question of the week
Why are so many brands looking back to their heritage in ads?
A flurry of ads that use cues from the past have broken recently. We ask some strategists why
14 June 2023
When Hofmeister announced that it was bringing back its classic brand character George the Bear - albeit a classier and more mature version - with a campaign by BBH who would have thought that a whole raft of brands would look in their advertising archives to dig out old similar fluent devices that offer more than just a nod to their past?
Morrisons, through Leo Burnett, has revived its "More reasons to shop at Morrisons" strapline and jingle in its debut brand campaign; Branston's agency Wonderhood Studios has brought back the 70s "Bring out the Branston" line, and Ribena has resurrected its (slightly less venerable) berry characters.
So what's going on? Is advertising stuck in a perpetual time loop, have agencies learned from System1's research into the value of fluent devices, or do we just all seek reassurance in the past? We asked some strategists what they thought.
Sandie Dilger, chief strategy officer, TBWA\London
Escalating building costs. As a soon to be house renovator, these three words haunt my sleep and form the narrative of every interaction with our architects and builders.
It strikes me that they might be just as relevant to my waking and working hours. If it is our job as marketers to ‘build empires of the mind’ as the academic Judith Williamson puts it, then there’s no doubt that we are indeed faced with escalating building costs. Media inflation, audience fragmentation and budget squeezes mean that it’s harder than ever for brands to lay new foundations. Is it any wonder then that Morrisons, Ribena, Branston and Heinz have recently looked in the rear-view mirror. This is less about a nostalgic recreation of a simpler time for me but instead an astute business decision to build on the solid foundations of the past; finding things that people love and recognise and imbuing them a more modern meaning.
As Mike Dubrick who has been a large author of Heinz recent transformation puts it. “It’s not enough to be the brand you remember from being a kid, it’s about giving our icon new relevance for the here and now” Good luck to all those who chose to renovate rather than re-invent, everyone tells me that it’s worth it in the end!
Oliver Egan, strategy partner, The&Partnership
What’s with all the nostalgia?
Writing his dissertation on psychological burdens faced by people living far from home, Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term nostalgia from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain) in 1688. An “affliction of the imagination”, he considered nostalgia a potentially fatal mental illness – an orthodoxy that persisted for many years. Indeed, nostalgia was the recoded cause of death of 70 soldiers during the American Civil War nearly 200 years later.
Today, of course, nostalgia is regarded as the harmless re-living (or for GenZ’ers reviving Y2K exposed midriffs and Von Dutch caps) discovering the past. Yet, recent research casts nostalgia as an important psychological defence mechanism. fMRI imaging studies show that when nostalgic feelings are triggered, our memory and reward systems light up resulting in improved mood, social connection and purpose. The most frequently reported triggers of nostalgia are negative emotions and mood states, particularly loneliness; leading Clay Routledge, a psychology professor at North Dakota State University to call nostalgia a “coping strategy for dealing with moments of deep uncertainty and radical discontinuity.”
So in the context of today’s permacrisis (climate catastrophe, runaway inflation, political polarisation, war in Europe an epidemic of loneliness and ai coming for our jobs), it’s perhaps unsurprising that in the words of Joel Nihlean “there’s been no cultural zeitgeist beyond nostalgia” as we survey the endless recycling of the movies, music, TV shows and fashions of the near past.
Brands, of course, are subject to the same cultural context, so we’re seeing a marked shift towards nostalgia. Morrisons have reintroduced their long running ‘More Reasons’ campaign, Branston have revived their ‘bring out the Branston’ jingle and Colonel Sanders has risen from the dead. And (given what we know about how nostalgia soothes our brains) for good reason.
But, perhaps an additional factor contributing to this shift (or perhaps a happy by-product of it) is effectiveness. System 1 demonstrates that ‘surplus positive feeling’ is a predictor of future share growth. And beyond the benefit of triggering happiness, these once-forgotten campaigns are full of ‘fluent devices’: sticky characters, consistent storytelling forms and sonic devices, making them easier to recall at key points during the purchase process.
So whilst we might legitimately consider the endless churn of pop culture nostalgia (borrowing again from Johannes Hofer) an “affliction of the imagination”, it may be inadvertently contributing to a resurgence in marketing effectiveness.
