6 June 2020


Obsessed with the past

It has been well documented that recessions and difficult times bring about a renewed interest in traditional values as consumers return to things they trust. A cosy mist descends in times of uncertainty and we want everything to be wrapped up in familiarity, security and most of all authenticity. In these times, we see brands take advantage of this trend. They up the ante on emotional advertising by bringing in nostalgic cues.

Heinz, Persil, Hovis and Charleville have all been doing their best to convince customers that they are the real deal by showing consumers evidence of their longstanding heritage. These ads use real brand associations that have been built up over the years and rely on consumers’ memory and engagement to build the full warm and fuzzy picture. In the case of Heinz and Persil, they used real old footage to create a genuine ‘look how old we are’ image.

Absence of such footage didn’t stand in the way of Hovis and Charleville jumping on the nostalgia bandwagon. They created ads with all the right emotional cues to make consumers feel connected to the brand.  And both were accepted as brands with a long and trusted heritage. While this might be true for Hovis, this is not the case for Charleville. So why did consumers accept it so readily? Because cheese is wholesome, Charleville is a wholesome brand and they timed it just right.

Nostalgia has always been an underlying trend but during a downturn, it rises up to make people feel better. Brands that are active with the right message at this time can make it look like they were always destined to be a comfort brand, guiding its consumers through tough times.

What is it about creating a sense of heritage and history that gives people comfort and reassurance?  It’s not just brands and advertising. This is a trend that permeates everything from food to architecture to TV.

Every time we turn our head we’re being met with an ‘it’s ok, this is something from your past that will make you feel good’ message. Turning on the TV will most likely result in a re-imagining of a 90s show (90210) or a trip to the 1960s (Madmen). Movie studios are getting great mileage from reincarnations, as the A-Team and Dallas remakes are discussed at length in the media. Earlier this year, Marks and Spencers started selling jam sandwiches, billed as ‘one of the great, simple pleasures of life’. We see more faux Georgian houses being built in affluent suburbs around the city than innovative, new designs and these houses are being filled with kitsch Cath Kitson tablecloths and retro looking Avoca kitchenware.  This nostalgic cosiness has even affected our free time, as sewing and knitting have become the latest must-be-seen-doing pastimes.

So why does ‘retro’ work so well for some brands and fall flat for others?  Virgin Atlantic and Wispa were celebrated, engaging campaigns while others (Persil, Ulster Bank) just looked dated or try hard. There are a few key things that are essential. Firstly, there needs to be a good reason for it. Wispa created this through the ‘will’ of the people, Virgin were celebrating 25 years.

Secondly, the brand must be authentic with an inherent brand truth that consumers can connect with. HB used this to great effect last summer. They knew that pretty much everyone in Ireland had a childhood that involved Tangle Twisters or Loop the Loops. A simple, charming campaign was all that was needed to bring these memories flooding back and make the brand relevant once more.

Thirdly, simply revisiting the past is not enough; an understanding of the modern context is critical. Consumers do not want to be passive viewers of ads anymore. Cadbury’s understood this more than anyone when they re-launched Wispa. Yes, the retro theme stimulated the outcry of love for the 1980s chocolate bar but what really got consumers engaged was that they were part of the whole phenomenon, from the original online petition to consumers actually appearing in the advertising.

Virgin made sure to use humour and a bit of glamour to give their 80s-esque Red Hot campaign a fresh feeling. The brick size mobile phone and obnoxious banker made us view the ad with ironic amusement.

As we emerge from recession, will these retro type ads still have relevance?  The latest offering in this genre is from Schweppes. Their Christmas campaign aims to ‘bring to life quintessentially British Christmas occasions that are full of humour and nostalgia’. They use the appealing aesthetics of the 1950s accompanied by today’s humour (Martin Freeman is one of the comedic voiceovers) to create a simple, endearing campaign.

Where it might be the end of ads that tug on the heartstrings for times gone by (surely we’ve had enough of these), there is still opportunity for brands in this genre. If they truly understand the modern context, retro material with a fresh, innovative twist could be the perfect combination for insightful, powerful campaigns.

Fay Quilligan

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