Nostalgia is a clever branding tactic, but not very wise

Tom Dougherty, CEO – Stealing Share

23 March 2012

It sounds nice but doesn’t have legs

Design books rarely tickle my fancy, yet, when I recently perused Stylepedia: A guide to graphic design mannerisms, quirks, and conceits recently, I was hooked. The chapter that grabbed me was entitled, “Pastiche”. For those like me who are unfamiliar with the definition of “pastiche”, it means: “a dramatic, literary, or musical piece openly imitating the works of previous artists.” Which is a perfect title for the selection. I found the chapter an absolute gem as it conveyed an engrossing explanation on the laziness of brands reusing vintage concepts as a branding tactic.

“More than not, the followers of those market leaders only appear weak when they rely on their past, rather than examining the endless possibilities of their future.”

 

branding tacticTraditionally, when companies reuse nostalgic imagery, it draws upon our sentimental feelings of the past. (Pepsi “Throwback”, anyone?) But the bigger question remains — does the reemergence of vintage design symbolize a lack of branding smarts? I believe it does.

As stated in Stylepedia, the initial re-exposure to vintage concepts is indeed a sentimental experience, but doing so alludes to a lack of fresh concepts, modern brand recognition, and moreover “courage, inspiration or ingenuity.” It’s a branding tactic without legs.

Noted by Debbie Millman (a brand expert and also the director of the Sterling Group) in Stylepedia:

“I think that the brand is suffering from ‘no new-news’ situation, and thus management is trying to drum up any reason possible for consumers – and/or the media – to take notice. While the packaging had a certain charm to it, there was no real ‘reason’ for doing it other than to (potentially) tug at older consumers heartstrings waxing for anything nostalgic.”

It’s hard to not agree with these sentiments. While there are absolutely brands whose look and feel can stand the test of time (Classic Coca-Cola bottles, Converse All-Stars and Heinz, for instance). These are companies whose brands are at the forefront of their respective markets. More than not, the followers of those market leaders only appear weak when they rely on their past, rather than examining the endless possibilities of their future.

Nostalgia only works as a branding tactic if a yearning for that bygone time – and what it means in context of the market – has the highest emotional intensity in the market. More often than not, however, it’s just lazy rebranding.

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