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Innovation vs. Heritage: Does a Brand’s Heritage Help or Hurt When Marketing New Innovations?

vintage yellow tv on blue background with green screen and antennae

Founded in 1853. Made in our hometown of Chicago. A fourth-generation family business.

Would claims like these make you more likely to buy a product? If so, you’re not alone. These are all examples of heritage branding, a marketing strategy that emphasizes a company’s long history and enduring values.

It’s a common tactic—and for good reason. Research has shown that heritage branding can, among other benefits, lead consumers to believe products are of high quality because they are time-tested.

But new research from Yale SOM’s Minju Han, Professors Ravi Dhar, and George E. Newman, and Professor Rosanna K. Smith of the University of Georgia, shows that this popular approach has perils, too. In a new paper, they found that heritage branding can turn consumers against enhanced versions of flagship products. However, they also identified ways for companies to sidestep this challenge.

To understand how brand heritage affects consumer perceptions of new offerings, the researchers designed an experiment inviting more than 400 participants to sample a hand cream.

Half of the participants learned the lotion came from a heritage brand dating back to 1917, while the rest were told it had been founded more recently, in 2017. Within each of these two groups, participants were told they were sampling one of two products: the brand’s original formula, or an upgrade to that original formula. Then, participants tried the product and rated how much they liked it. Despite the elaborate backstories, all the participants were, in actuality, trying the same product.

Nonetheless, they evaluated it very differently. Among participants in the control group—those who learned the brand was founded in 2017—there was no significant difference in assessments of the original versus enhanced product. But for participants in the heritage brand group, the enhanced product was reviewed significantly less favorably than the original formulation.

What’s driving this effect? The research found that forms of heritage branding emphasizing long history and consistency can lead consumers to value continuity authenticity—a sense that the brand has remained true to its origins. New offerings disrupt perceptions of this kind of authenticity, undercutting the benefits of heritage branding.

Fortunately, in another experiment, the researchers identified a way to avoid the trap. A new group of 602 online participants read about a (fictional) heritage tomato sauce brand, Fratellino’s, that was releasing a new recipe. Then, participants were divided into groups: some  were told the brand was releasing a sauce that represented a bold departure from its old standby, while others read that the new sauce marked a return to the Fratellino’s origins. A third control group was simply told that about a new sauce without offering any specifics. Next, participants rated their perceptions of either the original Fratellino’s sauce or the updated version they had read about.

In line with the previous study, participants in the control group rated the new sauce less favorably than the original offering. The disparity was even more stark when participants were told the new product was a “bold departure.” But for participants who were told that the new sauce represented a return to Fratellino’s origins, the ratings disparity between the original and enhanced products nearly disappeared. In other words, it helped to frame a new offering as part of a continuous tradition.

So how can marketers harness the benefits of heritage branding while avoiding potential backlash? The researchers offer several recommendations. First, rather than establishing heritage through a sense of historic continuity, brands could emphasize other aspects of heritage such as family ownership that are more values-focused. This lessens consumer expectations that product offerings shouldn’t change.

Alternatively, the researchers write, brands can use the Frattellino’s approach, “refram[ing] enhanced products as aligning with the brand’s origins. In this way, a brand can highlight its continuity”—making updated products feel like new chapters in an old story.