The look-back buzz can be a saviour or a siren

As technological change speeds up, companies are cashing in on nostalgia by reviving old designs and brands. But will consumers interpret such tactics as a lack of innovation? asks Caroline Parry

Retro has become mainstream, as brands set out to exploit the genre, rather than waiting for consumers to rediscover their heritage. Where once style leaders tapped into brands with a heritage, going to great lengths to seek out the products, brands themselves are now calling the shots by rolling out updated versions of old products and pushing them to the mass market.

Retro is no longer confined to fashion, music and film – it has spread to toys, confectionery, electronics and cars. Last week, it emerged that Unilever Frozen Food & Ice Cream is relaunching the Funny Foot ice cream brand, with a view to finding favour with today’s children, while reminding their parents of childhood holidays and trips to the seaside (MW last week). In keeping with the product’s roots, the stick will even have a joke on it.

But by subscribing to the retro craze, brands are in danger of living in the past and failing to move on to fresh territory, according to car designer Chris Bangle, who is currently overhauling the style bible at BMW. He has rejected both retro and minimalism as simply trends, preferring to opt for angular and sculptured shapes.

Many branding experts, however, believe that retro brands and styling are far from dead. They say retro satisfies both older consumers, who like to indulge in nostalgia, and the younger generation, which is searching for individuality. Retro gives both groups the feeling that they are getting a product that is authentic and original.

For these reasons, Bartle Bogle Hegarty planning director Alistair Green believes that retro is not simply a phase. He says: “Past trends are being revisited at an increasing rate. Retro is not going to go away.”

Steve Henry, creative director and founder of advertising agency HHCL/Red Cell, agrees that retro will always be around because it is human instinct to look back. “I think it is a natural cycle. Everyone aspires to being about 18 or 20 years old, whether they are older or younger than that,” he says.

Toys are one category in which marketers are capitalising on parents’ tendency to look back at their own childhood with rose-tinted glasses. The Raleigh Chopper and Thunderbirds toys are two particularly successful reintroductions. Steve Purnell, director of brand consultancy The Value Engineers, says: “There is an element of parents buying toys such as Scalextric for themselves, but people are also looking for an antidote to computer games.”

The companies that own retro brands can see significant benefits if any relaunch is successful. Sportswear brand Puma has boosted its fortunes by looking to its archive for inspiration. The brand has undergone a fashion revival and worldwide sales have rocketed – from $530m (&£290m) in 2001, to $1.65bn (&£890m) last year.

But the flip-side of relaunching these retro brands and products is that consumers have, presumably, fallen out of love with them before. Lauren Henderson, director of brand analytics at consultancy FutureBrand, warns that there are no guarantees that a brand relaunch will work. “At some point in the past, these brands weren’t popular, so you do wonder why they would work now. The trends for looking back at particular decades flip around a lot so it is difficult to sustain any retro brand,” she says.

Indeed, because retro has become just another strand of fashion for people to dip in and out of, interest in the genre may not wane, but individual brands and products are likely to come and go. The relaunch of a retro brand can make use of the brand’s heritage but it also has to offer something new, a twist on the original, if it is to last.

And companies should beware of becoming too reliant on retro brands and styling. Unilever, Adidas, Chrysler and others take pains to remain well-known for innovative and new products, as much as for those steeped in heritage.

The trend for backward-looking brands has led to speculation about the retro brands of tomorrow – Apple’s hugely popular iPod MP3 player is one candidate. Adam Hildreth, managing director of youth branding and marketing agency Dubit, says that anything currently enjoying mass popularity is a contender for being revisited at a later date. The Nokia 3210, the Audi TT and fashion brands Burberry and Stone Island all have retro potential.

And while it is all very well capitalising on consumer nostalgia, brands must be aware that some technological improvement over the original may be in order – BMW’s Mini and the Pure Evoke DAB digital radio both offer styling and brand cues that conjure up times gone by, but both are genuinely modern products. Marketing subtlety, too, is essential, or else consumers could start to question whether manufacturers are simply jumping on the retro bandwagon.

Those brands enjoying a retro appeal, meanwhile, will eventually have to evolve and develop new lines that are not so dependent on their past if they are to maintain their place in the mainstream. Heritage is all very well, but it’s only a short step to what consumers might see as stagnation.

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