May 26th, 2011

New! Improved! (and Very Old)

The Wall Street Journal

Marketers know vintage clothes and retro art sell well. Now, consumer-product companies are hoping that appeal carries over to cereal, chips and laundry detergent.

Procter & Gamble Co., General Mills Inc., Hostess Brands Inc. and PepsiCo Inc. are pulling old package designs out of their archives for brands like Tide, Cheerios and Doritos and bringing them back to store shelves. Smaller companies and start-ups are using fonts, colors or designs that evoke the past on their labels.

The move is a U-turn from labels cluttered with specific claims like “easy pour spout” or “better tasting” to packaging that plays on the emotions. Over time, labels have gotten busier because computers allowed for complex designs and marketers wanted products to stand out on crowded shelves.

“We got to the point where you couldn’t add one more bling thing to a package,” says Christine Mau, director of design at Kimberly-Clark Corp., the maker of Kleenex and Huggies, among other items.

The retro movement is driven, in part, by consumer-goods companies feeling pressure from retailers’ private-label products, which are generally less expensive. “Brands are saying, wait a minute, we invented that category,” so they are now reminding consumers which brand came first, says Steve McGowan, executive creative director at Landor Associates, a branding firm owned by WPP PLC that worked on the Tide and Downy retro designs.

Manufacturers also say they are hoping to benefit from consumers’ generally sunny impression of the past and stand out in a sea of modern, glossy packages.

Some early successes with old packaging spurred others. In 2009, PepsiCo introduced retro cans that touted real sugar, not corn syrup, with designs from the 1970s and 1980s. The products spurred a wave of email and interaction on social-media websites like Facebook, says Amy Wirtanen, senior director of marketing for PepsiCo Beverages America.

Most significantly, by 2009, data showed that more than 50% of the people who purchased the retro product bought more than they normally would have, they didn’t buy other Pepsi products or they didn’t buy other carbonated drinks, says Ms. Wirtanen. “We are getting new customers,” she says.

Her theory: People who may have been reducing the amount of cola they drink and people in their 30s and younger see the cans and use of real sugar and think, “It is authentic to history and the past and has an almost timeless element,” Ms. Wirtanen says.

As a result, PepsiCo made them permanent additions to its product lineup earlier this year. Doritos, also owned by PepsiCo, reintroduced taco-flavored chips with the bag from the 1960s through the ‘80s soon after.

Target Corp. often tells its suppliers to come up with unique things to surprise guests “so you walk out and you are going to have $100 of stuff in your cart you didn’t plan on buying,” says Lindsay Backer, an associated marketing manager at General Mills, which launched retro packaging of cereals like Cheerios and Trix at Target when the recession started to take hold in 2008. That’s when the company noticed consumers “getting back to basics, comfort food, value-based purchases,” says Ms. Backer. During annual promotion periods, sales of the retro cereals have been up every year since 2008, she says.

P&G released limited-time retro versions of its Tide, Bounce and Downy brands in Target stores earlier this week.

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