The Magical Nostalgia of Old Brands

( This article was first published in THEWIRE.IN on July 7, 2018 ) Brands are like people. They grow old. Some wither and die. Some barely manage to stay alive, and others achieve near immortality. What is it about some brands that can keep them going for hundreds of years while others fade away? Recently Parle-G launched a nostalgia campaign for young millennials, which touched upon memories of the biscuit. The hoary brand Roof Afza also launched a new campaign showing, to a younger demographic, how it can be used for various purposes. Brands periodically try to stave off the effects of ageing through marketing and advertising tactics. But old archetypal brands have something magical about them. They appeal to the masses because they are the lowest common denominator and can talk to anyone irrespective of income, class, creed or sex. They are the social glue that brings and keeps people together. They are brands that satisfy, typify and unite all the individuals of one large social tribe.  But when brands get old, marketers worry. Their first instinct is to figure out how to make the brand younger. Old brands also trigger nostalgia and stimulate the inner recesses of our memory.  They make associations with places, people and moments that have a special place in our minds. They remain relevant.  Johnny Walker, Kellogg’s, Lux, Kraft, Pepsi and Coke – the list of old and still existing brands is quite endless. But so is the list of failed brands.  And old ad for the Ambassador.
Closer back home, the Ambassador and the Fiat car, Polson’s butter, Binaca and Dr Forhans toothpaste, HMT watches, Murphy Radio and many others, once resolute, are no longer around. After all who can forget the Binaca Geet Mala on All India Radio hosted by none other than the inimitable Ameen Sayani? It was owned by Reckitt Benkeiser and later sold to Dabur in 1996 before it faded away permanently from public memory. Although I grew up in a toothpaste using household, there was always a bottle of Monkey Brand toothpowder kept on the shelf in the 60s. I sometimes wondered if it were my great grandparents who lived with us who used it, or if I was supposed to alternate toothpowder with toothpaste. Then just for a different mouth feel I would use it every once in a while.  And I must admit I used to like the change. What has happened to all the old brands that we used but have now almost vanished away in our quest for a more modern life? Monkey brand toothpowder is just one of them. Nogi, the ayurvedic products company that manufactures the toothpowder and other products like Multani Mati was established in 1911 and is still around today, but you can’t help feeling that it could have been doing much better.  Old brands have an indefinable quality about them. They are embedded with nostalgia and rich associations. Take the HMT watch for example which was first launched in 1961 when India’s population was just 438 million. At one time, it had over 100 million customers and almost every Indian proudly wore it. It also created the first automatic day-date watch, India’s first quartz watch, Braille watch and analog-digital watch, for prices within the reach of most Indians.
For many like me, their Janata model was my first watch as a schoolboy and I have very fond memories associated with it. In a sense, HMT represented the symbol of a self-reliant India which was determined to create its own products for consumption. It was “Make in India” much before it became the anthem it is today. Today all the HMT factories have shut down and newer, fancier and more expensive watch brands have taken over.
 Long before Rasna realised in the 1980s that offering branded colas to guests might be an expensive proposition for an emerging Indian middle class, there was Roof Afza in almost every Indian home. A cooling summer drink that was a ‘soft drink concentrate’ before we invented that word. You just needed to add water to make a tasty, cool drink.  A Rooh Afza campaign. Technically perhaps Rooh Afza was a squash, formulated by Hakeem Hafiz Abdul Majeed, a physician from the Unani school of medicine and also the founder of Hamdard Laboratories. Roof Afza is a versatile concentrate that could besides making a sherbet, could also be used in plain milkshake or a falooda if you had sabja seeds, vermicelli and rose syrup close at hand. Such was its popularity that some old Bollywood films featured it in their scripts. The drink was also associated with Ramadan and usually consumed during iftar.  And the brand accounted for 70% of Hamdard sales. Among millennials, there are new ways of consuming an old drink – Roof Afza as a mixer for mocktails, something that might have been inconceivable in its earlier avatar.  Before our kitchens became the modular masterpieces of today and our gas or kerosene stoves were still primitive, there was good chance for housewives to suffer from burns. The home-made remedy was to use haldi paste over the burn. A messy looking ochre patch over your skin. But if you wanted the same efficacy in a tube there was Burnol. Burnol was produced both in India and Pakistan. And the cream was ochre, just like the colour of haldi. Which prompted all of us to think that it would perhaps be even more efficacious than the home remedy.

