On the Campaign couch
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

Heritage ads and TV programmes and features about the past seem to be increasingly common. But is retreating to nostalgia the last refuge for a brand in trouble or a sensible strategy in uncertain times?

As I fruitlessly point out every three months, this is not an intelligent question. You might as well ask: are cartoons, celebrities, slice-of-life, mascots, demonstrations, jingles, Stephen Fry, humour, 60 seconds or animals a good idea? Come to think of it, over the past 13 years or so, those are exactly the questions that you and others have indeed asked. And my answers have always been ploddingly if unavailingly the same: it all depends.

For example, the use of heritage is not just, as you suggest, a retreat to nostalgia, a comforting reassurance in uncertain times. Times don’t have to be troubled for people to appreciate, for certain brands in certain categories, a long continuous brand life. Equally, BlackBerry, indisputably a brand in trouble, is unlikely to find salvation by resorting to nostalgia featuring the early pioneering days of Research in Motion and the quaint devices then in vogue.

But in food and drink (or, rather, for some foods and some drinks), a gentle reminder that this particular goody has been gratefully received for 100 years or more may be exactly the added value it needs to differentiate it from upstart competitors.

Provenance is a word much used by planners, and with good reason. You don’t need a horseflesh scandal to be reminded just how fragile our trust in things can be. It doesn’t even have to be at a conscious level: there’s something warm and wonderful about certain things in certain markets being known to have long and distinguished pasts. For many brands, "Established 1854" still elicits a positive response; but not, I suggest, for Intel or Viagra.

To which you should add the ebb and flow of taste. "The best thing since sliced bread" is still used mindlessly – yet few people would claim that the earliest sliced bread was ever the best bread for taste and quality. That was the time when "convenience" was a key discriminator: fast food, keg beer, instant coffee (whatever happened to instant tea?).

Then "convenience food" came to mean food of inferior quality. We didn’t want to forgo convenience but we didn’t want to be thought to be buying stuff purely for that reason – so quite soon we demanded convenience and quality. The convenience wasn’t flagged any longer; it was just there, taken for granted. Instant coffee and sliced bread got much better. Camra triumphed and Red Barrel died. And old-fashioned Hovis (now, of course, sliced) did a great deal better than the new wonder loaf Wonderloaf.

So I hope you finally see why generalisations about the use of nostalgia are just as futile as generalisations about cartoons, celebrities, slice-of-life, mascots, demonstrations, jingles, Stephen Fry…

Dear Jeremy, I am a group account director in an advertising agency and my main client has recently been acquired by a big global company. I am nervous that this means there will be a review of the business soon. Do you think this is likely to be the case, and how long would it take?

What agency alignments does this big global company have? How long have they been in place? What is its post-acquisition record?

Then examine your relationship with your local, now acquired, clients. Are they staying with the company or leaving? If they’re staying, and express undying loyalty to you and your agency, don’t doubt their sincerity; just their ability to deliver. It’s utterly unreasonable to expect a career marketing person to jeopardise that career over the relatively trivial matter of the retention of an advertising agency.

Only if you have indisputable evidence that your agency possesses skills and experience without which the client company will immediately become less profitable have you a real chance of retaining the local business in the teeth of a global agency alignment policy issued by corporate headquarters in Akron, Ohio.

And I think I should tell you that, over quite a long lifetime, I have yet to see such evidence.

On the brighter side, it should all be over quite quickly.

"Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP