It’s official: the retro look is in. With modern technology making new
brands seem uniform and boring, advertisers are repackaging mature
products and giving them a new twist, safe in the knowledge that they
have nostalgic value, Jim Davies writes
Remember all those times you used to poo-poo your dad’s fuddy-duddy
record collection? How you used to scoff as you watched him slide the
vinyl lovingly out of its sleeve, fumble with his Amstrad hi-fi, cross
his Farah-clad legs and sit back to listen to Dionne Warwick croon her
way through The Look of Love?
As it happens, dads have had the last laugh. Farah recently relaunched
its inimitable range of stretchy polyester slacks. And Bert Bacharach,
the composer of The Look of Love and a plethora of upmarket elevator
tunes, is once again the height of coolness, thanks to the unlikely
resurgence of easy listening. Meanwhile, contemporary bands such as Mike
Flowers Pops and Pizzicato Five that steal and sample Uncle Bert’s top
tunes are hiding behind a cloak of ironic self-parody.
It’s a post-modern phenomenon: ransacking the past for ideas and
inspiration and then dressing them up with a contemporary twist. Oasis,
the darlings of the Brit-pop scene, wear their influences firmly on
their sleeves, with tunes, chord progressions and phrases blatantly
lifted from the Beatles’ songbook. And, neatly cashing in on Oasis’s
popularity, last year saw the release of The Beatles Anthology - a
double album of previously unreleased material by the Fab Four.
The customer base for The Beatles Anthology and re-released Bacharach
CDs is a curious one. It comprises both older customers, for whom the
products evoke fond memories of earlier, simpler times, and a younger
generation who may not have heard the music before and therefore find it
fresh and new. It’s not a phenomenon that is exclusive to the music
industry. Canny marketers are seizing on this parallel consumer group in
a wide variety of areas, from food and beverages to fashion and consumer
‘What goes around, comes around,’ Nick Kendall, the head of account
planning at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, observes. ‘Consumers are constantly
looking for something new, but what they tend to find is something
they’ve seen before, expressed in a different way.’
He points to the hundreds of bottled lagers that flooded the UK market
in the mid- to late-80s: ‘At first, it was new and different, then they
had to keep reinventing themselves in different forms, until eventually
people woke up to the fact that they were all more or less the same.’
In the relentless search for the new, beer drinkers are now turning to
stouts such as Guinness, Beamish and Murphy’s, Caffreys, and cask-brewed
ales like Flowers Original, Marston’s Pedigree and Theakston’s Old
‘In the 90s, drinkers seem to want less hype and more provenance,’ Adam
Kirby, board account director on the Whitbread account at Lowe Howard-
Spink, says. ‘If they’re drinking lager, they want it to be the original
Czech lager, or America’s favourite beer. There’s a rise in premium
drinking - that is, what are perceived to be better-made, more authentic
When lager was enjoying its 80s heyday, the word ‘premium’ was used to
denote extra strength. Now it’s come to mean high-quality, with an onus
on authenticity and natural ingredients.
In recognising this trend, Lowes set about creating a fictional
mythology around Whitbread’s Flowers Original in last year’s advertising
campaign. It involved playing up the ‘Englishness’ of the brand name.
‘It’s what I’d call the soft white underbelly of England,’ Kirby
explains. ‘Not so much Last Night at the Proms as sitting on the beach
eating sandwiches with grit in them and endlessly mending things in
Lowes came up with Mr Flowers, the irrepressible hobbyist, who appears
in a series of animated vignettes, rendered in 50s-style pen and ink.
‘We’ve used nostalgia, but in a very positive way,’ Kirby says. ‘It’s
set some time in the 50s, but we’ve subverted those values. It’s
dripping with 90s irony.’
So Flowers Original now has a perceived heritage - manufactured by its
advertising agency, of course - that appeals to both traditionalists and
the irony-attuned younger drinkers. A similar ploy was used by BBH for
the launch of Phileas Fogg snacks in the late 80s.
