How brands must walk the line between new vs nostalgia
A view from Joe Smith

How brands must walk the line between new vs nostalgia

It's easy to overestimate the amount of time people spend thinking about our brands, warns 101's strategy director.

In the Wheel episode of Mad Men’s first season, Don Draper explores the choice between new ("the most important idea in advertising – it creates an itch") and nostalgia ("delicate, but potent").

I stopped watching Mad Men after the second season, to avoid my personal busman’s holiday, but that scene has stayed with me. Not just because it’s a great scene, but because this tension between old and new in our industry feels like it has become increasingly important in the years since.

What should we hold onto from a brand’s advertising heritage? Has our campaign reached the mysterious point of "wear out"? How can we reach a new, younger audience, without alienating our existing customers who have a long association with the brand? We tackle questions like these every day and there are no easy answers.

Most agency-client relationships don’t last beyond three years and Marketing Society figures suggest the average tenure of chief marketing officers in the UK is as low as 18 months. With new people trying to make their mark on both sides of the table, there is a powerful instinct to change approach just as regularly. Out with the old.

Sometimes this is the right thing to do, of course. There’s no point in continuing to back an ineffective campaign or strategy. Yet we now have more evidence than ever before that consistent use of advertising assets (colours, slogans, characters) is a powerful driver of brand growth. There are also many examples, from Guinness to, where the best-loved or most successful ads of a campaign have come years after the first execution aired.

There is a fundamental tension here that everyone with an interest in brand building must wrestle with. Particularly as, in a mature market like the UK, most categories are led by brands that have been around for a long time, with years of advertising behind them. Uber and Airbnb remain outliers in an advertising market dominated by powerful incumbent brands.

If you work for a brand with a rich history and/or advertising heritage, there are two fundamental questions to consider before writing or answering a new brief:

1. How important is heritage in the brand’s category?

In some cases, it’s good to be old. It’s reassuring to know the bank you’re with or that whisky you’re drinking has been around a long time. While for fast fashion brands or tech manufacturers, new rules the roost.

2. How strong are the brand’s historical assets?

There are some assets – like Coke’s bottle shape, O2’s bubbles or Scottish Widows’ widow – that are best left untouched (or only incrementally evolved). Other, more strategically grounded assets, like Tesco’s "Every little helps", are potentially powerful, but need to be embraced across the business, not just inserted into its advertising.

To return to Don Draper’s assertion, genuine nostalgia is rare as well as delicate. There are categories – like gaming or photography – where nostalgia plays an important role. But nostalgia for brands and specific ads is hard to find. For every Martian laughing at earthlings’ potato habits, there are millions of forgotten ads and unremarkable brands.

For those that work in our industry, it’s easy to overestimate the amount of time people spend thinking about our brands. Most brands are a bit like toddlers. If they’re yours, you think they’re brilliant. Hilarious. Completely unique. Almost everyone else in the world couldn’t really care less (for the record, my toddler is genuinely brilliant, hilarious and completely unique).

Even revisiting some of the most popular ads of all time should be approached with caution. The R White’s "Secret lemonade drinker" ad, for example, often comes near the top of ‘favourite ads of all time’ lists. Yet more than half of the UK weren’t even born when it first aired, in 1973, and it’s been off our screens for decades. The ad now means nothing to most people the brand is trying to reach. Had it been developed and nurtured in the intervening years, the situation would, of course, be different.

So the best we can do is hold onto the things that help people to recognise (and ideally like) our brands. Colours, logos, characters, taglines, a distinctive tone of voice. When we find something that works, we should nurture it, even if we weren’t involved in its creation. Give it time to develop and build recognition in the real world, not just agency meeting rooms.

The strongest brands in the world are those that manage to walk the best line between old and new. Between the familiar and the enticing. As Raymond Loewy might say, design for the future, but deliver the future gradually.

Joe Smith is strategy director at 101