MOST SUCCESSFUL PRODUCT LAUNCHES: The allure of come-back products

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

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

potting sheds.’

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

country’s heritage.’

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.’


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