If there is a single brand characteristic or attribute that provides sustainable competitive advantage, it is heritage.

We all know, buy and experience brands that have a great heritage. For some of us, it is Mercedes, Philips or Disney. For others, it is McDonalds, Heineken or Gucci.

What makes these brands great, what they all have in common, is that they have had the time to build a meaningful and relevant past—a heritage.

Heritage is born in, and nurtured, over time. Customers need time to buy and use the brand, time to make the brand a part of their lives, time to endow the brand from one generation to the next.

Heritage speaks of status, character, social class and a history. It speaks of a traditional way of life that is of value to present and future generations. It speaks of inheritance, shared experiences and a common history.

Brands express and share their heritage in the form of a narrative—a crisp, meaningful, relevant and memorable story—a brand story.

Disney's brand story is about the ideal American community with clean streets, high moral values, happy families and a future where you never grow old, never get sick and never die. Visit a Disney theme park, and you will experience the safety, security and joy of a small American town.

Marlboro's brand story embraces nostalgia to exploit the myth of the stoic, solitary American cowboy—a place of wide, open spaces and a time of simple choices, good and evil, heroism.

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Joseph Benson (benson.consulting@rcn.com) is a brand strategist with over 25 years of experience designing and implementing brand and marketing strategies for financial services, healthcare, high-tech, entertainment and retail clients.