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Retro Chic--Harnessing the power of the past

Drawing inspiration from brands of yesteryear is now the future

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Even the best brands eventually lose their vitality. Tastes change. The demographic moves on. Sales stagnate. Breathing new life into brands that have lost market share and keeping powerhouse brands in peak condition in order to improve business performance takes compelling solutions backed by sound strategic plans.

One of the marketing challenges businesses face today is how to effectively resuscitate brands that enjoyed a successful and popular past life, but were left to be filed away into consumers’ brand history books. Many companies are effectively turning this marketing and design challenge into a successful strategy called Retro Chic. It is a phrase tied to a group of young adults who affect the style and attitude of the mythical good old days, an era of working-class values, bowling shirts, old T-shirts and denim jeans. Reflecting on periods when life was simpler and easier to understand, many consumer product companies are using the past to highlight brand strengths and make an authentic connection to what most middle-age types remember fondly as “a better time in our lives.”

Each age group is defined by its “better time” period. Take the 1950s, for instance. The sense of optimism and possibility associated with that era is embodied in warm, friendly design and more emotional sentiment than the cold minimalism that dominated the preceding decades. Remnants from the ’50s that are attractive but not particularly stylistic are strongly tied to the values of the decade.

What are the things that have endurance and permanence? People want to believe the things they buy can make a difference in their lives and in the way they feel and reflect their positions in the world. Retro Chic is seen as a return to a lost authenticity, to basic values that later evolutions have somehow corrupted, with recollections such as:

- “I remember this from my childhood. Nothing will ever be quite the same as those simple times in the past.”
- “My grandfather always bought this brand, so I buy it for the home every week.”
- “These are Southern brands, which makes us feel that they are our own and no one can copy them.”

Drawn by intangibles such as childhood memories, a consumer’s appetite for many brands is not necessarily based on price. More companies recognize this trend and are beginning to target their marketing and advertising strategies and packaging to cater to consumers eager to relive their past.

Retro Chic in marketing and packaging

Retro packaging appeals to different audiences for different reasons. For Baby Boomers, it gives them a chance to reconnect to something from their youth. However, younger consumers like to “discover” their brands as opposed to being told what to buy.

Retro Chic design is minimalist. It features product information that is short and to the point. Attributes of Retro Chic marketing and packaging include the ability to bond with consumers on an intrinsic level, communicate the essential nature of the brand, and present itself with an uncluttered design and easy-to-read packaging. However, retro style isn’t just about decoration, but a certain set of values and making an emotional connection.

Design simplicity and nostalgia in brand marketing and packaging have always appealed to specific consumer segments. They have found their way into the beverage market in recent years. Getting new life from an old brand is a great strategy. However, there is a method to the madness of creating a true retro brand. Most important, each brand holds attributes that are distinctly unique to that brand and which no one else can use. Also, the challenge of successfully marketing a brand considered Retro Chic is to tap into that anti-establishment streak without seeming too establishment. Mainstream advertising can backfire, and gimmicks are a frowned upon by retro brand evangelists. Word-of-mouth endorsement seems to be the most effective communication channel and carries the highest level of street credibility.

Over the past few years, the renewal of the wine and spirits industries has slowly eroded beer market share, especially at bars, clubs, and restaurants. To combat this downward slide, companies are constantly trying to reinvent their brands to remain relevant to their target audience. One way of achieving this goal is taking the nostalgia marketing approach of reviving old brands through retro packaging and ads that are designed to bring enthusiasm and appeal back to the brand, especially among young consumers.

Anheuser-Busch marketed a series of retro Budweiser cans sporting packaging from the 1930s to the 1950s. The three-can series was a rollout of a reproduction of the first Budweiser can, dating back to 1936—the first year of beer in metal packaging. True to the period, the gold can had black-and-red labeling and an Anheuser-Busch eagle logo prominently displayed, as well as a little advice for a post-Depression American unaccustomed then to drinking beer from a can—a three-step illustration describing how to use a can opener.

Similar to the beverage industry, intense competition in the snack-food industry and a diminishing brand seemed to be the basis for Hostess deciding to reinterpret the Twinkies brand and make it relevant for today’s consumers. Hostess rolled out the first major packaging change for Twinkies in 25 years. The redesign for the iconic snack treat included updated product photography and contemporary graphics. Also, Twinkie the Kid, the classic mascot that began appearing on Twinkie packaging in the 1970s, now has a more prominent appearance in the new design.

Best practices

It seems that in the past few years, the notion of nostalgia has percolated into almost every aspect of our culture. Many marketing experts cite the uncertainty in today’s world as the catalyst for this increased longing for positive, simpler times.

Consumer perceptions associated with brands are usually influenced early in life. Unless something drastic occurs, these associations remain with them forever. However, the process of producing a brand with retro attributes is much more involved than simply scanning an image into a computer and pressing the “update” button. A brand needs more than heritage to be successful.

Even before packaging comes into play, you should determine if and how your brand resonates with the target audience. Some initial questions to consider are:

- What does the target audience remember about the brand?
- How do they describe it?
- What do they like most about the brand? What do they like least?
- What are the current competitor brands?
- How does the target audience differentiate the brand from its competitors?
- Are there any negatives associated with the brand?
- Are they current consumers of the brand (brand loyalty)? If not, why?

For example, many beverage brands have tried to emulate Pabst Blue Ribbon. (PBR) However, the success of PBR lies in the simple fact that it was adopted by a new generation of younger consumers because the company never changed the red, white, and blue Americana packaging. PBR has always remained true to the brand’s core essence and utilizes less-mainstream marketing tactics. It is truly the authentic beer grandpa used to drink.

In order for a brand to be marketed successfully and adopted as retro, there has to be substance behind the strategy. The brand owner must begin with a sound brand that holds a positive and recognizable position within its industry segment. It’s also important to take the time to do some initial research to determine which components of the brand hold the highest equity in consumers’ minds. Maintaining the elements of the brand that communicate the brand’s heritage is crucial to brand revitalization.

The younger generation tends to absorb a lot of the “retro” icons and make them their own, and these icons develop into a personal relationship with the brand. Let the consumer be the focus of the attention and they will do your marketing for you.

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