Brands are difficult to build, manage and protect. In recent years, many great British brands have pulled their shutters down or have been acquired by companies based overseas. Pringle of Scotland, the 200-year-old iconic fashion brand was bought by the Hong Kong-based Fang family. Mini Cooper, Jaguar Land Rover, Cadbury and many others have had similar fates.
Some British brands have, however, managed to make a comeback from dire straits.
One example is the fashion house Burberry. Failing to appeal to younger consumers and seen as an old, out-of-touch brand, Angela Ahrendts had her hands full when she took over as CEO in 2006, but she understood how to regain relevance and reflect current trends to meet today’s consumer aspirations. Her strategy was simple: return to the Burberry roots. That included putting the trench coat back on trend and reinventing its appeal.
There is much to be learnt from iconic British brands that have found a path to resurrection by drawing on their heritage and redefining their core values. And one company in particular has done something similar and put itself on a path to regaining global prominence: Triumph Motorcycles.
Bringing back the ‘umph’
Established in the early 1900s, Triumph’s heyday was the 1950s and 1960s. Its iconic motorcycles such as the Bonneville were famously ridden by movie stars including James Dean, Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen.
But by the 1960s, Triumph faced tough competition from foreign brands. When Japanese models from Yamaha and Kawasaki entered the UK market, it was slow to respond and soon lost its market share. By 1983, it had gone out of business twice, before being bought by its current owner, entrepreneur John Bloor.
Bloor turned the company around. He created what is now internally referred to as the “New Triumph” by recognising the need to create motorcycles that are technically superior and a brand that is deeply embedded in the company’s heritage and British roots. Today, its motorcycles are marketed in 55 countries; the company has attained record sales and significantly increased its market share.
Based on our research, we have identified three brand-led initiatives that helped reincarnate Triumph Motorcycles and contribute to its current success.
1. Building a new identity
Ownership of a motorcycle is as much an emotional relationship as it is a functional experience.
Triumph had struggled to connect with consumers in the late 1970s and early 1980s and lost ground to its Japanese competitors, who offered sleeker designs and faster acceleration. To regain relevance in the market, Triumph had to reconnect by offering a strong brand identity that its new audience could relate to.
To do this, the team effectively mixed the old with the new. The British heritage of the brand was emphasised, supported by the design of a new visual brand identity with subtle reference to the British flag.
The classic 1950s motorcycles, including the Bonneville, were relaunched using modern technology and British engineering and design. The Bonneville Bobber was also clearly positioned to attract a new and younger demographic.
These models acted as reminders of a bygone era when life was less complicated, instilled with associations of freedom, individuality and pride. Triumph drove home its “new nostalgia” approach by strengthening its associations with famous icons such as James Dean, Steve McQueen, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley. This capitalised on a wider movement of consumers who embrace old favourites, vintage imagery and retro cool.
2. Continuity across the board
A strong brand is not built in a vacuum. It is necessary for its wider ecosystem to embrace its values and believe in its strategic vision. For example, it was important to instil a similar culture and understanding of the brand among employees in its factories in both the UK and Thailand, where Triumph has expanded its manufacturing operations. To achieve this, a team from Triumph’s UK headquarters went to Thailand for several years to understand the company’s working practices, challenges and perception of the Triumph brand. This helped create a mutual understanding of the brand, its core values and its standards.
The Triumph dealerships are also fundamental to consumer perceptions. As Triumph steadily gained a foothold in the UK and other markets, it worked hard to reinforce the “New Triumph” identity through these outlets. This helped frontline staff buy in to the new brand ethos and realise its potential.
3. Proximity to customers and enthusiasts
Reincarnating a brand requires genuine proximity to the customer. To this end, Triumph continues to undertake market research that plays a fundamental role in understanding local demands and preferences. It gathers data on brand awareness, consumer attitudes and motorcycle aspirations, providing localised insight and identifying opportunities to better meet demand.
But building a successful brand isn’t only about understanding broad consumer trends and preferences. Many people want a brand that is unique to them. To meet this, Triumph has recently launched an accessories range with more than 400 parts that can be fitted to customise the Bonneville motorcycle. This offering also provides Triumph insight into what customers aspire to and can help with new product development.
Triumph is also getting closer to its customers with the new Factory Visitor Experience at its headquarters in Hinckley, Leicestershire. This gives buyers and enthusiasts the opportunity to go behind the scenes, helping them better understand the brand’s history and values, and fostering their loyalty to it.
Building, maintaining and protecting a brand is an evolving and onerous responsibility. Yet, it is critically important for an organisation to stay competitive. Today, it’s crucial to understand how people feel when they come into contact with a brand – what they associate with it, what they think its values are. Understanding this is as important as delivering reliability, quality and performance, which are taken-for-granted consumer expectations.
Triumph has successfully defined its brand’s essence and communicated its core values across the wider organisation, as well as truly engaging with customers and enthusiasts. These are essential lessons for other British brands that need to reinvent themselves.
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.