Legacy Brands Can Compete With Challengers by Blending Nostalgia and Values

Consumer habits have changed, and CPG companies need to keep up

The renowned Oscar Mayer Wiener car that is shaped like a hot dog; next to the car is a chef pointing to the car
Legacy brands that rely on nostalgia need to upgrade their message to continue relating to consumers. Getty Images
Headshot of Travis York

Few things can take you back to childhood like recreating the food experiences you once loved. Making Kraft Mac & Cheese all by yourself. Lucky Charms’ magically delicious cereal milk. M&Ms melting in your mouth. But as consumers’ eating patterns evolve, will the fun foods of decades past be available for kids to enjoy?

Today’s CPG brands must evolve their once-beloved products through responsible reinvention to appeal to a generation of kids and parents who often prefer quinoa to Wonder Bread.

Marry nostalgia with current consumer desires

Legacy brands can get pretty far on nostalgia, but it’s not enough on its own. Instead, products must adapt to what consumers want while maintaining their core attributes. Today’s consumers typically crave products with a benefit beyond just taste. This includes foods and beverages that cater to dietary restrictions (low carb, gluten-free, etc.) or complement an experience, like eating popcorn at the movies.

In order to stay relevant and avoid falling into a novelty trap, legacy brands must understand their position, refresh their packaging and promote what they stand for.

The not-so-nutritious-but-totally-delicious Doritos brand has survived its competition’s wrath since 1964. Marketing itself as the go-to football Sunday snack and consistently releasing iconic Super Bowl advertisements, Doritos has proven its nostalgic quality (some are still mourning the loss of Doritos 3D chips from the 2000s) and remains legendary from Gen X to Gen Z. Meanwhile, Doritos understands its consumer base and continuously gives them what they want, such as teaming up with Taco Bell to deliver the infamous Doritos Locos Taco to the Pizza Hut Australia collaboration, which offered the Doritos Crunchy Crust Pizza, to crazy bold flavor experiments.

Stay true to your core function

While it’s important for any brand to be conscious of lifestyle and health trends, there’s a danger for legacy products when they change just to stay trendy, risking the loss of beloved core attributes. Sure, people are more health conscious, but many still want to indulge in delicious and familiar things. No one eats Ellio’s Pizza or Hot Pockets because they’re healthy. However, for similar brands, there’s no sense in adapting to keep up with wellness trends or drastically revamping the recipe, especially if it changes the taste or isn’t going to appeal to a health-conscious consumer anyway.

A brand that successfully pivoted without changing its recipe or taste is Nabisco Animal Crackers. Their packaging always had a nostalgic undertone, recalling a time when circuses kept caged animals. This idea might have once been associated with joy and adventure, but the brand tactfully redesigned its packaging to show animals walking free in response to a new era that sees old circus practices as cruel. A simple change to the product generated publicity and renewed relevance.

This isn’t to say that these kinds of products can’t invigorate their brands with new flavors, but there’s no point in keeping up with trends if you lose that irreplaceable factor that earned you iconic status in the first place.

A lot of heritage brands are giving up

In their rush to catch up, many brands are losing sight of what they mean to consumers. They must embrace their brand identity, own their uniqueness in today’s market and put some effort into appealing to modern consumers by refreshing their style to modernize marketing efforts.

A favorite that is poised for responsible brand reinvention is Bugles, which has the perfect ingredients to succeed in today’s landscape. It’s a fan favorite, tastes good, has a unique name and shape and a variety of flavors. In order to thrive, the brand should take a page out of Frito-Lay’s playbook, whether that means marketing Bugles as an occasion-based snack or integrating it into fun recipes. Bugles must pivot its marketing by leveraging digital and social platforms for its loyalists to become advocates.

Another example is Yoo-hoo. It’s not chocolate milk enriched with calcium and vitamin D, rather, it’s a delicious chocolate drink made primarily of water and sugar. But instead of disingenuously hailing itself as a nutritious elixir, the product is more likely to capture consumers who crave drinks that simply taste good. It needs to aggressively market itself as a fun alternative to soda and embrace the fact that fewer loyal customers can be more valuable than lots of occasional ones.

In turbulent times, there are few things people appreciate as much as good, old-fashioned nostalgia. It’s incredibly comforting to experience enjoyable foods that trigger positive memories. But in order to stay relevant and avoid falling into a novelty trap, legacy brands must understand their position, refresh their packaging and promote what they stand for. Only then will they earn the respect and attention of the people who once loved them so they can comfortably welcome their kids as a new generation of brand loyalists.

@gykantler Travis York is president and CEO of GYK Antler.