In recent months, the UK food sector has seen a number of successful reintroductions of once popular but discontinued brands. Ben Cooper examines the reasons behind this trend and asks if harking back to the past is a particularly British trait.

There was no doubting what the big news was in the UK last month. The collapse into total disrepute of the mother of all parliaments? Think again. Surely the story that had most of us truly gripped was the revival of ‘80s pop band Kajagoogoo.

But Limahl et al. are not the only ones looking to relive some of the old magic, and that is not an allusion to Take That, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. Harking back to the past appears to be something of a prevailing trend in the food sector too.

A host of food companies, including Birds Eye, Kraft Foods and Cadbury, have in recent months either reintroduced old products or revived former packaging designs and advertising, while retailers such as Waitrose and Marks and Spencer have also looked to evoke the past.

The latest company to make such a move is the chocolate producer and retailer, Thorntons, which last month launched an online sweet shop to sell ‘retro sweets’, such as Fruit Salads, Sherbet Fountains and Black Jacks. 

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Having successfully reintroduced its Arctic Roll frozen dessert in January, Birds Eye has now revived its Steakhouse Grill line, which was jettisoned as long ago as 1995. Meanwhile, Kraft has given a new lease of life to Mellow Bird’s instant coffee, a brand which it might be argued had had its day, particularly given how the coffee market has developed over the past ten years or so.

Food retailers are also getting in on the nostalgia act. M&S has introduced a range of traditional sandwiches with fillings such as jam, ham and salad cream and corned beef, and reports growing sales, while Waitrose has launched a range of traditional cuts of meat branded as Forgotten Cuts. Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s eco-friendly bags carry black and white pictures of one of its very first stores with a reference to its 140th anniversary.

It was Cadbury that arguably started the ball rolling when it revived the Wispa chocolate bar last August, five years after it was scrapped. In this instance, it was a response to overwhelming and rather unprecedented consumer pressure, but that pressure had vividly shown companies the appeal that former favourites can have. And its success since reintroduction – according to Cadbury, the brand delivered over GBP25m in revenues from September to the year end, a record for a new product launch – only serves to underline the potential for such relaunches.

One undoubted reason why brand revivals and ‘heritage marketing’ have come so much to the fore of late lies in the uncertain times we are living through. It appears that consumers are seeking out the tried and trusted or products that remind them of better days.

However, while recession appears to have evoked this response in UK consumers, the same cannot be said for those in the US, in spite of the even more trying conditions Stateside. According to US market consultants IRI, aside from some “nostalgic” packaging, such as that introduced by Hershey, the trend towards “throw-back” products seen in the UK has not been evident in the US. Is it possible that Brits are rather more inclined to seek out nostalgic comforts when faced with tough times? If true, it may not come as the greatest shock to our counterparts in other countries.

It is not just the effect the downturn is having on consumers that is prompting this culture change. Relaunching an old brand can save cash-strapped companies millions too, while reviving old ads, something that Diageo, Heinz and Unilever with Persil soap powder have all done, also carries significant cost benefits.

Interestingly, Kraft says the marketing campaign for Mellow Bird’s will be focused on digital media. Some point out that this smacks of penny pinching too. But it should also be borne in mind that the Wispa campaign was largely conducted through online media. If this is where consumers seek out old products that they are not seeing on their supermarket shelves anymore, online marketing appears a sensible choice of medium, as well as a cost effective one. The Thorntons move is also an online concept, at least during its pilot phase.

Comparisons between what is happening today in the food market and the pop world only go so far. Brands, for instance, have the option of visibly turning the clock back by reviving a classic look. Judging by the current TV ad, the Milky Bar Kid has aged extremely well, to the point of arrested development in fact.

However hard they try, ageing pop stars cannot so easily stem the flow of time. But in commercial terms, the analogy appears, rather like Tony Hadley and Simon Le Bon, to carry more weight. There is a sense that Kajagoogoo are returning to the well, and so in a sense are many brands.

By the same token, however, revival only works if what you are reliving is really worthy of revisiting. Those straining to remember any Kajagoogoo hits apart from ‘Too shy, shy’ may have their doubts about the benefits, commercial or artistic, in the band reforming, while possibly musing that ‘nostalgia isn’t what it used to be’.

In short, relaunches don’t always work. Cadbury’s Aztec bar, which dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, was relaunched in 1999 but did not take off. While the company had received requests for its reintroduction, there was clearly not the head of steam in terms of consumer demand as that seen for Wispa.

One could also note that things were rather different in 1999, not only economically but culturally. Perhaps the Aztec Bar would not have caught on anyway but at that time we were riding the crest of the Cool Britannia wave, had a strong economy and a relatively new government. In other words, it was a far cry from the downbeat and depressed climate of 2009.

The proof of the suet pudding therefore appears to be in the eating. Yes, there is a clear consumer appetite for the old, for the familiar, for the comforting, but any company will have a host of former products to choose from. Identifying which of those is ripe for revival is the real challenge, and to a degree every bit as testing as identifying which of a plethora of proposed new products might capture the imagination. Even among old favourites, it is still a question of picking winners.