Selling out to nostalgia

To say that shopping is the religion of the Nineties is no longer a glib line – it’s fact. The reverence once reserved for deities is now lavished on brands and other lifestyle trappings. Malls throughout the country now heave with Sunday worshippers. Many argue that the concept of religion emerged to give people something in which to believe in a world full of unanswered questions. Today brands too have become symbols of security in a world full of anxiety and uncertainty.

The beliefs we once applied to religion are now echoed in the way we treat our brands – we’ve even borrowed the vocabulary. We vie for the role of brand guardian as if we’re some sort of omnipotent being. We lay down manuals like the ten commandments, and we talk of brands having lives, personalities and souls as if they were mortal, or even immortal! Now, while part of me wants to renounce this trend, I’ve decided that as it’s almost Easter, I’ll embrace it instead.

So, dear congregation, the subject of today’s sermon is resurrection, but I’ll be focusing on the likes of Ben Sherman and Lee Cooper rather than Jesus or Lazarus. The recent phenomena of old favourites returning from the dead is really beginning to gather momentum and it’s especially noticeable in products and advertising.

Most of us are guilty of going gaga over the return of the VW Beetle – its unveiling last year in the US was greeted by a reaction which approached religious fanaticism. City centre traffic ground to a halt as people clamoured to see and touch the funny little car. And then remember the newsworthiness of the brief return of Spangles? It managed to hit the News At Ten!

Advertising creatives are also looking over their shoulder for inspiration. The Smash Aliens campaign is about to make a return, Frys Turkish Delight is also on the air again, as is an Oxo retrospective, and Britvic painstakingly recreated its Seventies campaign for R Whites. In brand design we’ve seen Babycham’s cute Bambi-like deer bounce back on to the bottle.

Brand resurrection subtly shows itself in popular culture. At the cinema – Mission Impossible, The Avengers and The Saint have all been back. Blondie has made it to number one again in the charts and The Clangers is back on TV.

All this has to beg the question, why? My views on the subject are pretty clear cut. Brand resurrection seems to be influenced by the human condition of referring to the past to help envision a bridge to the future. The fact that we’re on the brink of the millennium is perhaps no coincidence. Never has there been a greater sense of people needing to look backwards and take stock before they move forward. Couple this with a shortage of original thinking and there you have the perfect foundation for brand resurrection. For me, the interesting connection between many of the old brand ideas mentioned is that they mostly seem to have originated from a time that was marketing naïve. Created more from an individual’s vision than by the processes of a multinational organisation. It’s ironic that Rover has such high hopes on the launch of the “new” Mini when the original was essentially born out of the passion of Sir Alec Issigonis. Could the latter day approach involving a team of 30 designers and marketers, massive consumer input and, of course, the ubiquitous wind tunnel have delivered such a meritorious product?

To end my Easter sermon I want to ask what we as a design industry can learn from brand resurrection? Well, I suggest three things. First, we should remember that the best sort of progress might be made by looking to the past. At the end of the day, a good idea should be timeless, whereas execution or technique based design has a limited life.

Second, perhaps too much logic is applied in design today and it can fail to touch a nerve. For instance, the now dead Bisto kids were a compelling branding device, but the thought of putting two waifs on a new gravy brand today would probably be inconceivable. A gravy boat and a waft of steam? Now you’re talking.

And, last, in an industry supposedly so in tune with equities, we need to become better at cherishing the real gems we have. We often don’t value things until they’re gone. Roll back the tombstone this Easter and rediscover some of the great brand icons we’ve allowed to die over the years.

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