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Looking backwards to stand out

13 February 2012

Kevin Baughan talks about how to make your comms stand out by trying retro

Retro marketing – or repackaging stuff that’s been around before – is a well-used marketing and communications technique. And because it’s well-used, it is getting tougher to recall many campaigns or products; commonplace things don’t stand out.

When VW created the new Beetle, Smile Train persisted with what looks like a 1970's fundraising mailpack and Adidas reintroduced vinyl sports bags, they were among the first of their peers (certainly that I noticed) to deliberately look to their own history to achieve standout in today’s very crowded markets.But when everyone does the same thing, retro stops being a movement or a specific approach and just becomes what everyone is doing. 

Bang goes the standout and wave bye-bye to any comms cut through. However, it can be a different story when organisations choose to hark back to something that either wasn’t successful first time round or considered naff at the time. For example, I’ve been around long enough to remember when direct mail wasn’t that common, and passing notes around school and then the office was a recognised means of communication – not just something to be laughed at! In 2012, we might consider both of these things overdone or perhaps a bit naff. And I thought I did, until I received this note in the mail:

I know it might appear contrived, but it ticked the right boxes:

  • I read it because it was something I just hadn’t seen in such a long time – a classroom note!
  • It was different from everything else in my post that day (or in ages).
  • It didn’t tell me anything else at all, so if my curiosity was piqued I had to follow through.
  • It included a digital call to action – go to their website – which I did.

The website ( extends the tease with a countdown timer to Valentine’s Day – so at the time of writing, I still don’t know what the website is about! I will almost certainly go back and find out, though.

Is there anything in your comms or marketing history that you’ve discounted because it was naff, a bit clichéd or just tired?  Is there a technique in there that might just be worth reviving to help achieve some cut through?  Me, I’m thinking about advertising on beer mats again.

Clearly, just because a tactic is older and being reused, that doesn’t mean it can drive donations, successfully lobby MPs or make journalists pay attention. But if it’s different enough, relevant to what you’re trying to say, doesn’t undermine your brand and doesn’t have to stand alone (that is, it’s part of a suite of activity like the notes above) then it may just get you noticed. And being noticed in a media-saturated world is what we’re after. What do you think?

Kevin Baughen

founder and director, Bottom Line Ideas

Trustee, Director, volunteer and champion of marketing and communication ideas for not-for-profits and ethical business.