How to Future Proof Your Brand (or, What Makes a Brand Timeless?)
I spoke with a kombucha startup last month about handling their foundational branding, packaging and website. During our conversation, one of the founders asked the question, "Can we brand ourselves really well now so we never have to rebrand? How can we create something timeless like Starbucks or Budweiser?"
I mentioned that we could definitely create something timeless. All it would take is 30+ years of consistent purpose and identity, a clear point of view and hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising. Easy. Peasy.
Seriously though, what makes a brand timeless?
Is this all subjective (you'll know one when you see it) or are there clear traits that you can use to concretely identify such a brand? And if there are such quantitative elements, how can we reverse engineer and encode them into a branding project today, so that a company can, in a way, get their branding done "really well" the first time and become timeless?
Truly iconic brands don't need words or colors to be understood. You don't have to speak English—or even be able to read to understand and recognize them.
Let's look at a handful of brands generally considered timeless—Nike, Apple, Starbucks, Harley Davidson, Rolex. All have a few shared traits.
The first is that they all have a compelling point of view and broad cultural relevance. These companies all provide a genuine human need that will be as relevant one hundred years from now as it is today.
Second, these companies are all brand-led. The brand and messaging drives every aspect of the business. Because they're brand-led (and because of their household name and ability to shape culture), they tend to have uber simplified, iconic marks. They generally own a distinctive color and usually don't even need typography to be recognized—just a simple icon.
Third, timeless brands are flexible. When you look at the technological advances we've made over the last thirty years—internet, smart phones, social media, life extending healthcare, near instantaneous everything—you realize that this is civilization-shaping stuff. We take for granted just how far we’ve come since, say the 1950's.
And through all of these advances, and whatever comes next, timeless brands find a way to remain relevant no matter what broader cultural trends emerge. Doomed brands are myopic. Timeless brands are always future facing.
Let's take a closer look at each of these points and then wrap up with how your
brewery / distillery / cannabis company / seltzer / kombucha / CPG food and bev company can build a brand that ages gracefully.
1: Timeless brands have a compelling point of view and immutable cultural relevance
The single most important element to becoming a timeless brand is to have a compelling point of view and broad cultural relevance. You have to have a compelling story and reason for existing.
To be timeless, your brand has to touch on an immutable human need. Something that won't ebb and flow with seasons and consumer trends.
What dragon are you slaying? The tide of corporate computers built for accountants (Apple)? Or maybe you're conjuring your inner athlete in an attempt to defeat your secret desire to sit on the couch and drink beer all day (Nike)? Or maybe you just need a talisman to signal how successful you are (Rolex)?
2: Timeless brands are design-led
To the doomed company, design and branding are an afterthought. They're something you bring in at the end of a project to gussy up whatever product your launching. For the timeless brand, the entire company is brand-led and embraces design at all levels.
There is no more clear design language in the world than Apple. Sleek, contemporary, minimalist—stunning. It's instantly recognizable and endlessly imitated. This philosophy is famously imbued at every level of the company. To wit: Steve Jobs famously discussed Apple’s philosophy through a carpentry metaphor. “When you're a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you're not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You'll know it's there, so you're going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back.”
On the external facing level—brand identity, packaging and messaging—this manifests as simple, clear, iconic branding.
Though be forewarned that this process usually takes decades to attain (and is never really complete). Consumers need to understand who you are, what you stand for, and what role you play in their life before you can start shortening brand names, iconography and other visual language.
There's no shortcut here, though there are some important visual traits we can borrow during a foundational branding or rebranding process. (we'll outline these at the bottom of this piece).
Simple, bold, iconic marks will age gracefully.
3: Timeless brands bend, but don't break.
Timeless brands understand that visual styling and aesthetics can shift overtime to stay relevant, but that their core reason for existing will always remain steadfast. Aesthetics matter, but your storytelling and core promises matter more.
Timeless brands understand that marketing and advertising are ephemeral, and thus, can be trendier, if not outright disposable. This allows you to speak to current day customers without abandoning your core positioning.
This insight be the most actionable thing we've discussed today in regards to our kombucha startup friends who want to create a timeless brand.
Your core identity should be as simple as possible. You can dress up packaging and other marketing touch points, but those things will naturally change over time to keep up with industry and consumer-led shifts. Your identity, as long as it represents an important human need and value prop and promise—all the important brand DNA stuff—should remain somewhat intact through future updates.
Let's recap with some actionable takeaway.
1. What immutable human need do you offer?
Can a canned cocktail brand become timeless? Well, that depends on what immutable human need you provide.
Are you an interchangeable budget option or are you something more? A splurge? Or maybe just the ability for someone to host an intimate party with their friends without stressing over how to make the perfect Manhattan.
What occasion do you want to own and how can you ensure that this will be as relevant 20 years from now as it is today?
2. Get your aesthetic house in order
How can we build a timeless brand from the ground up? How can we design a brand identity so that it will stand the test of time? Today's timeless brands all have the following traits:
– A simple, iconic mark (that can eventually speak without words or text)
– An ownable (in your vertical), limited color palette
– A clear visual language (messaging and voice, visual vocabulary and iconography)
3. Understand that you will have to update your peripheral branding elements along the way.
Staying up to date on broader cultural trends are crucial to staying relevant. But this influence should live in your peripherals—packaging, website, merch, social media marketing.
Your core identity, your logo itself, should be as simple and iconic as possible out of the gate so that it remains a constant throughout all your future evolutions.