When the future is terrifying, the past looks like a very nice place to live in.
Back in the 1930s, when the confectioner Mackintosh launched Quality Street, the packaging focused on a crinoline-clad older woman from the 1890s, a conscious attempt to invoke memories of happier times gone by.
Seventy six years later, with the world again mired in recession, James Wallman, editor of LS:N Global trends network at the UK consultancy The Future Laboratory, says similar thinking prevails: “In a turbulent world, consumers are gravitating towards old certainties, reviving nostalgic dishes and brands.”
Recession has persuaded consumers that the future isn’t what it used to be. The only aspect of the future that excites is technology. As for the rest, we, as consumers, are content to stick to our Birds custard, Bisto gravy and Fray Bentos pies, which - unlike bankers, politicians and purveyors of high-speed broadband services - have never let us down.
Wallman believes such conservatism actually predated the economic crisis and was encouraged by the internet.
In an increasingly digital age, often paralysed by our vast array of choices as consumers, we’re looking for objects that seem tactile and authentic - hence the mysterious cupcake boom of the early 2000s. Many of us equate authenticity with longevity partly because, research by the business school at Arizona State University’s business school rather disturbingly suggests, consuming a product from our youth makes many of us feel like we socially belong.
Understandably, middle managers at the multinationals that fill the world’s stores with goods have thus become corporate resurrectionists, seeking out brands that are dead, dying or dormant and looking at them afresh, wondering which of their yesterdays could profitably become part of our tomorrows. In recent weeks we have seen - or been threatened with - such back to the future classics as Miss Piggy nail polish (“12 UnFROGettable colours!”), Nike’s riot-provoking Air Jordan shoes and 1920s Great Gatsby fashion on the catwalks next summer.
It’s not just a social, consumer-based need, however. Giles Lury, chairman of strategic brand consultancy The Value Engineers, says the argument in favour of reviving an old brand, as opposed to unleashing a new one, is simple: “Launching completely new brands is expensive and high risk so relaunching can be much cheaper as you’re building on residual awareness and hopefully warm nostalgic feelings. Bringing back old brands, especially if they were once iconic, can attract so much press and PR interest, the cost comes down even further. It’s a cheap way of doing something when you’ve got nothing new to say.”
”I love the memory of drinking Creamola Foam but I wouldn’t let my kids within three miles of it”
Elliot Wilson, Elmwood London
Elliot Wilson, MD of brand design agency Elmwood London, accepts that relaunching brands with “pre-existing equities - visual, verbal and emotional” is often cheaper and quicker than building awareness and association for something new. “So-called ‘heritage’ brands sit well with society’s craving for the security of the past”. The question is: “Do consumers care whether your brand makes a comeback or not? We are led to believe popular demand led to the reintroduction of Wispa. Whether that is true or not, people felt positive about the brand.”
Yet that glow has faded after a soaring start in 2007. In the last 12 months, Wispa’s value sales are down 12% and volumes down 10%. The £3m 2008 launch of the Arctic Roll followed a similar pattern: Birds Eye sold 250 miles of the dessert in six months but the ice cream log is now only stocked in one of the big four and sales are down 38% year-on-year.
Wilson suggests: “Often, it is not the brands we miss but the good times associated with them. I love the memory of drinking Creamola Foam as a child but I wouldn’t let my kids within three miles of it. Consider the relaunch of Babycham in the mid-1990s. It failed miserably because it reminded us of the hardship of the 1970s, not the joys and excesses of the 1990s.”
Outside the fmcg sector, the definitive brand reanimation is probably the VW Beetle, a surprising resurgence that offers many lessons for brand owners.
The qualities that made the Beetle so different in the 1960s - compact, nippy, economical with petrol - are just as relevant today. And its return - restyled and with more internal space - was all the more welcome because most consumers had good - if not downright idealised - memories of it.
