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.

Chanel's brand story is that of the sensual, strong and independent woman who is seeking romance, spiritual love and ecstasy.

Nike's brand story is one of maximum performance, of challenging oneself to strive for one's own very best and calling that achievement perfection.

Universities, Brands, and Heritage

But not only consumer brands have the gift of heritage.

Universities enjoy brands that differentiate themselves based on their heritage—their traditions of education, country of origin, and culture.

Oxford University's brand story is about the oldest English-speaking University in the world laying claim to nine centuries of continuous existence, the preservation of the English language and the education of generations of England's royalty.

La Sorbonne was founded in 1257. The college, designed by Canon Robert de Sorbonne, was created for 20 theology students. Its brand story is about true independence from government interference or religious administration. Educating students from all Christian countries, it shone because of the might of its intellectual debate and its power within the realm.

The brand story of the University of Bologna, founded in 1088, is about the Mother of all Universities. Its history is one of great thinkers in science, humanities, law, medicine, philosophy, arithmetic, astronomy, logic, rhetoric, grammar, theology, Greek and Hebrew. Among its most famous "customers" were Dante Alighieri, Leon Battista Alberti, Nicolò Copernico and Albrecht Dürer.

Movies, Brands, and Heritage

Movies become brands when they tell the stories of our collective consciousness and shared heritage. These films are anointed Classics. They stand the test of time.

The Lawrence of Arabia brand story is that of the hero—the man who rises above his station in life. He proves his self-worth through courageous and difficult actions. His is the story of the founders of many of the world's great religions, individuals who overcome overwhelming odds and people who believe passionately in their convictions. While battling the searing heat of the desert, and in command of a mere 50 exhausted Bedouin warriors, Lawrence says, "I will get to Accaba. That is written here," he adds, indicating his own head.

The Godfather brand story is that of a ruler whose goal is to create a prosperous, successful family in a new land. This is clear when the Godfather, speaking with his youngest son in their expansive garden, says, "I always believed you would be Governor Corleone or Senator Corleone."

The Forrest Gump brand story is that of the regular guy, that of a humanitarian. It is about the understanding that everyone matters just the way they are, regardless of his or her abilities or circumstances. This is illustrated when Forrest says to the great love of his life, "I may not be smart, but I know what love is."

People, Brands, and Heritage

So, how do certain individuals become brands in their own time? By associating themselves with the great stories of our common heritage that already live in our minds.

Muhammad Ali's brand story is about becoming the greatest. He sought to become the source of ultimate strength. He won the world boxing championship an unprecedented four times. Ali paid the price of his convictions when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War because "the Black Man has no fight with the Yellow Man."

Nelson Mandela's brand story is that of the wise old man. He used his intellect to defeat overwhelming physical oppression and the status quo—to deliver freedom, democracy, hope and a future to his people.

Heritage as the Master Builder

The common stories of our heritage live in our minds and hearts. When consumer products, universities, classic films or individuals successfully attach themselves to one of these stories, they gain entrance into our minds and hearts.

When they are in our minds and hearts, they take on the stature of a brand. And brands create differentiation and distinction. They produce a choice.

You cannot be chosen unless you are a choice.

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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.