DOES A RETRO PRODUCT STRATEGY REALLY WORK?
Lately, I have been thinking about retro product strategies. You know, when companies maintain or introduce new products that are rooted in designs or use models of the past. I am not talking about products that are just a continuation of trendy or faddy products and categories from years gone by – lava lamps, soda bottle dispensing machines, rotary telephones, and other forms of retro collectibles. No… what I am thinking about are 1) products that have withstood the sands of time and are still popular today and 2) products that are introduced with modern features but packaged in industrial designs to look like they are retro or vintage. They are designed to evoke feelings of nostalgia and of the durability inherent in yesteryear’s products. Let me explain these two types of products in more detail.
Old Products That Still Sell Well Today
Most of these products are CPG-type food and sundry products. They may have been reformulated, have had new packaging/sizes, and varied pricing over time; however, they are products that have been around for a very long time. Examples include the original McDonald’s hamburger, Crest toothpaste, Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, WD40, Pyrex, Jack Daniel’s whiskey,[RG1] Crayola crayons, and so on. They still sell very well because they have become imbedded in the fabric and use of our everyday life. They were the best in class then and best in class now. Their product designs and packaging are timeless and very much aligned with their histories.
Some products have become retro because customers never perceived the incremental features and benefits of newer products as outweighing the old products. A great example is the HP 12C calculator. HP makes other calculators (some more fully featured than the HP 12C), but old-school [RG2] people (note: you started work before 1990) still prefer the original 12C.
This was quite a surprise to HP early on. As a result, HP adjusted its strategy and has not only continued to produce the calculator since 1981, but created derivatives such as the 12C Platinum and 12C 25th Anniversary calculators.
What happens when companies push too far with product development that favors the new over the old? Nothing positive, I am afraid. They [JB3] violate one of those universal laws of marketing by creating products that their customers don’t want. Remember the New Coke – Old Coke marketing and product debacle? Coke had to reintroduce “Coke Classic” to address the customers’ complaints and differentiate the product from “New Coke.” Later, the company killed the “New Coke” product and quietly renamed “Coke Classic” just plain, regular “Coke” again.
Still other old products become niche products with certain customers and applications. For example, DJs and rappers like to scratch real, old-fashioned records, using turntables, when they perform or record and use equipment especially for that purpose. Of course, some of the newer versions have USB interfaces and other ways to plug them into computers and recording equipment. A lot of musicians like the sound of old synthesizers like the Yamaha DX-7.
Modern Products That Draw On the Past for Inspiration
A retro product is a modern product that draws on the past for inspiration. Some retro products are replicas or reissues [RG4] of old favorites, while others are completely new designs with style or detail touches that bring to mind an earlier period. Some industries in which fashion and design are important excel at this.
For example, take the new Chevy Camaro or the gull-winged Mercedes SLS AMG, whose lineages are clearly tied to the muscle and sports car looks of the 1960s and 1970s. Baby Boomers in their 40s and 50s desire those cars, and indeed many drove them back in the day. People like to play old video games either through emulation or on new gaming platforms like the Xbox 360. This is often called retrogaming. Another specific and clear example of this trend is the way in which the sport garments from the ‘70s and ‘80s are used nowadays. Soccer jackets, jerseys and T-shirts with former logos of the soccer associations are very popular; their designs commonly invoke the old days by using lines in the sides and combinations of colors characteristic of those times.
Brands such as Adidas, Converse, and Nike have their own divisions that specialize in retro products. Jukeboxes could have evolved their designs to keep up with the times; however, even though they play digital files or CDs these days, the design is firmly rooted in the past. Some Motorola police radios look remarkably similar to the ones used in the 1970s, albeit with better LCD displays.
When Does A Retro Strategy Work?
Of course, that is the $100M question. Nobody wants a retro version of an Apple II PC , the original, walkie-talkie sized Motorola cell phone (sometimes called the “brick”), or VisiCalc, the original spreadsheet software. Clearly there are limits to what a retro strategy can achieve. High technology devices that are constantly changing – getting faster, cheaper, better, smaller, and so on – don’t do particularly well with a retro strategy. In some ways, the most successful retro product strategies are derived when the customer views the technology or product as so mature that it cannot be improved upon. Like a fine wine, time makes the products better (compared to alternatives). Retro product strategy is also tied to retro brand revival. This means the brand and the products are revived together, as opposed to creating a retro product within a portfolio of an existing product line and brand.
Retro product strategies seem to work better in categories such as toys, food, candy, beverages, sundries, [RG5] fashion/apparel, music and cars. With rare exceptions, they don’t work well with most IT products, communications, consumer electronics, etc.
In its paper “Everything Old Is New Again,” DDB Communications tied the success of retro products to their ability to 1) allow for rediscovery, 2) connect with timeless consumer values, 3) stay true but contemporize, and 4) build a community around the products.
In summary, understanding the role of nostalgia in the consumption and customer experience is a valuable product strategy. If it is there and can be tapped, it could be a fruitful business strategy for your business.
Please share your classic and retro product cases and observations on this blog.