.

Brands express and share their heritage in the form of a narrative - a crisp, meaningful, relevant, and memorable story - a brand story.

Disney’s brand story is about the ideal American community with clean streets, high moral values, happy families and a future where you never grow old, you never get sick, and you never die. Visit a Disney theme park and you will experience the safety, security, and enjoyment of a small American town.

Marlboro’s brand story embraces nostalgia to exploit the myth of the stoic, solitary American cowboy - a place of wide-open spaces, and a time of simple choices, of good and evil, and of heroism.

Chanel’s brand story is that of the sensual, strong, and independent woman who is seeking romance, spiritual love, and the experience of ecstasy.

Nike’s brand story is one of maximum performance, of challenging oneself to strive for their very best and calling that achievement perfection.

Universities, brands, and heritage

While Disney, Marlboro, Chanel, and Nike are consumer brands, it is not only consumer brands that have the gift of heritage.

Universities enjoy brands that differentiate themselves from each other based on their heritage - their traditions of education, their country of origin, and their culture.

Oxford University’s brand story is that of the oldest English-speaking university in the world, laying claim to nine centuries of continuous existence, the preservation of the English language, and the education of generations of England’s royalty.

La Sorbonne was founded in 1257. The college, designed by Canon Robert de Sorbonne, was created for twenty theology students. Its brand story is one of true independence from government interference or religious administration. With students from all Christian countries, it shone both by the might of its intellectual debate and by its power within the realm.

The brand story of the University of Bologna, founded in 1088, is that of the mother of all universities. Its history is one of great thinkers in science, humanities, law, medicine, philosophy, arithmetic, astronomy, logic, rhetoric, grammar, theology, greek, and hebrew. Among its most famous ‘customers’ were Dante Alighieri, Leon Battista Alberti, Nicolò Copernico, and Albrecht Dürer.

Movies, brands, and heritage

Movies become brands when they tell the stories of our collective consciousness and of our shared heritage. These films are anointed Classics. They stand the test of time.

The Lawrence of Arabia brand story is that of the hero - the man who rises above his station in life. He proves his self-worth through courageous and difficult actions. Lawrence’s story is the story of the founders of many of the world’s great religions, of individuals who overcome overwhelming odds and of people who believe passionately in their convictions. While battling the searing heat of the desert and in command of merely fifty exhausted Bedouin warriors, Lawrence says, I will get to Accaba. That is written here (as he points to his mind).

The Godfather brand story is that of a ruler whose goal is to create a prosperous, successful family in a new land. This is clear when the Godfather, speaking with his youngest son in their expansive garden says, I always believed you would be Governor Corleone or Senator Corleone.

The Forrest Gump brand story is that of the regular guy, that of a humanitarian. It is the understanding that everyone matters just the way they are regardless of his or her abilities or circumstances. This is illustrated when Forrest says to the great love of his life, I may not be smart, but I know what love is.

People, brands, and heritage

So, how do certain individuals become brands in their own times? They do this by associating themselves with the great stories of our common heritage that already live in our minds.

Muhammad Ali’s brand story is to become the greatest. He seeks to become the source of ultimate strength. He wins the world boxing championship an unprecedented four times. Ali pays the price of his convictions when he refuses to fight in the Vietnam War because the black man has no fight with the yellow man.

Nelson Mandela’s brand story is that of the wise old man. He uses his intellect to defeat overwhelming physical oppression and the status quo to deliver freedom, democracy, hope, and a future to his people.

Mother Teresa’s brand story is that of the universal mother - the source of goodness in all of us. She provided warmth, caring, and purity. She catered to the poor, the underprivileged, and the disenfranchised.

Heritage as the master builder

The common stories of our heritage live in our minds and hearts. When a consumer product, a university, a classic film or an individual successfully attaches themselves to one of these stories, they gain entrance into our minds and hearts.

And when they are in our minds and hearts, they take on the stature of a brand. And brands create differentiation and distinction. They produce a choice. You cannot be chosen unless you are a choice.

Joseph Benson ( is a brand strategist with over 25 years of experience designing and implementing brand and marketing strategies for financial services, higher education, healthcare, high technology, entertainment and retail clients. As the principal of Benson Consulting, he is currently defining brands for Providence College, Montclair State University, Nicholls State University, Bio-Detek, Apollo Housing Capital, The Enterprise Bank & Trust Company, Westfield Bank, Suffolk University, and The City College of New York. Most recently, he was the Vice President of Brand Strategy at Sapient Corporation, growing and managing a global brand strategy practice. During his tenure, he worked on over 50 brand engagements. Clients include JP Morgan/Chase, Staples, Morningstar, The American Cancer Society, Lucent Technologies, Schroders, L.L. Bean, Bain, Verizon, Avon, Disney and Nickelodeon.