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3 Strategic Steps to Update Brands Without Losing Loyalists

By David Edmundson

Strategic insights to modernizing your legacy food brand.

You’re a large heritage brand, one with an iconic name and decades of history — a product that has remained true to its roots, with dedicated fans who still love it after all these years. You have solid if not world-beating sales.

And yet.

Your brand isn’t part of modern consumers’ lives. Shopping patterns and eating habits have changed, and once-staple products like yours don’t regularly make it into buyers’ grocery carts. You’re losing traction to newer, more nimble competitors who are more in touch with what people are looking for these days.

Growth depends on attracting an ever-widening group of consumers. So, how do you appeal to new buyers without alienating longtime fans? How do you thoughtfully — strategically — make your brand relevant again? Modernizing food brands is a balancing act, to be sure.

Modernizing Your Legacy Food Brand

1. Identify the best of your brand.

The strongest asset of your legacy brand — a base of devoted, longtime buyers — is the single asset that makes marketers leery of repositioning: What if we make changes that scare away our loyalists?

Your first step is to understand what your fans love most about your brand. Identify the core assets to build on as you move the brand forward by exploring face-to-face consumer research like focus groups or shop-alongs. You may discover your habitual buyers may value the product’s familiarity and reliable quality, or they may associate happy memories or family occasions with the brand. Once you identify these essential traits, you’ll then have an idea, context, and language of how to talk about the brand to other people. You can shift from marketing the product’s features and benefits toward building relationships with consumers. You may also define an additional benefit that will attract new fans.

Heritage product lines fly under the radar in global consumer products companies, lost in a larger portfolio of brands that get more attention. It takes conversations with consumers for marketers to re-engage with the brand’s beloved characteristics. And once those key pieces are identified, it’s easier to map out new directions and stay within safeguarded parameters.

2. Reconcile the bad.

Most legacy brands carry baggage. This is the ideal time to address what’s not working, what’s getting in the way of progress and what you can discard. It’s a chance to look at both strategies and tactics, to identify pain points, bad habits or outdated modes of thinking.

Perhaps consumers are using your product in new ways that contradict all your old assumptions. Or your formulation or your packaging just isn’t that appealing anymore. Perhaps you rely on print promotion when your customers are engaged on social media. Maybe younger customers are looking for old-school brands they can co-opt as their own, and you’re missing the retro trend.

This kind of self-reflection can be painful. But if it’s done right, reconciling the bad will pay long-term dividends. Remember: If you didn’t like something about your brand, your consumer probably was ready to be done with it, too. And if you don’t make the fix, you run the real risk of losing your most dedicated customers.

3. Map out your opportunity.

You’ve talked with consumers to understand what they love about your product and what they wish it could be. You’ve done the necessary housecleaning. At this point, you should have a good diagnosis for repositioning the brand and redeveloping its packaging.

An evolution-based plan of action is often the best approach for legacy brands, but it must be seen through. All too often, strategies are scrapped and reinvented before reaching fruition or, in some cases, they’re extended out for years. Neither situation is ideal, and brands suffer for it. Our recommendation is an articulated plan of action, with clear milestones, that fall between 12–18 months.

Although a revolution is sometimes needed, the goal when modernizing brands is always to be more relevant, and not necessarily revolutionary. A plan helps manage a thoughtful approach and identifies the appropriate timing. Additionally, a phased approach helps brand leaders set incremental goals that build momentum for seeing the project all the way through, maximizing the organization’s efforts for the most successful outcome.

Updating a legacy brand isn’t easy. There’s a balance between trying to be everything to everyone and playing it so safe that you don’t appeal to anyone.​ Your goal is not just to reach a new audience but to generate an even deeper love among existing fans.

Consider this an opportunity to simplify and amplify your brand — to find what’s working best and to harness its power.

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