Branding: Retro revival

Fresh and innovative PR campaigns are proving that there's still life in old brands, as Helen Gregory discovers

Yesterday's tired or forgotten brands are fast becoming today's cool must-haves. Manufacturers hope that consumer loyalty will be enough to kick-start sales for these old favourites - many of which have been languishing in virtual bins for years.

Already, a number of switched-on PR campaigns have proved that nostalgia can be a winner and a whole raft of neglected names have recently had a revamp. Particular hits have been kids' toys such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and He-Man and Masters of the Universe. And the revival is by no means over; later this year the Cabbage Patch Kids are set to muscle their way back on to toyshop shelves, while My Little Pony is also tipped for a return.

Even brands that are decades old can work again given the right campaign.

Take Blue Nun for example; once the UK's best-selling wine before it became a byword for naffness, it now sells more than it did in its 1970s heyday.

A mix of curiosity and nostalgia helped win round drinkers both old and new, says distributor Ehrmanns marketing director Keith Lay: 'There's still an affection for it - people associate Blue Nun with good times.'

However, he warns that you can be too heavy-handed with nostalgia. While it may be tempting to conjure images of parties serving prawn cocktails and black forest gateaux, it is likely this would keep the brand firmly attached to the past. 'We were careful not to play on it too much and make it an ironic relaunch, as this would not have led to long-term sales,' he says.

Instead, Ehrmanns and retained agency Storm Communications concentrated on winning round journalists on trade trips to vineyards in Germany and France, and direct sampling, in a bid to respect the brand's heritage.

Using your heritage

The challenge is in exploiting the heritage while coming up with innovative and fun ways to communicate to the target audience.

As the force behind the full-scale facelift of 1950s brand Brylcreem, Frank PR was keen to get away from the image of a dusty tub found in granddad's bathroom cabinet.

The campaign has deliberately ignored older men, exclusively targeting the younger generation instead. The humorous 'Bad Barnet' TV ads helped, as did new products such as waxes and reshapers, along with fresh packaging.

'Our biggest challenge is the heritage of the red pot, which isn't relevant for young blokes,' admits a Brylcreem spokesperson. 'Being retro is good, as long as what you're referring back to is cool, and the red pot isn't.

'You need to use that retro element to bring attention to the more relevant up-to-date products - using your heritage to leverage this. We've got a history of being the men's hairstyling product in the UK, but we'd find it very difficult to maintain that if we didn't now have other products.'

Another of Frank PR's charges, Basil Brush, is being blatantly targeted at kids, for whom it is irrelvant that the character was around years ago.

With awareness levels of more than 99 per cent, plus a lot of positive feeling towards the furry fox, the agency has tried to communicate to two audiences - parents and youngsters. It has done this by making Basil a celebrity and pulling stunts such as insuring his tail for £1m and talking up his single to get column inches.

It's a similar story with fellow 1970s cuddly character Bagpuss who is being promoted to kids too young to remember him first time around, as well as to students.

'Bagpuss brings back childhood memories for people and works because they have always liked the character, and because they can also buy more licensed products nowadays,' says Fran Huxley, managing director of Licensing By Design, owner of all the rights to Bagpuss. 'The rise in character licensing means we work with stores we wouldn't have previously, such as New Look and Halfords.'

But for Huxley, retro brands need to be bought up to date to succeed: 'We launched Bagpuss as a retro, nostalgic brand using imagery from the original set but realised that although people were buying into the idea, they didn't want a photographic image on their chest so we created a new, trendy look for him, using fine art.'

The myriad modern licensing opportunities - such as DVDs, clothes and toys - can make many brands, particularly toys, bigger earners than in their heyday. Basil Brush's snout, for example, has even been plastered on a range of Grampian Foods' chicken products.

Negative connotations

Huxley warns, however, that many manufacturers have jumped on the retro bandwagon, mistakenly thinking that everything from the past will automatically be huge.

In the marketplace, there's always the danger of a revival brand being a one-minute-wonder. For some products, it can be a case of a bit of fun and a trip down memory lane that's quickly forgotten.

And it's worth remembering that journalists sometimes use retro brands as shorthand for something uncool,

and might remain difficult to convince that they've now become hip and happening.

Chris Cartwright, head of corporate practice at Bite Communications, is about to start on this re-education process as part of its strategy to promote the Atari brand in the UK - without using the retro tag.

'Some people have a very old view of Atari and think it's just the first video games brand,' he says. 'We need to change those perceptions as it's one of the largest gaming software brands in Europe.

'We'll play on the strength of the brand to a degree,' he adds, 'but the campaign will be about the importance of the gaming industry.'

Dragon Brand Consultancy senior consultant Nicky Owen is not convinced that reviving an old brand will always work: 'If you liked a brand in the past you probably wouldn't have stopped using it,' she reasons.

But she does recognise that sometimes retro campaigns can help remind consumers how good the products were, and prompt them to start using them again.

It seems that while not everyone is going to feel good about a retro brand, if you've got a good product it will always be relevant - as long as you've got the right people marketing it.


Despite being the most progressive country in the world, many US brands have been around for generations.

Indeed many white goods' design, such as refrigerators, haven't moved on much for 30 years. But it's a very different picture in the UK, according to Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School.

'Since the 1980s, we've neglected a lot of brands,' he says. 'Now, we're reflecting on the past more - even fantasising about it - and there are more old brands coming back.'

He believes there is a link between many of the drink, toys, and electrical goods brands that are reappearing: they're all connected with leisure.

Looking for stability

For example, traditional stalwart Aga stoves have proved a big hit with cooks yearning to recreate a kind of cosiness in their home, says Cooper.

Older consumers especially - faced with an increasingly frenetic world and a lack of community - hark back to the good old days, he claims. 'They are looking for stability and continuity or even a link to the past,' he reasons.

But it's not just older people who are buying into the retro brands. Roberts radios are a good example of a product that appeals to young people too - purely on aesthetic grounds. 'It's often only the 25-35 year-olds who remain determinedly modern,' he says.

Cooper reckons there aren't many categories where a retro brand wouldn't work - with the exception of new technology such as computers - and tips confectionery as a potential big winner in the nostalgia stakes.

He believes that PR can be an important part of retro brands' marketing campaigns: 'You need to get opinion leaders using the products, so in the case of Aga, placing it on Changing Rooms or in Cheshire Life would have a bigger chance of influencing consumers.

'Reviving a retro brand can be a clever move - as long as it's the right product and design.'

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