Humans forgive and forget. While we never get a second chance to make a first impression, we do for almost everything else. Whether you’re a CMO or product designer for a fledgling brand, don’t mistake your brand’s history as design DNA that is worth keeping.

Automotive brands provide great examples of spectacular successes and failures.

Take Lincoln, Ford’s luxury brand and answer to GM’s Cadillac division. Having worked on Lincoln for four years, I watched their designers resurrect old cars and incorporate elements into concept cars. Case in point, the 2014 Lincoln MKT is a direct descendant of the Zephyr. Notice the sloped rear end and curvy split grille.

1938-Lincoln-Zephyr-vs-2011-Lincoln-MKT

The problem is, the MKT is just plain ugly. Market share suggests the world agrees with me. So why did they build it?

The MKT is a classic case of a design team grasping at a brand’s history and mistaking it for design DNA. History is in the past, but DNA is a priceless building block for the future. BMW has brand DNA. Take off the badge and you still know it’s a BMW. It sells because it is attractive, always evolving and never satisfied.  Audi has reached the same point with its design and the market share has followed.

History is in the past, but DNA is a priceless building block for the future

The lesson is simply to know when to let go. Design products for now and the future. I owned a Lincoln LS V8, Motor Trend’s 2000 Car of the Year. It worked because it ignored Lincoln’s history. It was built from scratch on a rear-drive platform shared with Jaguar, and it looked nothing like the Town Car, Continental…much less a 1938 Zephyr.

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