Life on Mars, Spandau Ballet, the Fiat 500 – it seems consumers of 2009 are bombarded almost daily with retro echoes from twenty and thirty years ago. But how do food retailers concretely tap into this nostalgia for a modern audience? Garnering empirical data for the trend is still at an embryonic stage and will become a crucial tool to maintain the trend once the recession ends. Using updated advertising and harking back to old-fashioned childhood reminisces are also key, but so is new media as Simon Warburton reports.

Nowhere is nostalgia more prevalent than in food retailing, which has seen the trend boom on the back of the worst recession in living memory. It seems we can’t get enough of Frazzles, Penguin Bars, Arctic Roll, cloudylemonade, instant custard and of course the ubiquitous Wispa, just to mention some of the myriad brands from our past.

Addressing last week’s Leatherhead Food Research ‘Nostalgia – Trends in Food and Drink’ conference at the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in London, museum director Robert Opie maintains the past is ingrained in our DNA. “Nostalgia is part of our psyche as a human being,” he says.

“Brands with heritage need to remember their past – you have Wispa and Texan Bar coming back [but] in a recession do you buy something that is cheaper or rely on brands you have loved across the years?”

And of course the plethora of anniversaries this year provide food and drink retailers with an easy hook to drill home the old brand values, although this has to be married to a modern update. Marks and Spencer – 125 years (Penny Bazaar campaign) Danone – 90 years (Les Annees Danone) and of course Guinness at 250 years – are all wheeling out the birthday cakes – and advertising campaigns to boot.

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There is, however, a very recent phenomenon that is – ironically – radically changing the way we perceive old brands. With some 36% of US consumers now recognised as using social network devices such as Facebook, brands have a new tool in their armour – and one that is virtually cost-neutral.

“Wispa has something like 500 Facebook sites,” says Leatherhead Food Research market research manager Chris Brockman. “The sheer proliferation of online sites where you can buy retro sweets – Thortons for example – is quite significant.”

And as well as new media initiatives, which often start from consumers themselves launching campaigns for nostalgia brands, traditional advertising channels such as television continue to play a pivotal role in communicating food nostalgia themes. Witness the revamped Hovis commercial, perhaps the first and cast-iron template for all nostalgia brands, but significantly updated much in the way that the Milky Bar Kid ads have been relaunched.

Manufacturers and retailers want to re-grab a slice of the old marketing magic seen in those ads but products need to be flexible. “Branston had to adapt,” says Premier Foods plc consumer insight manager Nick Rabin. “Hence Branston Relish and Mayo – we took the magic and adapted it.”

Rabin also cites Birds Eye Iglo’s Arctic Roll as an old brand that has seen its return benefiting from broader changes to consumer habits during the recession – namely greater demand for frozen food. “In the case of Arctic Roll, the frozen food market has had a huge boost – Iceland’s profits were 84% up this year – the trend is the friend for Arctic Roll,” he says.

And Rabin highlights the media itself. It’s not only paid-for ads that are front of mind. The media love nostalgia at the moment – talking about Cupcakes, Lovehearts, Angel Delight et al is perfect Saturday newspaper copy and what’s more, readers relish harking back to the ‘good old days,’ when inevitably, brands were ‘bigger and better.’ It is human nature to capitalise on a childhood bank of happy memories; producers and retailers should think about how to influence editorial decisions using that warm glow.

Rediscovering nostalgia through advertising however is not a cheap option as Interbrand managing director Graham Hales notes. “Product relaunches are high investment, for example, reshaping Mini, Stella Artois and Virgin Atlantic,” he says.

Hales equally cautions it is wrong to simply assume consumers will “dial into” brand messages, citing how differently English and German audiences would respond to what 1966 means to them for example.

Recessionary pressures also create their own momentum when it comes to brand selection, with many consumers retrenching to what they feel comfortable and safe with, hence the popularity and resurgence of Arctic Roll. However, such brands require longevity and crucially, inherent substance or they risk becoming a fad rather than adding value to the bottom line.

One of the ways nostalgia products can create that longevity is to create an element of theatre to the consumption experience. “There are not many brands that have rituals such as Sherbet Dip Dabs,” argues global brand consultancy Dragon Rouge client director Claire Nuttall. “Nostalgia products need to have a sensorial aspect to them.”

The downturn has also seen frugal values instilled in consumers – “corned beef hash and baked beans” isn’t that bad,” notes Nuttall, while the Waitrose Essentials range highlights a capacity to retain quality while offering cheaper brands. “Quality is a differentiator, such as Heinz and Fairy,” adds Nuttall. “It’s about understanding your consumer and their behavioural drivers, their formative years, it’s about Generation X and Y, think about horses for courses.”

Longing for the past is a natural phenomenon, but in food, this appears to be driven by the food production powerhouses of the US and UK. Is there the same feeling in France, Germany, Italy or Spain? Perhaps those countries have a more direct relationship with ‘natural’ products and have no need for manufactured nostalgia? There is a study to be made there.

And what of gender differentiation? The overwhelming drive to food nostalgia comes from women – men perhaps are driven by traditional staples of cars, beer and gadgets. Again, more research would be useful as it would be in so many aspects of nostalgia. Anecdotal evidence suggests food producers are using nostalgia as incremental potential – there does not appear to be an effect on new product development but an updated study in an economic upturn will define if that is correct.

Other marketing tricks for nostalgia brands also tap into modern techniques, such as including smaller portions (health), snacking opportunities, microwave capability and lunchbox possibilities. And of course the elephant in the room is always the environmental pressure shaping modern life. Even Easter Egg packaging is starting to reduce in some cases.

So myriad factors are at play in the marketing mix for nostalgia; advertising, human reminisces, social networking, recessionary pressures and even the media itself. But come the upturn, and it will come, nostalgia needs to be relevant and exciting as well as comforting and cosy. Look at the nostalgia brands that didn’t make it – Spangles, Aztec, Pacers and Bazooka among others – there is no guarantee of success.

And above all, it has to be relevant to consumers’ lives as Nuttall notes pertinently. “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ears,” she says.

Nostalgia is notoriously difficult to pin down and its landscape is constantly shifting; one person’s nostalgia could be someone else’s dislike. This recession has put the sector under the spotlight like none before it – can nostalgia ‘survive’ an upturn or will it fade as consumers look forward rather than back? One to watch.