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Next Phase, New Wave, Dance Craze, Anyways ...

By: Jeff Falk
Posted: March 2, 2012, from the March 2012 issue of GCI Magazine.

If you were on a United flight and your Hemispheres magazine was missing the “Remembrance of Cocoa Puffs Past” article, sorry, that was me who tore it out. Before the flight, I had edited a number of articles on heritage brands and retro style, in both look and in packaging and ingredient components, so Hemispheres contributor Dale Hrabi’s piece on the current move toward retro marketing—in which companies use a technique known as childhood memory elicitation, among others—to define consumer nostalgia and develop advertising and promotions to entice consumers to buy again hit its mark with me.

Vintage logos and sepia-tinted commercials, given examples in the article, can cut through the clutter of modern, hectic advertising media and stir up feelings of comfort that trump financial worries, particularly well-explored by Miriam Quart in Aspirational Consumers Turn Nostalgic (GCI, April 2011). I admit that even though I revolt against a certain kind of nostalgia, I am drawn to that which is the vintage of my formative years—just as so many other consumers are so drawn—and, in fact, feel comforted by the brands and brand imagery and marketing of my youth.

With these articles fresh in mind and while in the local grocery store about to turn down the cereal aisle, the television commercial catchphrase for Quaker Oats’ Life cereal jumped straight into my consciousness—“He likes it! Hey Mikey!” The ad campaign* ran from the mid 1970s through the mid 1980s, and featured a freckled four-year old whose brothers, not bold enough to try the cereal for themselves, conclude that Mikey should be the guinea pig. They are dumbfounded when the apparently fickle kid (“He won’t eat it. He hates everything.”) consumes bite after bite.

I didn’t particularly like Mikey and felt the commercial was a bit hokey, but I pestered my mom to buy it. When she did, I didn’t care much for the cereal, but that catchphrase and the brand stuck in my head as I pushed my cart through the store—and I do feel a certain positive something for both. I guess it’s nostalgia; I can at least identify that place and time in my life, and I think there is something to be said about leveraging nostalgia as a marketing tool. However, I think the real key of the staying power of the catchphrase itself, as an element of the marketing campaign, is that it is simply well done and targeted to the right audience. Life was relatively new to the market, facing recognized cereal stalwarts such as Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies. Keeping in mind children as its primary consumers, if the fussy freckled mute Mikey likes it, so too will the rest of America’s children.

Is nostalgia in cases such as this not a sentimental yearning for the past but a validation that the marketing and advertising team achieved its branding goal? It connected, my mom bought it, and it remained a staple in our pantry despite indifference to the product itself. I’m not nostalgic for the cereal like I am for the Christmas when all the Star Wars toys ended up under the tree or the summer that followed passing my driver’s test. Life just did its job and did it well; it stuck.

It brings me to a short litany of questions—When is the right time to forsake the proven for the new? And what is the full extent of brand heritage and its ongoing value in connecting with consumers? What are the indicators that a brand refresh, updated packaging, new ingredients, new campaigns, etc., are needed for the continued viability of the brand? From what I could find online, Life introduced eight additional varieties since the Mikey spots first ran. Of those, at least five were discontinued. Apparently, Mikey wouldn’t eat those.

* The spot was written by Edie Stevenson, a copywriter at Doyle Dane Bernbach. Daily papers across the U.S. reported her death on Dec. 13, 2011, at the age of 81.