“Some brands stay close to their original image - like Fab ice lollies and Golden Nuggets - and succeed second time around,” says Lury, “but a new twist can work too - look at Old Spice.” Marketed in the 1970s, as the reason that women loved sailors, the male grooming brand famously reinvented itself in 2010 through a YouTube campaign starring gridiron star and actor Isaiah Mustafa that attracted 23 million views in 36 hours and made the slogan ‘Smell like a man, man’ world famous.
“Some brands stay close to their original image and succeed second time around, but a new twist can work too”
Giles Lury, The Value Engineers
Old Spice’s refreshed offer succeeded instantly, the repositioning of Action Man took longer. “Action Man was withdrawn in the 1980s when its militaristic positioning lacked appeal,” says Lury. “It returned briefly in the 1990s but came back again as ‘the greatest hero of them all’ and is now the greatest hero on the shelf.”
The rewards and the risks of such drastic, essential reinventions are immense. Wilson cautions that companies should take care to ensure they don’t compromise the core of the brand: “The value of an old brand lives in its original identity and positioning. If you have to move away from it, is there a good reason to relaunch it?”
One compelling reason to revive old brands is the fact that many didn’t deserve to die in the first place. “Some were poor products, or were replaced by more contemporary ones,” says Lury. “But some just suffered in company rationalisations.”
The twilight existence of Camay
The complex series of acquisitions, consolidations and restructurings that have transformed the fmcg sector since the 1990s meant some brands simply ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time while others were killed because, even at multinationals as massive as Diageo, Nestlé, P&G and Unilever, 20% of their brands may generate significantly more than 80% of their profits. Others - including some household names - barely break even or lose money. In such circumstances, the brand owners proved much less loyal to their brands than their customers.
Any or all of the above could explain why such a globally famous brand as Camay soap is condemned to a twilight existence, available only to consumers who live in certain countries, buy soap online in bulk or are just incredibly persistent. Even profitable brands are not safe from the iron whims of managerial orthodoxy. Angel Delight was generating about £1bn in profit but Kraft, which merged with General Foods in 1990, still sold it - and Bird’s Custard - to Premier Foods in 2004.
By dwelling on the old, brand owners may fail to develop new brands that resonate with younger consumers. For now, they seem happy to run the risk. Even such global icons as Coca-Cola and Heinz are selling on their heritage. After reviving its original soup can, Heinz has reintroduced its classic glass bottle, which dates back to 1876, at selected US retailers, while versions of Coke’s iconic 1899 bottle are now available online and at Selfridges.
“Many brands that are long gone disappeared for a reason. And it might be best for it to stay that way”
Elliot Wilson, Elmwood London
This approach - call it “the future is in the past” strategy - isn’t entirely driven by brand owners. Many consumers now make their nostalgic longings heard online. “In the past, no one would have been any the wiser if there had been a groundswell of individuals wanting to reintroduce the Texan bar,” says Wilson. “But with the digital social revolution, they do.”
The risk here is that such campaigns are often inspired by hard-core loyalists who may not be that representative of the whole market and may even - because they remember a product too well - reject its new iteration. (Some purists still abhor the new Beetle.)
Yet Lury says there is no shortage of candidates for resurrection: “The cost advantages in relaunching them are such that there are lots of dead brands that could come back. In the confectionery sector alone, good examples would include Aztec, Frother bars, Fry’s Five Centres and Icebreaker.”
Wilson agrees: “Many brands people might believe have disappeared - Matey, UmBongo, Tizer, Golden Wonder etc - still exist. They’re just underinvested in and bumble along. I believe there is a whole range of underinvested brands still there for the taking.”
Where will this all end? The good news is that some brands will never make a comeback. Coca-Cola is hardly likely to relaunch the Coke-flavoured cigar, surely the oddest brand extension in history. Nor is there any great clamour for the return of Izal’s abrasive, medicated toilet paper. As Wilson says: “Many brands that are long gone disappeared for a reason. And it might be best for it to stay that way.”
Yet the sheer cost-effectiveness of relaunches, in an age when social media makes it easier to gauge sentiment and consumers crave the comfort of familiar brands, suggests that Henry Ford utterly missed the point when he said “history is more or less bunk”. Nearly a century after he said that, brand owners are proving that the right kind of history, carefully repackaged, can be worth billions.
