Back to the Future: Fresh Package Design for Retro Brands

Pepsi’s return in 2009 to its classic white can with center red panel and former brand identity straight out of the 1970’s – a stark departure from its contemporary sapphire blue package – reinforced brand heritage and values. The company cleverly used the word “Throwback” and touted its use of real sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup. Underneath “Throwback,” the words “Limited time only” appear. Smart. High brand recognition, nostalgia, a reinforcement of brand values – for a limited time – proved to be a formula for success for Pepsico, prompting them to offer retro packaging for their Doritos brand.

But did this move turn new consumers into brand fans? When Pepsi conducted consumer surveys on the retro packaging, the company found that more than 50% of the people who purchased the product bought more than they normally did. Many of those customers didn’t usually buy Pepsi products; they didn’t buy other Pepsi products and they didn’t buy other carbonated drinks, either. Thus, Pepsi had gained new customers, according to Amy Wirtanen, senior director of marketing for PepsiCo Beverages America.

Why go retro with your heritage brand’s package design?

What’s intriguing is that bringing back classic packaging, but contemporizing it a bit, can act as a bridge among multiple generations of consumers. Because it looks distinctive when compared with modern, sophisticated packaging on the shelf these days, it’s a clear stand-out. To younger consumers, who are suspicious about brands, those with slick packaging appear to be trying too hard. Retro packaging makes brands seem more authentic, down to earth and honest – less contrived.

Kids and young adults tend to think retro is great unless it looks old and tired. The trick is to give a retro feel to packaging while updating it enough to give it appeal for a contemporary audience. General Mills partnered with Target in 2013 to offer its Monster cereals in retro packaging right around Halloween. How perfect is that? Reintroducing the monster cereals in new packaging while retaining the original characters and product form allowed Boomers and Gen-X’ers to recall the fun times they spent enjoying these breakfast treats as kids, making an immediate and powerful connection with the brand and motivating purchase decisions.

The packaging for General Mills’ monster cereals was beautifully designed. Illustrations of the classic characters in a fun new style drove the entire package design, with each monster’s package and illustration representing its flavor monochromatically. The beauty of this packaging is that, like Pepsi’s Throwback, it was available for a short time – and much like any limited edition, it became valuable to collectors and aficionados of the brand.

Package design that merges a classic look with a modern appeal

Some of the best examples of retro packaging appear in the toy industry. By tweaking classic toy packaging (and sometimes the toys themselves,) and by leveraging the heritage cues that remind parents of their own childhoods, heritage toys can be refreshed for a new generation of kids – while earning parental approval.

However, in some cases, it’s nice to represent both classic toys and packaging as they were when they first came on the scene. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, favorites from the 1980’s, are back. With a hit TV show on Nickelodeon, a comic series from IDW Publishing and an action movie planned, the Turtles are hotter than ever. Playmates Toys recently re-released the classic figures that first appeared in 1988 for Toys ‘R’ Us. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello will get an instant jolt of recognition from collectors who grew up loving this crime-fighting quartet, upon seeing the classic action figures and packaging. The primary difference in the retro packaging is the brand communication in the upper right-hand corner: “Classic Collection” and “Originally released in 1988.” The throw-back packaging with each figure in classic action pose, the original brand identity and the toned-down color palette look cool when juxtaposed next to today’s neon-colored, sophisticated packaging for TMNT toys from the animated series. Besides the packaging, the figures have less articulation than contemporary ones, adding to the vintage feel. The back panel of each package doesn’t share the story about the character inside, relating the franchise’s history and origins, instead. These figures and packaging have strong appeal. For adults, they’re truly nostalgic and collectible. For kids, they’re cool since they’re so different from the modern action figures they’re used to seeing, including today’s updated versions of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Fisher Price has been a beloved toy brand for infants, toddlers and preschoolers for over 80 years. The wheeled Chatter Telephone which toddlers pulled behind them with a string was introduced in 1962. It became an instant hit and the brand’s number one toy for most of the 1960’s-1970’s. Time Magazine ranked it 45th on its list of the All-Time 100 Greatest Toys. The buttons and dial encouraged kids to emulate their parents on the phone, and to develop speech. Today’s toy is made of plastic rather than its original wood but it has been re-released in its classic packaging by Basic Fun, Inc. Cut-outs on the top, front and sides of the package encourage kids to “try me.” The original Fisher Price brand identity and signature red canopy across the top and sides of the plain brown box are very retro, as is the bright blue band across the bottom of the packaging with the simple brand communication: “Fisher Price Toys.” A red burst on the lower left-hand side of the packaging states: “Yesterday’s classics for kids of today” as a nod to the toy’s history. Regardless of how sophisticated today’s kids are from the youngest age, the interactive nature of the Chatter Telephone resonates. Parents and grandparents will smile and endorse this classic toy in its retro package.

Leveraging retro packaging to celebrate a brand milestone

Cabbage Patch dolls, a 1980’s classic, have been making a come-back. In a smart marketing move, the brand launched Cabbage Patch Celebration Kids in 2013 to mark the brand’s 30th anniversary. It’s clever to leverage a birthday party celebration: something that kids clearly love. Festive packaging depicts colorful streamers and confetti to make the point. The most important piece of brand communication is the brand identity with the “Celebrating 30 Years” banner in the center lower front of the packaging. In the lower right-hand corner, a special “Celebration Kids” logo further extends the theme of these special edition dolls, which are destined to become collectors’ items, with packaging as important as the toys.

As for the Cabbage Patch dolls, each is still slightly unique and one of a kind – “just like you” – the packaging proclaims, leveraging its cornerstone brand value. Each doll still comes with a birth certificate and adoption papers as well as a festive “cupcake” comb for the girl dolls and hip glasses for the boy dolls. All of them are still branded scent-wise, smelling of baby powder as they always have. Yet, these plush babies are now contemporary with color-streaked hair and clad in trendy party clothes. Proof that product and packaging can leverage classic values and cues while being contemporized to appeal to a new generation, and bringing back fond memories for parents.

How to do retro package design right

When classic brands consider designing retro packaging, they must define their objectives and reasons for doing so beforehand. They must also consider how “retro” they should go; will heritage packaging benefit from tweaking to contemporize it a bit? Or is it better to recreate the original? Remember that there should be appeal for multiple generations. If these criteria are not met, retro package design may not be the best idea. For other brands, they need to look to those who have been successful in this endeavor – who have pointed the way to how to do it in the right manner.

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