Why nostalgia is one of the most powerful branding tools now

Handle your brand’s history with care. In the age of endless novelty, it’s one of the greatest assets a marketer can have

 
Kraft dinner boxes on grocery store shelves

(Mario Beauregard/CP)

“We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.” That ominous aphorism from PT Anderson’s film Magnolia may seem too gnomic for a topic like macaroni and cheese, but if it wasn’t haunting the nightmares of Kraft Heinz’s marketing team over the past year, I’d be surprised. How else to explain the astonishing decision not to announce they’d changed the recipe of everyone’s favourite comfort food until 50 million boxes had already been consumed? It’s pretty high-stakes for a company to keep a secret like that and, when it comes to a brand, the stakes don’t get much higher than its own history.

In the wake of this spring’s revelation, the Kraft Dinner story was widely reported as a New Coke disaster cleverly averted. Even Kraft Heinz themselves were a little smug about it. “We’d invite you to try it, but you already have,” gloated one U.S. ad, narrowly avoiding snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They were proud they’d reformulated the product without materially changing the experience of eating it, and the public seemed to accept the more natural recipe, forgiving the mass gotcha. It all worked out, said the pundits, because KD still looked and tasted like KD.

That may be true, but there’s a bigger lesson here than simply “don’t screw up your product.” If the makers of Kraft Dinner had been so certain taste and appearance were all that mattered, they would have shouted about the updated recipe from the rooftops the minute it hit the shelves. Consumer packaged goods marketers have proclaimed their products “new and improved!” with far less reason. But Kraft Heinz had talked about changing KD’s recipe a year earlier and discovered that fans were ready to be disappointed before they even tried it. Regardless of the potential benefits, the mere idea of change had instantly produced a negative bias.

The company was smart to be circumspect, because emotional bias is what makes a brand worth having. And, though lots of marketers want to believe they can manipulate such biases at will, it rarely works that way. Mostly, the kind of bias that makes a brand valuable is built up over time through predictable behaviour. Like a character in a play, a brand’s actions gradually reveal motivation and personality. It’s not just jarring when one steps out of character—it upends the whole narrative. That fourth wall comes down, and people suddenly wonder if they should believe any of it.

That was the real danger for KD. Here is a brand long loved for its unapologetic indulgence, a treat for kids and a little box of happy regression for the rest of us. Making a public show out of redeeming its ingredients would have been just so…parental. The covenant between the brand and its fans would have been broken as surely as if Kraft had announced KD was to be made of broccoli. Of course, people assumed they weren’t going to like it. When history is part of what makes a brand appealing, change can taste a lot like betrayal.

It’s striking how many of marketing’s cautionary tales begin with someone wanting to improve something. That’s because even when it’s well-intended, improvement is frequently still simple vanity. Consumers don’t have relationships with marketers; they have them with brands. And when those brands are famous, continuity of purpose is part of why people trust them. For customers, the past isn’t just prologue, it’s context. Disregard it, and the difference between a broken paradigm and a broken promise becomes moot.

In this novelty-drunk age, it’s ironic that the most sought-after equity in the branding game is a history. But from beer to bacon, nostalgia is becoming a gold rush, and for good reason: because history is the only thing that can really authenticate what a brand claims to stand for. For that reason alone, if your brand has a useful story, you should probably treat it as gently as you would any family heirloom. It’s certainly just as irreplaceable and just as easy to shatter. Make that mistake, and there really is no going back.


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