Jo Arden, chief strategy officer, Ogilvy UK
Kylie’s in the charts, the sun is out, no doubt a hosepipe ban is in the horizon, there’s the sweet smell of nostalgia in the air. There’s no great mystery in our collective backwards look when facing the future is so daunting. Beyond the nostalgia, there’s more that unites the new(ish) work from Ribena, Morrisons and Branston. A sense of fun – the free pizza dance, blackcurrants in binoculars, ear-worming jingles – how could you not smile? Simplicity – refreshingly accessible advertising that puts the product centre stage. Relatability – okay, maybe not being a catapulting blackcurrant but over-filling a salad box, laughing with your bestie, being weirdly distracted by sandwiches in meetings – it’s the stuff that makes people, people.
Nostalgia inevitably will be analysed as a ‘desire for simpler, less stressful times’ but I think that’s a bit GCSE psychology. People are facing tough choices with their weekly budgets, clients need work that works, and these brands have all done a jolly good job of making some.
Mark Sng, chief strategy officer, Pablo
I'd say there are two things driving this trend.
First of all, it's a natural human reaction to unpredictable or trying times. For example, nostalgic tunes were hugely popular on Spotify during the pandemic. The familiar makes us feel warm and safe. There’s even a recognised cognitive bias called ‘rosy retrospection’ that describes our tendency to remember past events more positively than they perhaps were in reality.
Second, I hope, is the realisation that consistency and frequency builds brands like nothing else. It’s a truism that as marketeers and their agencies, we’re far too quick to bin brand lines that have taken years and millions of pounds to build. And it’s not just the lines, either. It’s interesting that Branston and Morrisons haven’t just brought back their iconic slogans, but the jingles that accompanied them. Why the hell did we ever walk away from jingles?
Tom Sussman, deputy chief strategy officer, Leo Burnett
If I’m totally honest, I’m not sure the revival of iconic platforms has that much to do with nostalgia.
When we suggested that Morrisons should revive their classic endline - “More Reasons to Shop At Morrisons”- there was nothing sweet, sentimental or retrospective about it. It was just good, forward-looking, populist planning.
Instead of nostalgia, what I suspect we’re really seeing here is a different sort of recall: our industry finally remembering the importance of being remembered. Of building memory structures. Of ensuring our brands are front-of-mind. Of being sticky.
And nothing is a better guarantee of stickiness than a distinctive asset, or “thingy” (as an old boss of mine used to call them).
So, if you’re lucky enough to already have one of these sticky thingies - whether that’s an endline, logo, mascot, colour or jingle – it suddenly makes a lot of sense to return to it.
Simon Gregory, joint chief strategy officer, BBH London
I’ve been pondering this myself.
Is it down to a decade of angst-ridden uncertainty? Or a new AI-infused industry existentialism? Laziness? Unlocking the ‘Grey Pound’? Free copies of Byron Sharp given out at Waterloo Station? Or the spiralling cost of a Twix? In a way, it all makes sense; in changing times there are few things more certain than history.
However, the optimist in me wonders if it’s something more simple than that going on.
All the old stuff was fun. And people liked it (even more than the tele programmes apparently). And it was memorable. I can still recall what Ronseal does and I’m still certain that a hippo took an apricot, a guava and a mango to make Um Bongo. On the other hand, I can’t summon the energy to be more x, find my y, or do a togetherness nowadays.
It's fair to challenge that it might only work if you remember the original creative. I think not. Rather, just make sure you’re using those good old ingredients as well as the lines: simple, fun and memorable.
Neil Godber, executive strategy director, Wunderman Thompson
I’m less convinced that resuscitating characters and slogans is a push towards nostalgia. Even in a world of aggressive AI, polluted politics, cost of living crisis and Brexit effects denial, are we sure consumers are hankering for something they’re fond of from a past time
I’m more convinced that marketers are doing the right thing by recognising the value they’ve created by investing and building recognisable meaningful distinctive assets and are using them in today’s dissected customer journeys and fragmented momentary media environment to create and jog positive memories of the brand.
For brands chasing sustainable growth by appealing to a younger consumer group, the assets will be less familiar or meaningful, so reverting to ‘Bring Out the Branston’ is just a very memorable memetic phrase with an in-built CTA that can be applied to any meal.
For brands talking to existing consumers whose interest may have waned over the years, the Ribena berries remain the perfect anthropomorphised ingredient the audience needs to see when thinking about which cordial might be right for their kids.