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From the Milk Tray Man to Hovis' boy on the bike, will revisiting past glories work for brands?

Today’s marketers live in a craven state of panic as they try to seize on or adapt to the latest marketing trend, buzz phrase, or piece of essential new technology (Oculus Rift anybody?) With everybody chasing their tails, worried about missing the latest microtrend, Professor Leslie de Chernatony helps businesses separate brand magic from hype.

Nostalgia can be a powerful force that none of us are immune to. Witness Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to Labour leader this summer on the back of a yearning for a latter day, purist brand of socialism.

Looking outside the world of politics, our culture seems to be going through a period of wistful reflection. You only have to consider this year’s big film releases to see how past brands are being resurrected. Jurassic World, James Bond and, the biggie, Star Wars, are the franchises that are making the running.

Brands are not immune to a similar revisiting of past glories. Hovis is re-envisioning its classic boy on a bike creative, reimagining him for the multi-screening kids of 2015. The bike is an updated BMX and the kids pay heed to modern health and safety practices as they wear helmets to race around outdoors, but the message is reassuringly traditional. Let children discover the world for themselves, hopefully with a Hovis buttie tucked away in their back pockets.

Also returning is seventies icon the Milk Tray man. Last seen breaking and entering, and leaving boxes of chocolates for unsuspecting ladies sometime in the eighties, Cadbury is hunting for his replacement. In a modern twist it has not ruled out that the winning candidate could be a woman.

That’s the thing about nostalgia in marketing – it only really works if there is a something to move the story on. Revisiting the past will only get you so far once the initial wave of recognition has subsided.

Tesco and BBH have subtly taken inspiration from the Prunella Scales and Jane Horrocks ads of the nineties with the new Ruth Jones and Ben Miller spots. Like Lowe Howard-Spink’s ads, BBH is using gentle humour to remind shoppers of the many advantages that shopping at Tesco brings, under the familiar Every Little Helps tagline. The first ads herald the longstanding one in front initiative where a till will open if queues develop, as well as the new brand guarantee promise. This revamped offer is an update on the existing money back promise previously delivered by voucher on baskets of goods that would have been cheaper at competitors. Tesco’s latest gimmick is to take the difference off straight away at the till.

There was a trend for brands running nostalgic ads at the beginning of the economic downturn. At a time of massive change and uncertainty, a return to established, loved and trusted brand campaigns made sense as it reminded consumers of the stability that such long-standing pillars represented in their lives.

It would be comforting to think that what is driving this most recent trend of nostalgic revival is the rebirth and renovation of established platforms into new ones for the future, just as the UK economy is rebirthed post-economic downturn. However it may be that the industry is simply running out of new ideas to resurrect ailing brands.

It doesn’t have to be like that. Who would have thought that a brand as pathetically unhip as Old Spice could be given a retro refit. But it did it by reinventing itself with irony, and not by trying to regain past glories.

The lure of nostalgia can be particularly appealing for brands that have equity issues and which are a shade of their former selves. Attempting to trade of latent brand appeal by going back to the future may make for a short-term fix, but it can’t solve underlying issues. To do that, brands have to grasp the nettle and face up to what it is that makes them relevant to today’s consumers. And that’s much tougher than revisiting their greatest hits.

Professor Leslie de Chernatony is a board director at Life Agency