At a time when brand differentiation is a more important and effective marketing strategy than ever before, we’re seeing many brands revert back to tried and tested techniques that play on nostalgic sentiment and develop new personas in order to reassert their dominance in an extremely crowded marketplace. But does brand rejuvenation always have a positive impact and add value? And is it a risk worth taking, especially in an economic downturn?

March 2009 saw the comeback of Britain’s own (although less racy) answer to Jessica Rabbit. Cadbury brought back its alluring ‘Caramel Bunny’, a character that was first conceived during the 1980s. With extra curves, a bit of botox, a fresh palette of makeup and a seductive attitude asserting that ‘she’s still got it’, the bunny made its comeback after almost a decade in the burrow. But will Cadbury’s nostalgic £1.2 million re-branding investment be enough to reposition their product in the chocolate popularity stakes? By falling in love with a marketing campaign – worse still, a cartoon – will this campaign really be enough for Cadbury’s Caramel to make a successful comeback? I suspect so. This campaign will not only capture old fans but will also attract new ones too. Differentiating a familiar product as ‘luxury for less’ will also be warmly received as customers face increasingly challenging economic circumstances.

Persil, Sainsbury’s, Sony and Marks & Spencer are other brands that are currently attempting to play on nostalgic sentiment to re-energise their brands during the economic downturn. Sainsbury’s is promoting its 140th anniversary while M&S is promoting its own 125th birthday. Persil is showing compilations of former adverts and Sony is bringing back the Walkman after 30 years since its creation.

But will these attempts at short-term brand rejuvenation find success in the current economic climate? If you saw Jon’s recent post about the ‘Emotional Selling Point’, it becomes obvious why nostalgia sells. Longevity, in most cases, does equate to brand success as it presents a certain degree of promise to consumers. Consumers see brands that have a long lifespan with a higher degree of reliability, quality and trust. These are emotional links that connect the consumer with the brand. That said I’m interested to see if this really applies to Sony’s new X-Series range of Walkman devices.

Along with this short-term brand rejuvenation strategy, M&S has also planted the seeds for a potentially longer-term campaign, which uses different tactics. In an attempt to survive more taxing times, M&S has started rolling out branded product trials in a network of South-East stores in a bid to attract more customers through new ‘convenience’ messaging. This is something of a shock for loyal M&S foodies. 350 products from Tetley Tea to Heinz Ketchup are on sale following a 5.2 per cent drop in food sales around Christmas and the planned closure of many Simply Food shops due to adverse economic conditions. For a brand that has never compromised the quality of its own food label, this can be viewed as quite a reactive statement. But in tighter times it could be seen as quite a sensible solution; after all, why limit your selling capabilities?

Gymbox, a less well-known alternative to the Fitness Firsts of this world, took a completely different approach to repositioning its brand earlier this year. To differentiate itself in a saturated market, Gymbox used nightclub designers to dress each branch and started to also offer ‘parkour’ and ‘chav fighting’ training sessions, as well as ‘boob aerobics’ and ‘stiletto workouts’. This creative approach will certainly give the brand a more distinct, competitive identity when judged by consumers.
P&G’s Herbal Essences hair-care range is a brand that I think really lost its ‘ooohhh’ factor as a result of a recent re-branding effort. Consumers apparently took the ‘herbal’ and ‘natural’ messages too literally, so the brand decided to move away from it core messaging and change direction when it reached a stalemate to appeal to the vibrancy of Generation Y and Millennial women. This new direction, however, compromised the look, feel and overall quality of the product and diverged from the core ‘natural’ messaging as the brand started producing what looks like e-number hair products. This may very well account for the nine per cent decrease P&G is currently seeing in its sale of beauty products.

These techniques of brand rejuvenation illustrate that if the brand message is at the core of the re-branding effort, regardless of wider economic circumstances, consumers will stay true to the brand. Re-branding during a downturn can be seen as a risk in terms of short-term financial loss, but if the campaign is implemented correctly in terms of strengthening and protecting the brand, then the longer-term value-add has the potential to scratch well beyond the next economic recovery.

Lucy Davies (@LucyDesaDavies)