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Marketers like to hop on the backs of useful, sturdy, vigorous words and ride them until they collapse beneath our collected bulk. We love words, and we feel lousy when we discover we’ve loved yet another one to death. Still, deadline after deadline, we keep hopping back on.

To illustrate: I’m a fan of the utilitarian, masculine, circa-1955 typefaces and colors and logos of what we marketers call American heritage brands. Plenty of design trends have sprouted and spoiled in the decade since musty institutions like Filson, Red Wing Shoes and Department D - American Heritage Brands and the Ethical Treatment of Perfectly Good WordsStormy Kromer, along with heritage-y startups like Best Made Company and Shinola, found new ways to sell us our grandpas’ pants and pocket knives. Long after I should reasonably have grown tired of letterpress and Futura Extra Bold—long after I lost interest in the other design trends that excited me in 2006—I still love looking at the Field Notes site.

Why is that?

Well, I’m a designer. And these heritage brands bet all their chips on the same idea: good design matters. Their blankets, their boots, their bicycles and labels and logos are masterfully designed. Details are attended to, tradition respected, craftsmanship revered. Simple and solid design outlasts trends and, it turns out, sells a lot of expensive wool and leather goods.

Also: I’m a guy, and I grew up around canoe paddles and old men in wool pants. My tastes, like yours, are largely determined by my heritage.

So this word: “heritage.” On Tuesday I tweeted about a story in Twin Cities Business that recounts the rebranding, and rescue, of Minnesota’s Faribault Woolen Mill. “Heritage” pops up throughout the story, and for good reason: it’s useful, sturdy and vigorous. A word that lugs a lot of information with a minimum of fuss.

How, exactly, does that happen? Obviously “heritage” has intrinsic meaning we can look up in the dictionary; it means what it meant in 1955 and 1995 and yesterday afternoon.

But there’s another force at play: through years of repetition in stories and marketing copy about heritage brands, “heritage” has mutated into a shorthand mark that means This Category of Product. We see it and get the gist without having to read it any more. Which means it can carry its load more efficiently, making it even more useful to the writer.

And to the reader. Right?

Right. Without a doubt. When most of us are introduced to a page or screen, we scan it quickly for clear markers of its meaning or purpose. We gather images up and headlines and bullet points like a handful of jacks, and—if the marketer has done her job well—comprehend the message in broad strokes. Only then, if we’re interested, do we settle in to read word-for-word.

So words that have become coded through repetition, like “heritage,” speed that scanning process; they look like words, but in reality they’re little horizontal icons that carry a commercial meaning discrete from their dictionary meaning.

The problem is this: as that hard-working icon gets used more and more, in broader contexts, its commercial meaning will get diluted. Its intrinsic meaning long since obscured, it won’t be long before the word turns the corner and starts getting in the way of communication: no one will want to see it any more because it means nothing. Or worse, because it’s become kind of silly.

Consider the word “classic.” In the ’80s copywriters made it the preferred shorthand for old cars, old rock ‘n’ roll, old movies, old Coke, old Levi’s. By 1995 you could see the word “classic” and visualize James Dean in a pair of 501s and Ray Bans with a bottle of Coke leaning against a 1955 Porsche.

Or is that Brad Pitt?

Uh-oh.

“Classic” was a good and valuable word that became a terribly convenient word until it was found to be practically worthless, crushed beneath the weight of harried copywriters scrambling to meet deadline. Which is why we don’t refer to Red Wing Shoes as an American classic brand.

Dan Sarka

Dan Sarka puts the D in Department D. He’s a website developer, graphic designer and copywriter who enjoys helping small businesses grow. Born and reared in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, he now lives, breathes, bicycles and writes songs in Minneapolis.

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    • Hah! I hadn’t noticed that. “Iconic” is further along the useful > useless continuum than “heritage,” but both still have value and I don’t fault anyone for using either in a piece of journalism. As a marketer, though, I wouldn’t invest too much of a brand’s resources in “heritage.”

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