You’ve Heard of Throwback Jerseys and Retro Clothing. But Old-School Cereal and Vintage Laundry Detergent?

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A nostalgic “back to basics” movement has taken root in the world of product marketing, and the result is that everything from soda to fabric softener and Doritos to Ding Dongs now come in vintage-looking packaging with intentionally dated colors and graphics. What’s the point? One marketing manager explains the consumer shopping experience manufacturers and stores hope for: “so you walk out and you are going to have $100 of stuff in your cart you didn’t plan on buying.”

Marketers have good reason to believe consumers will pay a premium for foods coming in an ultra-small sizes. It appears as if shoppers are also game to buy products mainly because they have all-new packaging that’s crafted to look like all-old packaging.

A WSJ story rounds up some of the many products that have gone old-school, at least in terms of appearance, which includes brands such as Tide, Bounce, Cheerios, Trix, and Doritos. Among the most successful retro experiments was one from Pepsi, which introduced (or re-introduced) old-school cans with soda containing real sugar (not corn syrup) in 2009. The move attracted an almost-cult following, with 50% of customers who bought retro Pepsi saying that they purchased more than they normally would have, and that they usually don’t drink other Pepsi products or other sodas.

At least with retro Pepsi, with the sugar swapped in for corn syrup, there’s a substantial argument to be made over, well, substance. The changes go beyond the surface. With nearly all other newly old-school products, nothing inside the revamped packaging is different.

Why does vintage packaging get consumers excited to buy the same products people hadn’t beforehand been particularly excited to buy? When you think about it, there’s something pretty gross about the idea of decades-old Cheerios and Twinkies. Even though it’s only the packaging that’s old, wouldn’t it make shoppers subconsciously feel like the food inside is sorta stale? (Do Twinkies even get stale?) And you’d assume that the newest, most hyped and futuristic version of Tide would clean clothes better than any vintage edition.

Not every old-school makeover is successful. A retro redesign of Miracle Whip proved to be a failure, which personally makes sense to me: I’m a mustard-only guy, and a freshly whipped up mayonnaise alternative is nauseating enough, let alone one that gives the impression it’s been on a store shelf since 1968.

But overall, vintage repackaging plans seem to be successful. Why? For one thing, consumers think they’re cute. That’s more than half the battle. Beyond that, old-school packaging subtly sends the message that the package is an original, that it stands the test of time, and that therefore it’s worthwhile and a good value.

Is it? Maybe? But that has nothing to do with the packaging. Inside, it’s the same old (new?) stuff.

All New Packaging! Less Food! Same Price! What a Deal!
Q&A: Jeff Yeager, Author of ‘The Cheapskate Next Door’