There was a moment when the new intake of girls at school stopped being brace-muzzled, awkward creatures in baggy flares and neon tops, with their eyes ringed in zingy, badly applied electric blue mascara. It coincided with the moment when Topshop became a fashionable, on-trend outlet; taking looks straight off the catwalk and onto the average person in the street, placing everyone suddenly within reach of style.

The girls became leggy, blonde and polished, arriving with their thirteen-year-old fashion senses already honed and with wardrobes to match. Topshop stopped being a place where you could buy a vest, jumper or T-shirt in every colour of the rainbow, and became a chain of fashion palaces, complete with ‘shoe lounges’, nail bars and shiny new shop fronts.

Did ex-director Jane Shepherdson’s phenomenal rebranding exercise (which undoubtedly changed the face of the British high street) rebrand the consumers themselves, or was it just a case of the right strategy at the right time?

One thing is certain, British teenagers are now rated the most fashion-obsessed in the world:

‘The advertising agency JWT recently asked young people in the UK, America, Brazil, Canada and Australia which items they would never cut back on, no matter how tight their finances. Brits ranked “buying new clothes” higher than any other nation in the poll.’

This isn’t in traditionally chic France or in sun-kissed Hollywood. This is in Britain, never internationally renowned for the beauty of its people or their style sense. But that’s all changed.

It is no coincidence that in the past decade, the rise of a youth culture fixated by fashion and celebrity has been so marked in Britain. Teen idol Emma Watson’s decision to head Stateside for university to be ‘more anonymous’ says a lot about the kind of world Brits are growing up in.

This trend of fashion-obsessed teenagers doesn’t mean they’re all running around in designer labels, flashing Louboutin soles. The astronomical growth of sites like ASOS.com (As Seen on Screen) demonstrates the fact that everyone now wants access to celebrity wardrobes, high fashion, runway styles and the associated glamour, all in a purse-friendly, disposable form. Yes, the odd birthday presents might be iPhones and Marc Jacobs bags, but the average purchases of these teenagers are under £40 and happening every week.

Going back to the discussion last month about Madonna and Jimmy Choo taking to the High Street, perhaps this is the most financially savvy move brands can make. By jumping onto the Topshop/ASOS bandwagon of affordable yet aspirational trends that teens can buy into week in, week out, big brands can sell to the most important emergent demographic; one that has a large disposable income, but is also surprisingly discerning.

Sarah Ventress – @sarahventress

The downturn has caused consumers to question every purchasing decision. When every penny counts, consumers will count every penny. Our very own Richard Edelman has talked of a cultural shift from instant gratification, to instant justification. But I can’t help but think that the ‘make do and mend’ renaissance though a momentary blip in consumer spending may have wider implications. Today it was announced that Aldi and Lidl’s growth is slowing, suggesting that middle England has returned to the comfortable lanes of Waitrose, rather than continue with carefully planned assaults on the budget aisles.

With Anderson’s launch of Free and during some conversations at our recent DET Breakfast I began to think about media brands forced to question notions of content ownership. Then a recent Wired feature (apologies I can’t find the link) made me think that technology has facilitated a wider cultural shift that I’ve decided to call DisOwnership. (More illustrious academics may have been talking about this for years – if so I’d love for someone to point me in the direction of a good book. For now I’m claiming it as my own).

We used to be a society of hoarders. From record collections to photo albums, we stored mementos in the real world. Digital Cameras, Spotify, Flickr, Facebook and iPods have changed this. Now we don’t have tangible products to own – but files, folders and passwords.

Back in the day you wouldn’t buy something if you couldn’t afford it. My grandparent’s generation balks at the idea of buying anything on credit. We seem to have swung the other way. No need to put an album on your credit card, if you can listen for free on Spotify? Why buy a car when you can rent one cheaply with StreetCar. Why even have cheque books when you can transfer cash online?

Of course there are security and protection issues when the products, documents and entertainment you own are stored virtually by a third party. But what I’m interested in is whether or not there is a wider cultural movement at work?

If you don’t own something, do you respect it? Perhaps, but certainly the relationship is different. For example – if you borrowed a book from a friend and accidently spilt tea over it you would probably buy them a new copy. But we share and lose USB sticks and pass on digital files over email, without ever thinking twice. So does that mean we don’t see ownership as important anymore? We might value the content, but do we respect it?

And what does this mean for brands, technology and media companies? Firstly – hardware companies will still shift units – I’m not thinking that DisOwnership is the beginning of the end. Just because we share content differently, doesn’t mean we all will move into a commune and wear hemp clothes. We are still materialistic, just perhaps virtually so. Secondly – as we know monetisation of digital content is a burning issue (and one I’m going to avoid here). Thirdly – the power of the crowd has forced brands to realise that they can’t own something as intangible as a brand anymore. As PRs we have to work with our clients to give the audience a degree of license over campaigns. Consumers may have disowned traditional goods, but the internet has also meant that every consumer is an intellectual share holder in the brands they engage with.

Luke (@LukeMackay)

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)