Agile start-ups are subverting the grocery aisles – older brands must learn their tricks to stay ahead of them, says Sam Bannister of Brass Agency

Heritage Brands: Staying Relevant Amongst the Cool New Challengers


Agile start-ups are subverting the grocery aisles – older brands must learn their tricks to stay ahead of them, says Sam Bannister of Brass Agency

You only have to explore a few aisles of a supermarket to see that we’re in a golden age for ‘challenger brands’ – the fast-moving, agile start-up brands that are changing the norms of grocery shopping. From Fever Tree in drinks, passing by Propercorn in snacking, Freaks of Nature in chilled and Halo Top in frozen.

Even the trip to the supermarket itself is being challenged, if we think about brands like HelloFresh and Gousto.

But how is this possible? How can these young companies, often crowd-funded and with limited budget, take on the might of established FMCG companies? We believe three factors play a key role in this disruption:

An intuitive sense of consumer needs and trends.

These new challenger brands are often created in response to a specific gap in the market and, as such, often exploit a new and burgeoning demand from consumers. Be that healthy, local, artisan, or free from, they find a void and fill it quickly, benefiting from being first to market. Part of the joy of shopping is discovering a new brand that better meets your needs. Sainsbury’s are playing back this sentiment with news that more help will be given to help incubate start-ups, including listings, mentoring, free Nectar data, and even equity for exclusivity.

The ability to be agile.

Not constrained by large estates, legacy systems and (dare we say it) bureaucracy, challenger brands have the ability to be much more flexible and entrepreneurial in the way they operate. Whether this is product innovation or packaging design, they implement change in a fraction of the time that a more established brand may be able to.

A mastery of marketing direct to consumer.

Quick to embrace digital-first, challengers are often bold and creative in their marketing. Not afraid to experiment with guerrilla tactics and social media channels to shout about how well they understand consumers and, in turn, build a strong connection.

So that’s it, then? If your brand has been around a while, it’s doomed? Well, we’d argue that this is very much not the case. All of this artisanal craftsmanship and soy-replacement has to be balanced out with something else, right? Heritage brands possess attributes that don’t come easily to challenger brands:


Status to a large audience – heritage brands often have latent awareness, and media spend may be more effectively deployed to reach a mass audience

Inherited affinity

Whether it is inherited from parents or siblings, or recommended by friends and colleagues, heritage brands that consumers ‘grow up’ with are very often adopted into their adult households

Emotional attachment

It might be the jingle. Maybe it’s the smell. It might even just be that you’ve seen the brand on almost every single trip to a supermarket. Heritage brands have the ability to stir powerful consumer emotion through nostalgia.

The goodwill of heritage itself

Being around for a long time can carry weight. It suggests a brand has stood the test of time, consistently delivering quality and consistency… an elevated status. This can be very powerful if used correctly, particularly in categories where purchase frequency is low.

So what does this mean for heritage brands?

In short, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution for a heritage brand to remain contemporary and relevant. But it’s imperative that they are dynamic in their marketing, and here are some pointers for thought:

  • Don’t disregard what your brand has done well for so long; but at the same time learn from what the challengers are doing well
  • Place the consumer at the heart of your brand. Gain insight from them, and use it to your advantage
  • Understand not just current trends in the marketplace, but also what the future might look like – where next?
  • Innovate, innovate, innovate. In product, flavour, packaging and marketing.
  • Reflect the excitement that consumers have been trained to expect, but do it in your own way
  • Be bold, and challenge the norms. In outward communication with consumer, but also through internal practices
  • Innovate some more!

Sam Bannister is Head of Insight at Brass Agency. Brass is a multi-award-winning full-service marketing agency with expertise in strategic thinking and delivery and specialist skills in digital, advertising, design, PR, SEO, media, shopper, consumer insights and promotional marketing. Clients include Coty, Lucozade Ribena Suntory, Perrigo and Burton’s Biscuits. This comment originally appeared on Brass’ website.