Monday, May 26, 2008

Mythical authenticity: retromarketing anew

When my kids were younger, we used to get tons of toy catalogs in the mail. One was called “Back to Basics,” and it was obviously aimed at Baby Boomer parents, with re-issued toys from the 50s and 60s, like Flexible Flyer wagons, wooden blocks and Tinker Toys. The slogan, “they do make them like they used to!” appealed to that generation of parents, who may or may not have actually hauled a red wagon around their yard, but yearned to make that kind of idealized childhood possible for their own kids.

When done successfully, especially with an already sentimental demographic, nostalgia sells. Retrobranding is not new – notice all those VW Beetles on the road? – but some companies are counting on a deeper affinity for brands from a not-too-distant past. Nostalgia is too simple a term to describe what’s going on here.

According to last week’s New York Times, one company, River West Brands is entirely devoted to acquiring and re-establishing certain brands, packaged in a reinvention of their original design. Some of the products -- notably Brim coffee, Underalls, and Salon Selective Shampoo – are not necessarily things that people still want or need (Brim is an instant decaf, for example, in an age where real coffee has morphed into a whole host of status symbols) Rather, Paul Earle, company founder, claims that the past experience invoked by these brands can be put to use generating interest and loyalty to newer incarnations of similar products.

Think of “brand memory,” as something more than firsthand knowledge: the taste, the appearance, or even just the advertising slogans are familiar even to people who may not have ever used the product on a regular basis. Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai famously reminds us that things (as well as people) have a history and a biography. Interestingly, this memory doesn’t have to be 100% accurate, it just has to tap into something that seems collective -- something lots of people can easily relate to. My daughters love the Tootsie Pop commercial with Mr Owl who counts to three before he can’t stand it and bites to the tootsie roll center. Is the commercial from the 1970s that good? Or timeless? Or is it the grainy edge to the animation? Or the fact that their parents stop dead in their tracks and say out loud, “One, Ta-whoo, Threee,” along with the owl? Embarassingly, it’s probably a bit of each.

Advertising campaigns have certainly played on nostalgic content before, but an existing narrative storyline of a product is a rich vein to tap. It’s the same reason why fairy tales, myths, and legends engage people who never lived in Bavaria or ancient Greece. They create a sense of belonging, of being part of a larger story beyond our individual lives. Marketers work hard at creating “backstories” for products – the revival of a retro-brand, carrying history in its DNA saves the marketer a whole host of time and energy. The Times cites recent research in The Journal of Customer Behavior:
Retromarketing is not merely a matter of reviving dormant brands and foisting them on softhearted, dewy-eyed, nostalgia-stricken consumers,” they asserted. “It involves working with consumers to co-create an oasis of authenticity for tired and thirsty travelers through the desert of mass-produced marketing dreck.
Now, I’m cynical enough to know when we’re being sold a tall tale, especially one rooted in the 1950s. But I’m also aware that authenticity is as much an invention as is nostalgia. Creating authenticity is what culture’s all about – and in consumer culture, companies invent rich worlds for their products. If they do it well, the story becomes real (it's almost like the marketing version of The Velveteen Rabbit).

Here’s my big question, though: how do we know which brands are worth reviving? Take Postum, which, despite being loved by my 80-year-old mother and a whole lot of Mormons, is an acquired taste at best, and is easily replaced by a good brewed decaf latte or even chai-in-a-box!

Is Postum interesting or cool enough to be Americana? My vintage Mr. Bubble and Spam t-shirts evoke a whole world of comments. There’s even a new line of Oscar Mayer wear for teens. The difference is that these brands are not yet defunct – and everybody’s got a story to go with these products (remember, when it comes to brand memory, it doesn’t matter if it’s real, overheard, or even made up, as long as everyone agrees on the "memory").

It’s the ability to invent or tap into a story behind the brand that makes the brand valuable even long after the products have been removed from the shelves. I for one believe foods are the best bet because they resonate in collective memory both visually and physically. Taste and memory defy science and yet we are learning more and more about the way they’re tied.

We may have to wait a few years to see if Underalls and Eagle snacks return as part of the consumer vernacular. Until then, I’ll be on eBay, looking for a Tootsie pop t-shirt for my daughter and Postum for my mom.

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