There are brands that have lived in our hearts for decades, which we have stocked in our pantries and come to depend on year after year. Marketers call these heritage, or classic, brands. They’re the ones loyalists will continue to buy no matter what. Or, will they?

Article Index:

With more competition in virtually every category in the store and the elevation of private label to private brand status, some of these classic brands need to re-examine their recipes for success. By doing so, they will stay relevant with their loyal consumers while demonstrating a reason to be considered by newcomers.

Some truly iconic companies — such as Hamburger Helper and Ritz — have kept their brands fresh and remained favorites with consumers. How? By applying one or more of the following four fundamental strategies: maintaining relevance, leveraging their equities, differentiating themselves from their competitors, and innovating. 


In today’s ever-changing world, there are many different ways of learning about and purchasing products. Additionally, today’s consumer behavior is increasingly influenced by time-management pressures, changing taste preferences and nutritional concerns such as organic, gluten-free, local grown, etc., etc., etc. To stay relevant under these conditions, even trusted and familiar brands must adapt. They can do so via product reformulations, line extensions, new usage occasions, repositioning or simply updating their brand presentations.

Hamburger Helper provides a good example. The brand was launched when “convenience” was a new concept, and Hamburger Helper became shorthand for quick and easy meals consumers had a hand in preparing. In recent years, however, the brand has faced significant competition from a wide range of new meal solution products. To keep its core consumers and attract new ones, Hamburger Helper went on the offensive. With all of this new competition, it needed to reclaim its territory. For starters, the packaging was dramatically redesigned, including a significant rebranding. “Helper” was enlarged to reinforce the convenience aspect, and the helping hand character — an iconic representation of the brand proposition — was given significantly more prominence. New product introductions like single-serve microwave cups, Helper Complete Meals (which include the protein) and whole grain varieties address consumers’ evolving tastes while still “helping” get dinner on the table.

Organic Valley, founded in 1988 (a “classic” as far as organic products go), has become a leader in the production of organic milk products. But in the age of organic everything (so much so that the claim has become a bit untrustworthy and vague), Organic Valley needed to do something to define itself in terms that really meant something to consumers. For the 2013 redesign of the brand’s milk cartons, the entire back panel is devoted to a statement — in an oversized font — about the product’s origin: “We Give Our Animals the Greenest Pastures and They Give You Delicious and Nutritious Milk.” A paragraph speaks to the way the cows are raised, sent out into “lush, organic pastures for fresh air, exercise and grazing,” and another panel describes what the cows eat (and don’t eat) and the vitamins found in the milk. To be a leader in this category, Organic Valley knows it has to give customers the proof they need to believe the brand proposition.


The idea of capitalizing on one’s equities — the design elements consumers associate with your brand — seems rather obvious. But, in fact, it’s not always so easy to determine which elements should be retained, which need enhancement, and which ones are actually detrimental and should be abandoned — even if they’ve been around for a long time.

Kraft Macaroni & Cheese was always known as “the blue box.” This is great in terms of having strong associations but is limited in terms of being distinctive; any private label maker of macaroni and cheese could make its box blue and thereby ride on Kraft’s coattails. So, Kraft did something about it. First, the brand updated the specific treatment of blue it was using. Then, it created an iconic expression of its brand proposition by instituting a new brand equity element — the elbow macaroni smile — and incorporating it into its brandmark. The move was brilliant, and consumers responded enthusiastically.  

M&M’S is another iconic brand that re-examined what had made it so successful. The brand had been playing up its colorful candy characters for years, but to its surprise, a strong consumer finding in equity research was that people experience a warm sense of nostalgia when they hear M&M’S being poured into a bowl. A-ha! Why not combine the bowl and the candy? The redesigned packaging did just that, by showcasing the characters having fun in various bowl scenarios that highlighted the candy variety and seasonal occasions. 


Consumers today have more choices than ever before, and most brands’ competitive sets have changed dramatically over the years. As a result, it is more important than ever to stand out on shelf and provide a compelling reason for consumers to consider your brand as a viable choice. It is crucial to understand how you can stand apart from your competitors while still being appropriate in the category.

Kotex was a brand that had basically disappeared in the feminine hygiene aisle. With a quiet design that was consistent with the category norms of pastel colors and floral designs, there was nothing that made a customer stop in her tracks and choose Kotex over the competition. That was, until the day when a sassy black box showed up on shelf and made everyone take notice. By introducing all-black packaging, bold type and a new name that spoke to the current generation of millennial girls, we helped U by Kotex* revolutionize the category and usher in a whole new era for feminine care products.

Another brand that shook up its category in a big way was Splenda. For many years, users of artificial sweeteners knew to “look for the pink packet,” which was how Sweet’N Low was known. When Equal — a different type of artificial sweetener — was introduced, it easily differentiated itself by using a blue package. Then came Splenda, a sweetener that was closer to real sugar in format and whose taste consumers overwhelmingly preferred. In order to stand out on shelves among the well-established pink and blue offerings, Splenda needed its own strong visual presence and chose the color yellow to make its stand. It was a prophetic choice. The brand not only stood out on shelf, but its distinctive yellow packets were easily recognized on restaurant tables and quickly found in the bottoms of large purses. And the yellow brand soon shot past pink and blue to overtake the category.


Innovation can mean adding a new flavor, changing form, delivering new functionality — or it can simply mean thinking of something that nobody has thought of before.

Ritz, America’s favorite cracker, has successfully innovated through form and function. Faced with a plethora of competition in the snack food aisle, the product has changed form through Ritz Bits, Crackerfuls (sandwiches with cheese, peanut butter or chocolate in their centers) and Toasted Chips in flavors like Sweet Home Sour Cream & Onion and Western Ridge Peppercorn Ranch. But the brand hasn’t stopped there. Ritz looked at the way consumers used and consumed its products and introduced Fresh Stacks, smaller rolls of the crackers that can be easily packed in lunchboxes or thrown into mom’s bag for car trips.

Gerber, the longtime leader in baby food, has innovated to meet consumer demands for organic foods with a line of organic products, as well as new product forms. Its growing organic line includes everything from cereals to snacks to meal options.

Responding to consumers’ desire for portability, the company now provides baby food offerings in a pouch format that is demonstrably distinctive from the mainstay glass jars.

And going beyond food for infants, Gerber provides products for all phases of a child’s life: Birth, Supported Sitter, Sitter, Crawler, Toddler and Toddler 2+. By looking at changes in the category and thinking about busy parents’ lives, Gerber is now trusted by a whole new generation of parents who want to feed their babies and children the very best food possible.

A deep-seated brand in the laundry detergent aisle, Tide has innovated by combining Downy fabric softeners and Febreze odor remover into its mainstay detergent product. Additionally, the brand has created convenient new forms such as pods (no measuring required) and Tide to Go stain sticks, where the Tide product is in a handy pen form that can be used for quick touchups anywhere, anytime.

The brands cited here have all learned that being a “classic” doesn’t have to mean you are stodgy, boring or outdated. By staying in step with current trends, remembering what made you so special in the first place, keeping an eye on the competition, and investing in innovation, you can ensure that your brand ages not only gracefully but also profitably as well.