• Transform magazine
  • July 17, 2019

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Insights: The realm of the now

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The 2019 Transform Awards Europe will celebrate excellence in rebranding and brand development for the 10th year. Studio Blackburn is nominated for the awards

Nostalgia is deeply ingrained in British culture and in our identity as a society. From phrases like ‘The good ‘ol days’ to the popularity of period dramas, examples of nostalgia are everywhere. We saw it most recently used by the nation’s favourite provider of feelgood christmas adverts, showing one of our best loved performers in an idealised version of his 1950s sitting room.

But it’s not just Christmas ads. Nostalgia has been a longstanding marketing tool for wooing British audiences. Is there anyone within the industry who hasn’t to some degree indulged in the temptation to look back, to idealise, to romanticise?

Which – if you ask me – begs the question: is that a good thing? Did the Bauhaus never happen? Is this not the 21st century?

And nostalgia’s not entirely what you think it is. Its origins are darker than you might realise. It was originally diagnosed as a serious, treatable psychiatric condition. And while it is now seen as something more benign, the underlying issue still remains. Nostalgia harks back to a time that never really existed. It isn’t accurate. It isn’t true.

And it fosters anger around change, even when the change is inevitable.

We see this throughout the branding world too. Brands attempting to move forwards, to transcend nostalgic associations, can unleash public outcry. When Peter Saville recently rebranded Burberry – complete with sans serif typography and a more modern aesthetic – he elicited a furore of extreme social media comments.

This visceral and instantaneous reaction also feeds a culture of fear in both brands and agencies. The prospect of being publicly vilified for evolving brand identity away from nostalgic associations – for looking forward, not back – helps to perpetuate a risk averse culture.

We operate in a culture where brands can be overly concerned with measurement of immediate reaction ('engagement') – ‘how many clicks,’ ‘how many likes/dislikes,’ ‘how it has affected dwell times on content.’ Prioritising these concerns can overwhelm judgement as to whether the right decisions had been made regarding future proofing, sustaining or ensuring longevity for brands.

Working on the rebrand of the Canal & River Trust, we created a new identity that moved away from imagery that was typically associated with the organisation. It had undergone a change of outlook and strategy but still retained the canal bridge emblem and a silhouette of a swan. This was an opportunity to take the brand perception forward from a functional and passive one – there to fix the bridges, mend canals, dredge waterways etc. – to one that is focused on the positive outcomes of spending time near water.

We wanted to avoid literal images and to focus instead on positivity and optimism. We created an identity to show the true value that the C&RT brings to spending time by water, to attract new and different audiences, and to drive increased awareness, visits, donations and volunteers. No, not everyone was pleased to see the swan go. Nor by the change to a more conceptual, symbolic representation of bridges, but we staunchly stand by what we created.

At Studio Blackburn, we don’t focus solely on the past, or even on the present. We simply understand that we must not let fear – driven by nostalgia or otherwise – command or influence the work we do. It is our job, as creatives, to reimagine, to push forward. Sometimes that will attract controversy. Of course it will. But we will not allow fear (or the British penchant for nostalgia) to hold us back.

Paul Blackburn is the head of Studio Blackburn