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Moustaches and beards are reappearing on those in the know. It’s part of the huge nostalgia trend which food brands are lapping up with retro food packaging design – and their customers are asking for seconds.

What’s it about?

In times of trouble – war, economic downturns, natural disasters and the like – we shrink the world down to what we know to feel secure and reassured, and look back to perceived simpler times. Many food brands today understand that to communicate their past – whether real or imaginary – gives them a strong sense of permanence and restates their values, important when people are looking for comfort.

What are we seeing?

Old brands, especially sweets and other ‘treat’ foods, are reworking and reintroducing retro food packaging design to communicate their heritage, often reinstating fondly-remembered products at the same time. New brands are reworking nostalgic propositions to create something new. At the same time, it’s interesting to see how many heritage foods like Battenberg cake, trifle and Victoria sponges are making their way onto the menus of the great chefs.

Who’s doing what?

Lots of chocolate bars are being resuscitated to please children of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Nestlé brought back Drifter (plus the limited edition Drifter McFlurry collaboration), the 1970s Texan Bar, as well as back TV advertising of the nerdy Milky Bar Kid showing 50 years of tense-looking speccy blond boys staring vacantly at the camera. Burton Food’s re-launched caramel Wagon Wheel with 1970s-style gold packaging, and Walkers revived Monster Munch in its original 1977 design and flavours, rehiring the stars of old TV advertisements to lend authenticity. There’s Brannigan’s crisps harking back to the brand’s original brown paper bag design but in very 21st century low fat versions – while Doritos taco-favour chips are using their original 1960s packaging, and Birds Eye made us a gift of the much-missed Arctic Roll in a 1970s-feel cardboard box.

At last, brands are listening to their customers to find out what they really, really want. So a Facebook campaign brought back Cadbury’s Wispa, which overnight became the UK’s most bought bar, and Findus asked their customers if they wanted to see Chicken Curry Crispy Pancakes – every student’s favourite – and received an overwhelming yes. Interesting that Hovis relaunched its original-size 400g loaf for singletons.

Great to see Ben Shaws soft drinks relaunched with retro designs and real heritage flavours of cloudy lemonade, dandelion and burdock and bitter shandy. Cadbury’s meanwhile are reworking packaging for Curly Wurly, Fudge, Chomp and Freddo bars, inspired by original old designs. Interesting that recent US Celebrity Apprentice finalists were tasked with designing retro packaging for 7UP on the show. Spot on.

Brand propositions

Products themselves are following the trend, with M&S introducing nostalgic sandwiches with old-fashioned fillings (jam, ham and corned beef) for those who can’t make their own. It’s gratifying to hear people talking about different UK apple varieties (there are 1,200 – just imagine!) and knobbly-shaped peppers, carrots and parsnips about to return to our shelves. Interesting too that the Dewhurst chain of butchers, once Britain’s biggest, is currently being revived, as part of a new venture to reinvigorate old British brands. And even rebrewed Maxwell House instant coffee – once the preserve of sophisticated 1970s kaftan-wearers – which Kraft has updated in Mocha, Irish Crème and Orange Cappuccino flavours.

New heritage brands

Newly minted brands are cashing in on the craze for the past, with no heritage of their own, apart from what they communicate. Alchemist Dreams in the UK makes the world’s first custom liqueurs, each blended by hand to order in small batches, decanted into an old-fashioned bottle with a red ribbon, sealed with a blob of wax and a personalized, hand printed label. Likewise, Doss Blockos beer in New York, whose packaging is inspired by the squatters of the 1990s, with each bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag reflecting the lager’s stripped-back approach to brewing, and London’s Sipsmith premium vodka and gin brand whose old-fashioned line drawings nod to traditional craftsmanship, and gives the brand instant heritage.

It’s great to see new ideas around you – but it’s also comforting to be reminded where you’ve come from.