One of the basic natural laws of branding is change or die. Successfully managing that evolution can decide how long your brand survives. Look no further than this 160-year example to see the impact of these mutations—and their possible aftermath.

How we respond to brands—and how brands respond to us—has evolved, too. What we expect from our favorite brands has been shaped by experience, our environment, cultural shifts and even historical events.

Understanding this shift can help your company adapt and help your brand survive in today’s habitat.

In the beginning (early 1900s), a brand was a mark to be protected and recognized. Companies built reputation on a product’s functional benefits, then traded on that good name with a brand to communicate quality and consistency. Like a retailing coat of arms. Necco wafers didn’t try to be anything more than Necco wafers, a quality item from a reputable company.

Brands of the day seemed to say “I’m not like those disreputable imposters that cause yellow teeth and unattractive odors. This is the one and only, the verified, the certified, the mom and doctor approved, the delicious and nutritious, the bona fide real deal. Trust me.”

With the post-war production and consumption boom (around the 1950s and 60s), a brand became an image to be projected and maintained. Products were no longer just products. They became ideas and aspirations, and functional benefits evolved into emotional benefits: quality of life, status, personal and professional satisfaction. A Chrysler was a sign of virility, strength and success, an “arrival” where style and sex appeal were one and the same.

This was when brands began to reflect on the person buying and using the product. What does this laundry soap say about my mothering skills? What does this watch say about my promotion prospects? And most importantly, what are others saying about me?

Being in the “in” crowd meant everything—to consumers and brands alike. The wrong choice could be felt deeply and changing brands was almost unheard of. In fact, brand loyalty often extended generations. The Midwest filled up with Ford families, and GE appliances crowded every corner of the kitchen.

The entertainment culture of the late 20th century transformed brands into an experience to be provided and remembered. Emotional benefits were expected to last well beyond functional benefits, leaving customers with a lasting feeling of positivity, goodwill and well-being. Responsiveness, anticipation, accommodation and special treats all mattered more than ever.

Disney, the pioneer of this era, provided a relentless “experience” from the front gate to the food court. To carry an American Express card was to live in a world of open doors and exclusive opportunities. Wearing Nike was a promise of athletic achievement and glory among your peers.

As consumers began to internalize the values and lifestyles that brands represented, reputations could no longer be passively cultivated. In fact, they depended on a personal bond between consumer and brand, setting the stage for an even closer connection today.

Today, understanding has changed yet again. We can now see a brand as a relationship to be nurtured and strengthened. It’s more than just a series of transactional interactions, it’s an agreement that’s kept or broken over time.

Brands and consumers are on a two-way street. When shopping for brands, people look for commonality—common values, a sense of belonging, a company that “gets me.” This relationship extends all the way to the organization itself, to everything that surrounds and follows the product or service.

Jeeps, once a climbing, foraging expression of the brand experience, has grown to mean even more than that. Jeep makes owners feel that they’re part of something bigger with owners-only events, driving schools, open forums and lifestyle marketing. Both the company and its customers are highly involved in the relationship and interested in each other.

What does a healthy brand relationship look like?
Consumers in a healthy relationship with a brand look forward to being with the brand (loyalty), they speak well of it (advocacy), and they feel like the company actually cares what happens to them (reciprocity).

Nurture these connections and you give your brand a chance to thrive. How? By turning to the same relationship-building basics that have been around for centuries: “You’re important to me and you can count on me. I want to make you happy. If I make a mistake, I’ll work on it and won’t repeat it. Most of all, I’m not like everyone else.”