Another relatively new brand that has opted for the cod-heritage
approach is Ross Young’s three-year-old range of ‘ovenable’ Chip Shop
products. ‘Britain is known for its fish and chips,’ Barnaby Winter, the
account director at Mellors Reay, agency for the brand, comments. ‘It’s
the country’s staple diet and is eaten by all classes; it’s part of the
So how does a young product tap into this rich history? Ross Young
recently came to an agreement with Harry Ramsden’s, which was
established in 1920-something and is the country’s best-known, best-
loved fish and chip shop chain. Packs now come complete with a Ramsden’s
stamp of approval. Meanwhile, a suitably sepia-toned ad featuring a
‘ghostly character’ also hints that the product has been around since
Britannia ruled the waves and everyone stopped for jam and tea at 4pm
precisely. ‘It’s a symbiotic relationship,’ Winter explains. ‘It was a
major achievement to get an endorsement from Ramsden’s.’
The commercial aired briefly in March before being taken off air; the
product had sold out.
DMB&B faced a slightly different conundrum in 1994 with the launch ad
for Hovis White. The brand had the heritage all right - Collett
Dickenson Pearce and Ridley Scott had seen to that with their classic
cobbled streets and flat-cap campaign of the 70s. However, it had become
synonymous with brown bread, which still only accounts for 30 per cent
of overall bread consumption in the UK.
‘The CDP campaign was beautiful and famous,’ Anne Galea, the account
supervisor on Hovis at DMB&B, says, ‘but it wasn’t necessarily
motivating in terms of purchase. We had to make the brand contemporary,
without throwing everything out, to position it as being wholesome and
different from a fluffy own-label white bread.’
Tricky. In the end, DMB&B plumped for an aural association, sticking
with the evocative music of the earlier campaign but striking out on a
different visual tack. ‘Nostalgia is a strange word,’ Galea muses. ‘It’s
all very well being ‘just like grandma used to bake’, but you also have
to be relevant to today’s market.’
Kendall makes a similar point by claiming that it’s ‘no good using
nostalgia for the sake of it; the emotional values of the product must
be genuine too. There have been so many products and hypes that people
want to know they have the authentic thing, the original product.’
The brand packaging specialist, Wickens Tutt Southgate, recognised this
truism when it was hired by Anglepoise a few years ago. Although the
lamp’s name had become generic, it transpired that the original 1933
model had been phased out during the 50s. Wickens persuaded the
manufacturers, Terry and Sons of Redditch, to resurrect the classic item
and reposition it as a pounds 100-plus collector’s item.
The key difference between the old and the new Anglepoises is the
electrical components, which have been updated to comply with modern
safety standards. It’s a familiar phenomenon of post-modernist
marketing, which typically marries retro styling with state-of-the-art
technology. Like the curvaceous, 50s-style fridges that are all the rage
in Italy but come complete with modern interiors. Then there’s ‘widget’
canned beers, which use the latest ‘draft technology’ to provide an
authentic down-the-traditional-boozer taste.
‘It’s reinterpreting and cross-referencing the past,’ Kendall says,
‘exploiting the line between heritage and modernity.’ This, to some
extent, explains the phenomenal success of Penguin’s 60s Classics, which
are a series of pocket-sized paperbacks that were repackaged and priced
at 60p to mark the book publisher’s 60th anniversary last year.
‘The sheer volume we sold surprised us,’ Peter Carson, Penguin’s editor-
in-chief, admits. He anticipates that there will be further themed
collections ‘for as long as they remain successful’.
And, of course, that’s the bottom line. Relaunching and recycling is all
well and good, so long as it pays. Nick Treadwell, the account director
on Adidas at Leagas Delaney, insists that ‘history and authenticity’ is
only one part of [Adidas’s] armoury. Brands need to ‘punch through the
retro tag and become classics if they are to succeed on a long-term
basis,’ he says.
It will be interesting to see if Biba and Fiorucci, the 60s and 70s
fashion labels, that are due to be relaunched later this year, will
manage to attain such a status, or just blossom briefly and die.
One argument is that they stand double the chance of a brand new label.
To younger shoppers, they’ll seem novel and exciting, to older
clientele, they will be a trip down memory lane.
As Mark Wickens, the creative director of Wickens, puts it: ‘Something
resonates in old brands that new brands don’t have. There were fewer
brands around, so those brands had more meaning and more memories
attached to them. Modern new product development makes new brands
uniform and boring. A lot of the older brands were slightly odd, making
them more real.’