Using the past to fuel the future

Sam CalgioneIt’s funny how ‘the past’ can make people nervous, and particularly when it comes to branding.  In many businesses, bother about future earnings, laser focus on the forthcoming plan, hitting the 12 month targets, the past is forgotten in a ‘what’s next’ culture.  Worse, the past is perceived as tarnished: belonging to a previous generation of employees, something to be brushed off and moved on from.

Consumers don’t see a brand that way.

To them, the brand is one of many strands of dialogue in their life that fit into the weave and weft of their lives. It may be a significant one, probably it’s not, but it’s there all the same, with a map of emotions, associations, semiotics and memories. For many, your brand may trigger a ‘Madeleine Moment’ – an mental image that springs to mind when they see your brand.

A brand can’t be wistful or nostalgic though. This isn’t a call to sit back and rest on successes of yesteryear. This is a call to identify, understand and repurpose the brand’s past to create a new narrative for the future.

In this clip, Sam Calagione, the founder and owner of Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware, talks about how he used the past not just to inspire the idea of his business, but also how he used (and uses it now) to differentiate the company and each brand.  Dogfish Head today are one of the larger and certainly most successful and talked about drinks companies in the U.S.

It’s worth thinking about: your future may lie behind you.


(With thanks to Mark Thomas for the link to Sam Calagione)

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that finds the direct route to success for categories and brands. We use the past to understand today and fuel the future. Please get in touch at or +44 (0) 7885 408367 to chat further.  

LI (
Facebook (
Twitter @crowflieshigh

© The Crow Flies, 2014


The allure of ‘new-news’


To work in a consumer product business is to be immersed in an environment of ‘new’.

I was reminded of this as I recently walked through the aisles of my local Co-operative and was assailed by a New Year barrage of newness. Brand owners, retailers, category builders – all talk about the need for ‘new news’, which let’s face it, is a bit odd because surely that’s just ‘news’. But no, it has to be a calendar packed to the gunnels with ‘new news’. ‘New news’ to grow the category; ‘new news’ to show the retailer our new agenda; ‘new news’ to stay ahead of our competitors, or if you’re a retailer, ‘new news’ to show our customers we’re the place to shop.

And before too long, a self-powering work machine is created. The brand has to stay ahead of its competitors. New news response: re-position. The category has to attract new consumers. New news response: re-segment the market. The brand needs to stand out from the shelf more powerfully. New news response: (another) new redesign.

Working in these environments is beguiling too. Employees are happy because the brand is doing stuff. Customers are happy because the brand is doing stuff. The communications team are happy because they can tell the City / Street that they’re doing stuff.

But it begs the question about whether the stuff is needed or effective.

IMG_0914The issue is the deeply powerful response that ‘newness’ provokes in us. We feel it every day when we buy things: the tingle of anticipation; the nervous excitement in selection and payment; the sugar rush of first love when the product is set up perhaps or first used. Retailers are masters at this: clever merchandising nudges shoppers to interesting displays. Point of sale delivers the coup de grâce: the little flash of red; the contrast between colours; the positioning of a wobbler or edge ticket in eye line. Brands use it too on their promotional packaging: the corner flag; the red flash and of course, the word itself: ‘New’. The synapses in the brain are flaring like a New Year’s Eve fireworks display. It can be exciting; inspiring; addictive.

And dangerous… especially for brand custodians.

Whilst we may fool ourselves into thinking we’re rationale, we know of course that most of the time the decisions we make are instinctive and intuitive – they have to be otherwise we simply couldn’t function. The semiotics of ‘new’ are what make it effective in store: everything honed and tuned to make your decision easier; risk free; stirring. Alas, the desire for brand ‘new news’ can strike at all levels, not just for activation – where it can be positive – but at the strategic level – where it can cause real mischief. Here, any excuse for re positioning is grabbed like a child ripping into the Christmas selection boxes. Any excuse for blaming the lack of traction on ‘the wrong consumer’ is seized upon as the requirement for a new segmentation. It’s persuasive for marketeers to be able to deploy these arguments to convince their stakeholders. But when the results don’t emerge little time is spent on enquiring why, because ever facing forward, never stopping to learn, the next batch of ‘new news’ is being cooked.

The past doesn’t lie.

Behavioural science is now shedding a fascinating light on how strongly we as humans ‘anchor’ ourselves to ideas, concepts, brands, people….. just about anything. How we feel and think about most things is shaped by the precious initial interactions. Whether mostly positive or mostly negative, these anchors dig in deep. For you to change the mind of potential consumers of your brands, you can’t just persuade them – they need to be prepared to come. Or conversely, the ragtag mental bag of words, emotions, symbols, experiences, smells that your consumers hold about your brand could be your biggest strength. Brain theorists talk of ‘neural networks’; perhaps a more useful analogy is a map. Like a topographical map, the marks of the past haven’t been swept away, the traces are there to see. The undulations in the mental landscape, the ‘rivers’ of thought, the ‘mountains’ of memory, the old green ways made by your category or brand are still there to see, if you look in the right way and ask the right questions. And typically, when they are rediscovered they allow you to unlock an outpouring of positive emotion – nostalgia perhaps, but excitement, hope and sense of discovery: powerful emotional levers for your brand. Only looking forwards, ignoring this mental mapscape could be an opportunity lost.

In the clamour for the next thing, understanding these associative ‘maps’ that link the successful elements of the category or brand’s past to the opportunities of tomorrow is the new news for marketeers. Or rather, that should be ‘new olds’.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that discovers and maps the direct route to success for categories and brands.

© The Crow Flies, 2014