How Brands Can Be Cool by Going Retro

Sometimes a brand can unleash its inner cool by going retro. The Topps Company is a case in point. Topps has been manufacturing trading cards annually since Joe DiMaggio was playing for the New York Yankees. Since 2001, Topps has issued so-called heritage sets that depict contemporary players in cards that reproduce the design of some of its more memorable yearly editions. The 2012 Topps Heritage set features the baseball stars of today in the retro style of the Topps 1963 series, down to the brightly colored borders, inset photos, and cartoonish images on the backside. And Topps is among many other brands that create a sense of style and authenticity by celebrating their histories.

The sports industry often embraces its past. The Cleveland Cavaliers of the National Basketball Association famously adorns its players in several styles of throwback jerseys as do many other professional sports teams.

Throwback jerseys are so popular in the National Football League that the Bleacher Report recently ranked them for the quality of their designs.

The Topps 1963 set has generated plenty of buzz among baseball card collectors not only for its design but for containing elements of suprise and delight. For example, some lucky fans will open up their packages of vintage cards to find reproductions of cards from famous stars like Willie Mays — actually autographed by the stars themselves.

And some cards deliberately contain errors in a nod to mistakes made in the 1963 set, such as this card that purports to be an image of Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs but is actually that of Aramis Ramirez of the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Wood/Ramirez “error” is an inside joke from Topps. The 1963 Topps card of Don Landrum actually depicted Ron Santo in the main and insert photos by mistake.

Many brands outside the sporting world connect with consumers through their histories. Coca-Cola does so in a number of ways, including the collectors column on its website, where collectible enthusiasts like Phil Mooney, Coca-Cola archivist, discuss their love of Coca-Cola collectibles. Bacardi recently released an archive of vintage images of the iconic brand to celebrate its 150-year anniversary.

Cartier, Motel 6, Life Savers are among the many other major brands going retro with major campaigns.

So why do brands go rertro? A recent New York Times article by advertising columnist Stuart Elliott refers to throwback advertising as “comfort marketing.” Elliott writes:

Anniversary campaigns are part of a trend inspired by the economy that could be called comfort marketing, as advertisers invoke misty, water-colored memories of the past to woo consumers into buying products in the present.

A major aspect of comfort marketing is what brand managers call authenticity: reminding shoppers who seek value in the provenance of merchandise to suggest a product is worth buying because its quality has been tested for decades.

Music Mogul Jermaine Dupri makes a similar point about how a brand can create an authentic connection by tapping into its past. While speaking at 2012 Portada Latin American Advertising and Media Summit, he told me and my iCrossing colleague Gaby Guzman, “A brand’s history is its style.” As Guzman reports on the iCrossing Content Lab, “[Jermaine Dupri] explains that often a brand’s history is at the core of who the brand is, and by getting in touch with their past, brands will generate that authentic connection with their audience Brands like Coca-Cola or the City of Miami have a long history that they can draw from to generate content and engagement.”

Note that both Stuart Elliott and Jermaine Dupri stress the relationship between having a history and being authentic. It feels phony and cynical when a relatively young brand attempts to go retro, an example being the Arizona Diamondbacks Major League Baseball team, which offers four throwback uniform jerseys even though the team has existed for only 14 years.

And a brand needs to choose its retro style wisely. As the sports world teaches us, some product designs are better left in the past:

The NFL Pittsburgh Steelers are responsible for the jersey depicted here, a throwback to the 1932 team’s uniforms. In the words of the Bleacher Report, the jersey makes the Steelers look like a “bumblebee prison football team.” On the other hand, the San Diego Chargers powder blue throwback uniforms (evoking the team look from the 1960s) are justly lauded for their sense of appealing, eye catching (if not NFL macho) style:

The San Diego Chargers, like Topps, have created an authentic connection with their fans by going retro — and have unleashed their inner cool.

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