Why do brands fail?

Many successful brands fail because they have failed to see a trend in the future that will make them obsolete. Take Kodak for example. Somehow the Eastman Kodak company didn’t see the digital revolution coming and the speed at which it would invade us. Kodak traditionally defined itself as a chemical company, because developing film was based on an understanding of how chemicals work.   Canon and Nikon and other manufacturers who foresaw the digital revolution on the other hand failed to fully grasp the advent of the mobile and how it would change the entire paradigm of taking pictures with your mobile phone.  Nokia didn’t understand the fact that a phone would stop being a phone and become a computing device in the palm of your hand. And Blackberry couldn’t see a phone doing much more than being an efficient email assistant.  The Fiat and Ambassador cars refused to infuse modern car technology into the car.  They didn’t see that carburettors would be replaced by fuel injectors and that the synchromesh system would replace the old clangy gear boxes. In India, where they ruled the roost in a monopolist economy, they are now nowhere to be found. And yet there are others who adapted to the inevitable change that time brings to people’s lives.

Brands that endure

Take that other old favourite, Parle-G. For years the staple biscuit of the masses, it still seems to rule the biscuit market as No. 1, cookies or no cookies. I am sure the brand has had it travails. Perhaps it is a little infra-dig to be seen eating a Parle-G these days. But nothing comes close the pleasure of dunking a Parle-G biscuit in a cup of chai and devouring it.  Another brand that has stood the ravages of time has been Bata. Often confused to be an Indian brand because of its long history in the country, it was every Indian school child’s first shoe brand. And unfortunately, its image as a brand of school shoes seems so firmly fixed in everyone’s minds that Bata is trying so hard to shake it off as it embraces a more modern demographic with an entirely new range of fashionable shoes. Most old brands are relying on something the marketing community now calls nostalgia marketing. One piece of marketing theory says that the millennial generation, in particular, is longing for the familiar. Largely because the defining cultural motif of our times is to counter the exhaustive pace that technology is forcing on our lives. This theory says that millennials are looking for brands that remind them of growing up and that elicit feelings of safety, comfort, and happiness. And that there is a yearning to bring back the “good old days” as they remember them. This kind of marketing logic rests on the fact that people (millennials) are literally buying into the past. The thesis is that if you can show that a brand has been a part of a culture in the past, it shows how relevant it is to the present.  So, is nostalgia marketing common for the successful brand?  Almost every brand has had a brush with nostalgia marketing, such as Coke, Pepsi, Microsoft and many others.  Two years ago, Coke even actually remastered its 1971 classic coke commercial called “Hilltop” filmed in Italy for 4k television. At the 2018 Super Bowl, a number of brands retreated into the past while playing the nostalgia theme. Facebook is really good with nostalgia marketing. It keeps reminding you of pictures that you put on Facebook ten years ago. The term ‘a blast from the past’, is a meme, that uses a new colloquialism that is actually related to nostalgia. But brands are like people. And ageing has defied man since time immemorial. According to the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, when Eos asked Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal life, the God consented. But Eos forgot to ask also for eternal youth, so her husband grew old and withered. And so it is with brands. Eternal youth always eludes them. Which brands of today will be around 50 years from now? Prabhakar Mundkur is an ad veteran with over 40 years in advertising in India, Africa and Asia. Connect with me on twitter
Prabhakar Mundkur has spent 40 years in advertising and worked in India, Africa and Asia. He is currently Chief Mentor with HGS Interactive a part of HGS in the Hinduja Group. He is on the advisory board of Sol 's Arc (solsarc.org ) an NGO dedicated to special education for intellectually challenged children. He is also a member of Whiteboard ( whiteboardindia.org ) which supports senior management of NGOs in financial management, PR, Communication and HR through pro bono expertise.

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