BRING BACK A BRAND
Vote for your favourite from our list, or post a comment below to nominate another retro brand and share your thoughts and memories.
In every online forum devoted to the lost brands of yesteryear, you will find someone drooling over the memory of Rowntree’s delicious, cherry-centred, alternative to Bounty. Is it time to learn from the 1980s and bring back some fake Caribbean cheer - and that catchy TV ad chorus of ‘Come mister tally-man, tally me banana’ - into our diets?
There was more to the success of this fizzy soft drink than a great catchphrase (“It’s frothy man”) and an Elvis-impersonating polar bear.In the staid soft drink market of the 1970s, Cresta tasted different, though not quite as different as the bear’s occasional exultant cry of “Rimsky Korsakov!” might have you believe. Mysteriously withdrawn - too many additives said some - it returned to no great avail in 2002.
Fish & Chips Crisps (Burton’s Foods)
Schoolkids in the 1980s just couldn’t get enough of this finger-lickingly tasty snack even though it didn’t taste like anything you might buy at the local chippie. Now, 30 years on, they are banding together, drafting petitions to revive Burton’s Fish & Chips biscuits. Some diehards even want to resurrect the chicken in the basket flavour - surely proof that 1980s nostalgia is spinning out of control?
Hai Karate (Pfizer)
Few aftershaves have made as deep an imprint on popular culture as Hai Karate. Carry On star and Bond girl Valerie Leon kung fu-kicked the brand’s name into public consciousness in the 1970s with such effect that it inspired an eponymous punk band.
In an age of me-too celeb scents, Hai Karate could inject some serious fun into the market and - if they made the scent a tad subtler - make the perfect gift for nostalgic uncles and dads.
Fronted by a pork pie hat-wearing, Cockney geezer of a bear called George, Hofmeister was the definitive 1980s cooking lager. At only 3.2% abv and in as poor taste as George’s shiny velour jacket, this brand was killed in 2003 by S&N after a 47% year-on-year drop in sales. Still, with political concern about boozy Britain - and Essex’s flashy geezerdom defining the zeitgeist - could a lager 28% weaker than WKD be resurrected?
So popular in 1950s Britain that consumers used ration cards to buy them, these tubes of translucent, fruit-flavoured sweets returned briefly only at Woolworths in the 1990s but were voted, in a 2008 poll, the brand Britons most wanted to see revived. For consumers of a certain age, Spangles are a glorious reminder of an era when, as Roald Dahl put it, “the sweet shop was the very centre of our lives”.
Launched in 1884, the world’s first packaged, branded laundry soap was the reason, posters insisted, that the British Tommy was the “cleanest fighting soldier” in World War I. But when soap sales stuttered, the brand was applied to washing up liquid. Discontinued in the UK by Unilever in 2009, it still sells well in Canada and Turkey. A cheery name and proud heritage could make this a classic back to the roots revival.
Launched in the 1970s, this chocolate-covered toffee/nougat bar was promoted by a slow-talking cartoon cowboy who barely managed to utter the immortal line: “A man’s gotta chew what a man’s gotta chew.” So chewy they were the ultimate test of British fillings, Texan bars rode off into the sunset in the mid-1980s, returning briefly in 2005. Could the bar mosey back? Or has Brokeback Mountain undermined this cowboy shtick?
Vim (Spotless Group)
Launched in 1904 by William Lever, this scouring powder was once so popular in British households that the painter Francis Bacon used it instead of toothpaste. Abandoned by Unilever in favour of Cif, Vim has a name brimming with va-va-voom, immense nostalgic resonance and, crucially, doesn’t sound like a slangy abbreviation of syphilis.
Walls Funny Feet (Unilever)
A trailblazing brand that helped revolutionise frozen sweets in the early 1980s, this dollop of foot-shaped strawberry ice cream on a stick tasted lovely but melted too quickly. In grim economic times, could the ersatz cannibalism of chomping on a big toe made of ice cream cheer up British children?