Can You Move Forward With Packaging From the Past?
By Pauline Tingas
If you bought a can of beer that had directions on how to open it, you might think the brand manager had enjoyed one too many product tastings. But that’s exactly what a lot of people found on their latest packs of Bud.
In mid-February, Anheuser-Busch rolled out a reproduction of its first Budweiser can, complete with a three-step illustration showing consumers how to access the contents inside. The graphic was essential for the package’s first run in 1936; at that time, beer in a can was a novel concept. But on this “new” can, the first in a series of three vintage offerings Budweiser is releasing in 2005, the illustration—and the package itself—evokes a powerful sense of times past.
“We’re excited about this retro approach because it reflects the incredible heritage of the Budweiser brand,” said Andy Goeler, director of Budweiser Marketing, Anheuser-Busch. “It’s an iconic part of American culture, and it has represented our rich brewing tradition for more than 125 years.”  
Looking to the past for marketing inspiration is nothing new. From packaged goods to entertainment, nostalgia has seeped into nearly every aspect of consumer culture—from beverages (Yoo-hoo) to movies (Star Wars prequels) to toys (Care Bears) to cars (VW Beetle) to electronics (Apple). It’s as if marketers all came up with the same “big idea” to manage and differentiate their brands.
The “rise of retro” can likely be credited to boomers pining for the brands of their youth. But experts say the trend is also a consequence of our increasingly turbulent society. “In uncertain times, people retreat into illusions of childhood or ‘the good old days’,” says Robert Kozinets, a marketing professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Marketers have picked up on this, understanding that it can be a competitive advantage, an easy way to make brands stronger, to tie them into people’s positive memories of the past.”
In the case of Budweiser, the blast-from-the-past packaging is a way to cite brand heritage and all of the warm and fuzzy associations that go along with it.  
Even what’s new is old
Even relatively new brands are seeking associations with other eras by launching their offerings in “classic” wraps. Interbrand recently designed packaging for Glaceau’s America’s Best Brew iced coffee line with duotone photography, retro-style typefaces and distinct 1950s diner-themed characters. The relaunch, which hit Trader Joe’s stores on the East Coast in December, attempts to differentiate the brand by bringing its four SKUs to life with identifiable characters from the 50s (like “Joey Cappuccino” and “Frenchie Vanilla”) in a category that doesn’t have any.
“We gave personality and impact to each flavor to match what we perceived as a consumer purchasing pattern—flavor first,” says Scott Lucas, managing director of the packaging team at Interbrand.  “The flavors each have their own character but they are treated consistently to support the overall brand.”
The nostalgic shrink-sleeve-covered can is also meant to suggest a time when “coffee was coffee,” positioning the line as a simple choice in a complex category (what the copy points describe as “foam, no-foam, soy, skim, latte, grande mumbo jumbo”).
America’s Best Brew is selling well in the two months since it re-launched, according to Jessica Wolff, a spokesperson for Glaceau. The credit can only go to the retro creative because the company hasn’t designated additional marketing support for the brand—the nostalgic packaging is its only voice.
Some experts urge caution in taking a nostalgic slant with a new brand.
“The retro angle, from a design perspective, can be a dangerous double-edged sword,” says Paul Earle, president of River West Brands, a Chicago-based brand acquisition and redevelopment firm. “It can kill your competitors if you do it right, but it can also kill you if you don’t. There has to be substance behind the strategy.”
It’s smart marketing for a classic
The approach might hold the most value for a classic brand that, rather than start from scratch, can leverage latent awareness to advance its market share. Earle says that, for dormant brands, nostalgia is a lower risk, less expensive proposition.
The Kraft Foods alum should know. His firm has successfully refurbished inactive brands like pain-reliever Nuprin and SOHO Natural Soda and is planning relaunches for Coleco electronics and Brim coffee (with its catchy “fill it to the rim” slogan) later this year.
Which brands make sense for revival? Earle says he seeks out entities that are proven and classic, rather than older “gimmick” brands.
“When Brim comes back to market,” he says, “it will work not because it’s a ‘retro ploy’ but because it was a sound brand to begin with.”
Earle explains that the name is short and meaningful to the category, the original graphic design elements are simple and memorable and the color schemes are unique.
“If a brand was relevant in 1950, and it adhered to basic principles of sound consumer marketing, the brand’s character will be just as relevant in 2050,” he says. “Really good marketing adheres to principles that are timeless.”
