A case of history repeating

Coca-Cola’s decision to remake its iconic Hilltop ad shows that even the biggest brands find it hard to resist harking back to a glorious past.

Bringing back iconic ads and slogans from the past may remind people of how great a brand’s advertising used to be, but some doubt that it can ever recreate the powerful feelings inspired by the original commercial.

Once a company has made a great campaign, it can be hard to leave it behind. Orange is again using its 1994 launch slogan, “The future’s bright, the future’s Orange”, though the company denies the line was ever dropped. Guinness has been re-running some of its successful ads, each with a slight twist to repurpose them for its Guinness Draught Extra Cold sub-brand. The Smash Martians were briefly revived a few years ago and the R Whites Lemonade “Secret lemonade drinker” ad was reprised in 1998. Tango’s “You know when you’ve been Tango’ed” line was the basis of a recent campaign by Clemmow Hornby Inge.

Reviving old ads is all the rage. Just last week it was revealed that Coca-Cola had remade its classic 1971 “Hilltop” commercial to promote the launch of its calorie-free Coca-Cola Zero product in the US (MW last week). The original ad featured a group of people standing on a hill in Italy singing the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” song.

The new version, created by Miami agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky, is called “Chilltop” and takes place on a Philadelphia roof as blues/hip-hop artist G Love sings: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and chill with it a while”.

Raiders of the lost ads

Raiding a brand’s advertising archive may suggest a paucity of creativity, though a US spokeswoman for Coca-Cola denies this is the case with Chilltop. She says: “There are a lot of similarities between how the world was in 1971 and how it is today. Then, there was an idea of external harmony, today it is more about inner harmony achieved through a state of mind which is ‘chilled’. We saw a great parallel between the two.”

Coke sees its advertising archive as a resource to be used judiciously in the belief that its commercials become part of the collective consciousness. For instance, it regularly dusts off its Polar Bear commercials.

Coke also believes people’s memories of the past become idealised through rituals associated with brands. Bringing back Hilltop is an attempt to create a mythology about the past, to construct a collective memory of the role Coke played in people’s childhoods. Coke’s former northern European marketing president Tom Long once referred to this as “memory morphing”, an attempt to insert idealised memories of childhood experiences and associations into the public consciousness through advertising.

The original Hilltop ad was created at a time when there were few global brands – the “poor fragmentation barely existed. Many of the revived campaigns of today come from the golden era of creativity between 1970 and 1990, before multiple TV channels began to atomise the media.

Advertising is not the only discipline that on occasion revives old ideas. Hollywood remakes old films regularly and TV schedules are filled with repeats. There was also a spate a few years ago of brand owners bringing back brands from the 1960s and 1970s.

It pays to recycle

But the success of a revived ad campaign depends on the way it is executed, according to Publicis London chief executive Grant Duncan. He says companies can either re-run an old campaign with a twist as Guinness has done, or use an old idea but do it completely differently, as is the case with Tango. But Duncan adds: “Great campaigns are like gold dust. Marketers and agencies are far too quick to throw away ads and replace them with something else. They are often cast off because a different marketing director comes in and feels he needs to do something new.”

The success or otherwise of a reprised ad campaign depends on people’s recollection of the original ad and whether it is possible to recreate the emotions aroused by the first execution. Focus group research suggests young people have strong memories of ads that ran as far back as when they were five years old. Strong campaigns – remembered or not – can become part of the public’s folk memory, which gives the brands concerned a powerful reason for reviving them. But Ogilvy Group European planning director Mark Earls warns: “There is a big difference between reminding people how much they loved the advertising and rekindling the depth of feeling they had for the brand when the ads first ran.”

He is sceptical that reviving old campaigns will help brands in the long term and thinks it might just be an easy way out. “I am not sure it is the right thing to do. If you manage a brand it is easier to look at the results of past successes and try to copy them, whereas the job of a marketer is to do something today that people will remember in ten years. From a client point of view, it is easier to go backwards.”

Perhaps such criticism explains why Orange categorically denies that its “The future’s bright, the future’s Orange” slogan has been brought back after being dropped. Orange head of advertising Kristof Fahy says: “We haven’t brought it back because it never went away. It has always been there. A few marketing activities didn’t deliver on the brand promise, and we didn’t feature the line. The line has featured in 99.9 per cent of our advertising.”

Bright future, confused past

However, Orange’s website features six of the brand’s ads, and not one of them includes the slogan. It was reported that the 2003 “Orange Training Academy” campaign dropped the slogan. The first phase of the Try campaign did not use it, and ads promoting the tie-up with Star Wars do not feature the line. This suggests the 99.9 per cent figure may be an overestimation.

Observers say Orange has had a messy approach to advertising over recent years with a confusing variety of short-running ad campaigns. Having the “Future’s bright” line, which can be brought back when needed, is a strong asset. However, it seems to lack the futuristic appeal it had when Orange first launched and mobile phones were a new mass phenomenon.

Brands have to tread carefully when reviving old campaigns, to avoid seeming tired and unimaginative. People are likely to look at the new version and say “that was a good ad”, but may not reappraise their view of the brand. When the ad, rather than the brand, becomes the story, it indicates a lack of confidence that the product’s benefits are worth talking about.

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