When it comes to marketing in recessionary times, everything old is new again.
Author DALE HRABI Illustration LEIF PARSONS
ROUGHLY 20 GEN XERS are sprawled around an institutional room lying on blankets, eyes closed. They’ve just been led through a gentle yoga session and a meditation exercise designed to open their minds to an earlier, safer time. A researcher asks them to imagine they are descending a staircase into their past. The first step down represents yesterday: What were you doing? What did you eat? With each additional step, they’re led further into their personal history, asked to remember the terrible TV shows they watched years before, the songs they blasted on their Walkmans, until they’re mentally revisiting kindergarten. Then comes the big question: What is your earliest childhood memory of In-N-Out Burger?
Or “cars” or “laundry detergent,” as the case may be. As the recession freezes up consumer spending, anxious companies are using this technique (known as Childhood Memory Elicitation), among others, to define consumer nostalgia and develop advertising and special promotions calculated to make us buy again.
It’s called retro marketing, and suddenly it’s everywhere. Corporations such as Pepsi, General Mills and McDonald’s are finding that a vintage logo or a sepia-tinted commercial can cut through the clutter of a hectic, computer-animated mediascape and stir up feelings of comfort that trump financial worries. What’s $1.99, or even $9.99, after all, when you’re lost in a childhood reverie so potent you can almost smell the Play Doh? (Or taste it — if you were the type of kid who went in for that sort of thing.)
“New and improved,” the standard sales cry of boom times, is being replaced by “achingly familiar and reassuringly consistent.” You may have already noticed cans of Mountain Dew with that evocative ’70s logo on grocery shelves, or oddly archival-looking Trix cereal boxes at Target. Perhaps you’ve found yourself humming “My Back in the Day Song,” a faux-nostalgic hip-hop single from a recent McDonald’s sweet tea commercial in which a young man time-travels back to his boyhood ’hood, all the way to his mom’s kitchen, where she greets him with a chilled pitcher. Even for those of us with no personal memories of sweet tea, the spot makes the $1 beverage seem far more reassuring than anything Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner could say right now.
“Especially in a recession,” says Andy Gutowski, partner and creative director of Object 9, a Baton Rouge–based marketing company, “everyone’s looking for some kind of comfort. And logos or products that take you back to a time when things were simpler can really trigger that emotional connection.” Gutowski, who helped mastermind Pabst Blue Ribbon’s amazingly successful 2003 retro campaign during the last economic downturn, is finding that his expertise is more in demand than ever. “When people are worried that they’re going to lose their jobs,” he says, “any link to the past can be very effective.”
As proof that nostalgia can jumpstart sales, he points to his recent work with Lone Star Beer, a Texas brew that had flatlined, lost in crowded marketplace with a “modernized” logo that aped the italic typography of Coors Light. “We brought back the ’70s-era Lone Star shield logo and the famous tagline ‘Long Live Longnecks,’” he says, “and positive feedback started pouring in.” So did new revenue: Post-makeover Lone Star sales spiked 18 percent in Austin and San Antonio supermarkets. (Not all new beer nostalgia initiatives are cosmetic: The nearly dead Schlitz brand resurfaced last year in a “Classic 1960s Formula,” and Old Style — a blue-collar brew known witheringly as Old Bile in some circles — having recently reclaimed a traditional carbonation technique called “kreuzening.”)
Part of the appeal of retro marketing is the promise, however illusory, that merely buying a product will transport you to a time that now seems safer, and more wholesome and morally righteous than our own. Ideas of family come up repeatedly in positioning studies, says Gutowski, who’s about to relaunch a popular Southern coffee brand: “All the research we’ve been doing consistently leads back to the comfort factor. People are telling us, ‘I’d buy this because it’s the coffee my grandfather drank,’ or ‘It’s the coffee I grew up with.’”
For a 2007 study on the brand meanings of cars, Kathryn and Michael LaTour, marketing experts at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, used the Childhood Memory Elicitation method to lull some 60 members of various generations into a chatty, nostalgic state. “One interesting revelation,” Kathryn says, “is that Gen X children of divorce who grew up without a father around started [fantasizing] ‘memories’ they wished they had, in which father figures drove them around in safe, boxy station wagons,” not unlike the SUVs Xers embraced as parents themselves.
Flashback branding is not, of course, just targeting Baby Boomers or Xers. Marketers also have their eye on the Gen Y hipsters who seem to fetishize anything retro, from hulking horn-rimmed glasses to action star Burt Reynolds. When General Mills partnered with Target to bring back vintage ’60s box designs for cereals such as Wheaties, Cocoa Puffs, Cheerios and Trix this spring, the younger market responded avidly. “We’ve been seeing positive feedback, both from people who remember these designs from their own childhoods and from young adults with an appreciation for ‘throwback’ packaging,” says associate marketing manager Kerry Delaney.
For its part, Pepsi is going with an old-yet-new campaign modestly called “Refresh Everything” that coolly asserts a minimalist logo while warmly revisiting the cola’s 1960s–1970s glory years. In one typical ad, retro icons Bruce Lee and Gumby mingle with contemporary counterparts while Bob Dylan and Will.i.am duet on the Dylan classic “Forever Young,” remixed as “Forever Young (Continued).”
The choice of Will.i.am, who helped define Barack Obama’s presidential bid with his “Yes We Can” video, seems calculated. Many observers have pointed out that Pepsi is co-opting Obama’s campaign image, which expertly evoked nostalgia for a Camelot past (down to Michelle’s Jackie-esque wardrobe) while trumpeting change.
Even retro jingles are making a comeback, a development made more significant by the fact that jingles have all but disappeared from advertising in recent years. This spring, Cotton, Inc. rehabilitated its 1989 ditty, “The Fabric of Our Lives” (which research showed had an unexpectedly high recognition factor among twenty- and thirtysomething women), drafting indie sweetheart Zooey Deschanel, among others, to give it an update. To drive the nostalgia point home, the spot shows Deschanel dreamily sifting through used LPs and coveting eccentric vintage clothes. Hers is a world bathed in golden light, miles away from the frenzied computer animation and brazen come-ons of most modern ads. The spot “makes me want to go back to bed,” commented one viewer on the ad’s YouTube page, “with cotton sheets.”
DALE HRABI, author of the humor book The Perfect Baby Handbook, is nostalgic for the touch and feel of tweed.
Trix boxes through the years
With its happy bunny on roller skates, the 1960s Trix box evokes a simpler time, when all a woodland creature had to worry about was hoisting an oversize spoon.
The contemporary Trix rabbit — like contemporary kids — is a tad more antic than his well-behaved ancestor, forgoing the fancy utensils and using the cereal bowl as a ball-pit.
General Mills’ retro revival is close to the original, but it has more cereal colors and that unsightly T-shirt ad. But will today’s youth accept such a serene spokes-mammal?