That’s not to say you launch an old brand in the same packaging as where it left off. Terri Goldstein, a Manhattan-based brand expert, says you have to reinterpret old brands and make them relevant to today’s consumers.
“A former brand’s recognition is lodged in the recesses of people's minds. But once it’s brought to the forefront and the message is made relevant to today’s sensibilities, the recognition carries great impact,” she says.
Restage for the modern world
Sounds deceptively simple, but packaging a classic brand is, in fact, extremely difficult to carry out with any measure of success. The biggest challenge for marketers is in determining which visuals to move forward and which to leave behind.
“You can make a big mistake by changing something without realizing the real estate it held in consumers’ minds,” Goldstein says.
The goal of a revival, she says, is to make it relevant to people who are original users of the brand and, at the same time, appeal to a new generation of consumers.
In the mid 90s, Goldstein worked with Jeffrey Himmel, CEO of New York’s Himmel Group, to revitalize Ovaltine in what many consider a textbook case of successful brand revival.
A historical review of the brand revealed that consumers perceived the positioning of Ovaltine as “vitamins in a jar”, and that they held the brand’s original package structure, its glass and mug symbols and its orange and yellow hues in great esteem.
Those equity elements stayed in the redesign because they communicated the heritage of the brand. But Goldstein and Himmel also secured a new position for the brand by incorporating appetite appeal into the line: new product photography and the “Tastes great and great for you” slogan were featured prominently on the jar.
The new package elements were also infused with a heavy dose of nostalgia. The glass and mug that consumers strongly associated with the brand were included on the pack, but this time in a soda fountain, diner-style design. The brand name was also turned out in a handwritten typeface and set against a round billboard shape that looks like something out of the 1950s.
Himmel says Ovaltine’s share of the milk powder additive category has grown from 11 percent in June 1992 (when he took it over in a long-term licensing agreement) to 30 percent in December 2004. But he emphasizes that nostalgia by itself can’t be credited for the turnaround.
“You need more than nostalgia and heritage to be successful,” he says. “Retro packaging is terrific if it’s part of an overall plan to deliver a point of difference.” BP
The author, Pauline Tingas, is the Senior Editor of BRANDPACKAGING magazine.
Where to go for more information...
Brand redevelopment. At River West Brands, contact Paul Earle a 312.327.4432 or
Brand consulting and design. Reach Terri Goldstein at 212.946.2833 or
Brand redevelopment. At the Himmel Group, contact Jeffrey Himmel at 212.688.1301 or
Brand consulting and design. At Interbrand, contact Scott Lucas at 212.798.7516 or
Terri Goldstein, a Manhattan-based brand consultant who’s worked on Ovaltine, Breck, PAM cooking spray and other classic brands, says marketers can uncover hidden riches and create a significant increase in sales by restaging their brands. The process might also support brand extensions that invite new revenue streams.
With brand discovery, diligence and design, Goldstein says, your brand of the past can be a brand of the future. Here’s her three-step approach:
Step 1: Equity study/emotional probing
Conduct a verbal/visual, historical/equity review to learn what identifiers—color, shape, symbols and language—resonate and hold equity with consumers. If time and budget allow, you might formulate a quick round of qualitative consumer research; does the brand have baggage to overcome?
Color is first in how consumers remember a brand, so you might also conduct a color focus group. Offer participants crayons and ask them to draw your product; their choice of color will reveal insights into their awareness of your brand.
Step 2: Brand relevance to modern times
Conduct a thorough retail audit to determine the brand’s current competitive set (it’s likely very different from the brand’s first-run). Identify who “owns” what visual and verbal components in the consumer’s mind. Determine whether words like “original” or “classic” bring comfort or whether they evoke a feeling that the product is old or outdated. Beyond brand imagery, identify whether a modification to the product formula or package structure is needed.
Step 3: Leveraging assets
Once vital discovery is completed, you have the new product know-how to leverage your assets in ways that match your brand’s personality, essence and reason-for-being. Brands cannot be all things to all people, so it’s important that your primary verbal and visual assets will resonate with core consumers from the past and, at the same time, offer relevance to consumers of today. If a retro brand is restaged right, you can achieve what Goldstein calls a “generational pass,” a word of mouth endorsement by an original user of the brand. The endorsement is priceless, she says, because it often comes from a family member that “knows best”.