January 17, 2024

Searching for the fountain of brand youth?

They say that age is a state of mind. As it turns out, it’s also a state of brand.

As we collectively dust off our gym membership fobs for another January, the stiffness of our joints, and the renewed mourning of youthful energy lost is also felt by brand leaders—starting 2024 to realize their brands, too, have aged another year.

In a society that celebrates youthful energy, the fact of the matter is that old brands underperform new ones. On metrics from preference to love to loyalty, you might say there’s no country for old brands. But how is that possible, you ask? Some of the strongest brands in the world—BMW, American Express, Harley-Davidson, Disney—are 100+ years old and thriving.

The reason? A brand’s youth isn’t measured in years, but in vitality.

In other words, it’s not longevity that makes a brand old, it’s stagnancy. Some companies that grew out of the .com boom and are relatively young in years are seen as significantly less vital than peers 100+ years their senior. That translates to declining engagement and loyalty as shinier alternatives emerge to unseat them.

The good news for any brand is that vitality can be achieved at any age, and there are many actions brands can take to reset the clock on aging relevance.

But, sorry to report, there are no magic supplements. No transfusions. No single panacea for the inevitability of aging. Instead, it’s a constellation of healthy behaviors that keep a brand youthful. If there is one shared trait among vital brands, it is action. Brands that evolve, switch things up, make little pivots or bold moves, surprise us, make us think, or completely reinvent themselves. All of the above are like the fitness regimen that keeps that youthful energy flowing.

Consider these healthy behaviors.

01 | Check your pulse

A brand’s vitality can be measured in myriad ways: Media mentions. Top-of-mind recall. Resilience in the face of challenges. Lippincott’s Brand Aperture® study uses a simple shorthand for a brand’s vitality by asking customers, “are this brand’s best days ahead of them or behind them?” It’s a quick read of a much deeper set of dynamics, but it delivers a meaningful measure of momentum and vitality with real correlation to performance.

Brands with above average vitality scores saw 20 percent higher revenue growth in the past year than those below average. They’re also 39 percent more likely to be a Go-to Brand: one that customers love and view as making progress in their lives.

What’s even more interesting is that while some measures like favorability or NPS can be sticky from year to year, a brand’s perceived vitality often fluctuates more quickly. Perceptions of vitality can be quickly enhanced, but people see and experience it with short memory spans, suggesting more active, frequent monitoring to see what’s working and what isn’t.

02 | Get a makeover

Looking at a subset of brands that refreshed their identity in the past five years, they are on average 10% more likely than peers to be seen as vital. That’s why the average Fortune 500 company evolves its brand identity in some fashion approximately every seven years. Cases in point: These brands that revamped their visual systems in the past couple of years all saw double-digit growth in vitality scores. Vanguard revitalized its design system, shedding the image of a ship in favor of crisper, more dynamic colors and imagery. Year over year, this corresponded with a 12 percent increase in those who believe Vanguard’s best days are ahead. LG got an 11 percent vitality boost from their design refresh. The biggest leap of the 500+ brands we’ve studied is Merrill, whose modernized identity, name change from Merrill Lynch and unification of investment offerings across the investor continuum saw a 29 percent pop among clients who feel the brand’s best days are ahead.

In all of these cases, the changes were evolutionary. Iconic logos remain intact but for subtle enhancements. Yet changes in the overall visual expression, from illustration to color palette to typography, still drove measurable impact. Like a fresh coat of paint can raise an old home’s value, the same is typically true of brands as well. But these changes are skin deep, and sustaining constant momentum and vitality takes more than aesthetics alone.

03 | Defy expectations

A quick way to signal renewed vitality is to break from the ingrained expectations of a category. Southwest’s vitality has sustained throughout its 56-year history in part from a habit of bucking trends in air travel—from baggage fees to first class seating. Even incumbent leaders can operate with this challenger mindset, constantly inviting the reconsideration that sustains a youthful image.

Southwest Airlines billboard, bags fly free

Humana is a brand that serves a predominantly senior population, so that it is viewed as a more vital brand than all other large payers is testament to their continued efforts to cast a more dynamic, and true-to-life image of senior vitality. Humana saw 7 percent pop in their vitality score in 2023, coinciding with a brand campaign challenging traditional notions of seniors, and an edgier, more authentic tone. Their platform showcasing The Original Influencers: 65+ers dispelling myths about retirement puts into light the power of fresh storytelling and reframing categories in dynamic ways.

04 | Yes new friends

Forming new partnerships can imbue a brand with borrowed equity that revitalizes expectations. Domino’s is another brand with new-found vitality. Redefining the business from a pizza company with innovative tech to a tech company with great pizza has opened the door to new, unexpected partnerships that have the brand feeling more relevant and youthful. From integrations with Slack and Xbox to working with Nuro to deliver via autonomous vehicle to a new partnership with Microsoft bringing AI to the ordering process, Domino’s perceptions continue to benefit from bringing cool new friends to the party.

05 | Bottle your energy

With the passage of time, it’s key to remember that timing is everything. Yes, constant innovation, dynamic messaging, and agile practices are the stuff of vital brands, but in a noisy world, it pays to keep powder dry and batch small enhancements into bigger bursts. Apple’s steady stream of innovation is punctuated by meaningful moments centered around release events. Rather than a rolling pipeline, they batch a slew of new features in splashes that build anticipation, capture attention, and elevate impact. It’s through this practice that even the most subtle innovations over the years—from live photos to retina display to memojis—garner more attention than they otherwise might.

06 | Embrace customer culture

The cultural zeitgeist tends to evolve faster than any corporate brand can, so keeping up is a real-time endeavor. The mistake many brands make is inserting themselves and usurping the conversation. “Talking like the kids do” is never a good look for an aging brand. A better move is embracing culture as it naturally evolves and amplifying it within your own experience. Timberland has long fostered its role in consumer culture, not by coopting it, but by listening, amplifying influencer voices, and constantly evolving products that reflect their authenticity. Since refreshing its iconic brand identity in 2022, Timberland’s seen a 17 percent jump in brand vitality – accelerated by cultural relevance with Lunar New Year and All Gender collections, collabs with Desus and Mero, and showcasing the live feed of customer photos tagging their products IRL.

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07 | Reinvent yourself

The forever young mentality of self-reinvention is a trait shared by timeless icons from Dylan to the Beatles, Prince to Madonna, Beyonce to Taylor Swift. For brands, the boldest way to defy aging expectations is to boldly embrace the spirit of reinvention that goes deeper than a wardrobe change. Brands willing to take this leap are those willing to fundamentally reposition the role they play in the world.  Chevrolet’s full-throttled embrace of electrification goes beyond niche ‘eco’ tropes and greenwashing and embraces a redefinition of the brand’s heritage of democratization to make “EVs for Everyone” a reality. It’s key to remember that reinvention without an ethos, newness for the sake of newness might bring short term vitality, but it’s balancing the new with the true that sustains youthful relevance for the long term.

No matter the age of your brand, the moves you make can make meaningful impact on your true age in the eyes of customers. Dust can form quickly, but as George Burns famously remarked, “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”