News / Opinion

Nostalgia in branding: top design studios analyse the NatWest and Co-op retrobrands

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The NatWest rebrand and Co-op’s earlier this year have something in significant in common – a delve into the company’s design archives, specifically a return to 1960s logos, and this has stirred up a discussion across the industry about nostalgia in branding. Is it a savvy use of a company’s assets, and a subtle hint to its roots; or a lazy, innovation-stifling device used to tap into society’s feelings of “the good old days”. Or, even, was design simply “better back then”? We asked six leading design studios, including those that worked on the rebrands in question, for their candid opinions on the subject.

Dan Witchell, executive creative director at Futurebrand

“You need a bloody good reason for a revolution”

Referencing the past was not a specific aim of the NatWest project. Looking into its archive was an opportunity to re-discover some long-forgotten brand assets, already owned and ripe for reinvention. Over the years the clarity of the cubes had been lost through simplification and modernisation, so we set out to re-establish that link.

I don’t think overtly emotional nostalgia or pastiches are healthy but not understanding your clients past is even more unforgivable. The internet has given us instant access to archival material which has made it easier and quicker to find content, but I don’t think nostalgia in design is necessarily more prevalent now. I like the idea of upcycling a brand – but perhaps that’s just another way of saying “evolution not revolution”. You need a bloody good reason for a revolution and when you’re dealing with a very recognisable consumer-facing brand, you’d be a stupid to throw all that brand equity away.

There is a purity to mid-century design that comes from its simplicity. Arguably, the simplicity was as much a product of less sophisticated manufacturing as it was by design. The advancements in design-led technology mean we now have the ability to create anything conceivable, but just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. We are consumed by over saturation of information and image; our personal choices are being defined by algorithms as often as they are by our brains. It’s overwhelming, so it’s not nostalgia we crave, it’s simplicity.

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FutureBrand: NatWest rebrand

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FutureBrand: NatWest rebrand

Stephen Gilmore, partner at North

“Designers in general are slightly guilty of romanticising design from the 60s and 70s”

It wasn’t our original intention to refer to Co-op’s past, the brief was to create a completely new identity. However, through our development process we came to appreciate that the original 1968 logo was tough to beat. It’s a timeless classic like the British Rail symbol or the Woolmark and has that rare quality of being both a logotype and a symbol at the same time. This seed of a thought then grew into a wider strategy of going “back to being Co-op”, which was hugely powerful as an internal rallying cry and a signifier of the changes across the organisation. This was a useful approach in the short term for launch but not something intended to linger in the minds of Co-op staff or customers.

Honestly, the idea of “nostalgia” in branding is something we would hate to become any kind of wider trend or go-to approach. The Co-op project was a one-off solution and not borne out of sentiment. It’s much more exciting and enjoyable for us to see brands move on and develop through new ideas.

I think designers in general are slightly guilty of romanticising design from the 60s and 70s, but it’s true, that period did produce some beautiful examples (Co-op, Natwest, Mastercard, Lance Wyman’s Mexico Olympics — all created in 1968 alone). Why was such enduring work created back then? Restrictions in technology probably played a big part, with pre-digital processes potentially forcing a greater economy of form, to try and do more with less. Graphic design was also a more specialised craft, which in turn afforded the designer more time and respect (no pdfs!). 

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Co-op rebrand with North

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Co-op rebrand with North

Michael Johnson, creative director at johnson banks

“What we’re seeing with Co-op and Coca-Cola is a return to simplicity”

Traditionally branding that looked backwards made me more than a little queasy. I guess it’s watching too many beer ads claiming to have been hand distilled in obscure corners of the world, when actually brewed in massive vats in Stoke on Trent.
 
Maybe looking backwards to go forwards makes sense – it’s certainly easier to dig into a brand’s heritage for ‘inspiration’ because the legal hurdles of getting new symbols approved are now so onerous. Canny corporate identity designers have known for years that the easiest way to get an idea approved was to effectively ‘tweak’ what’s already there. What we’ve been seeing with Co-op, and arguably Coca-Cola before that, is a return to simplicity and a ‘stripping back’ of some of the clutter that some brands gather around themselves.
 
But it only works if there’s something there worth falling back to: ‘created’ nostalgia such as that pursued by the likes of Superdry strikes me as the height of cynical marketing (and a strangely gullible audience). I, for one, will be very happy to see some of the logo-clunkers of the past stay happily hidden for just a little while longer…

Tony Brook, creative director at Spin

“I don’t think mid-century design is ‘better’, it is familiar and that is comforting”

The use of nostalgia really depends on the rationale. Is it purely risk averse, and heading down the path of least resistance, or is it recognising a deep affection for the past and reviving that fondness? For the Co-op the treatment recalls a time when the brand was strong and forward looking, it has focused its offer and combined with the wider brand language has pulled off the neat trick of looking backwards and forwards at the same time. For NatWest, the mark is as iconic as they come, so hard to improve. However the visual language that supports it is strange, it doesn’t seem to fit with the mark and is trying too hard to be cool.

As for the wider industry, it’s too early to say that it’s a trend exactly. I see a lot of seemingly nostalgia-inspired design around (flowing scripts and muted colours, or Helvetica abuse). I guess it has always been here to some degree. I don’t think mid-century design is ‘better’, it is familiar and that is comforting. There is a wonderful opportunity for radical, contemporary identity design, that operates on many levels, animating on screen, in print and the environment. It’s a great area to work and to my mind the faster technology changes the more opportunities for expression there are.

Neil Cummings, creative director at Wolff Olins

“Heritage as a powerful statement of intent – I get it”

The heritage/nostalgia route is a bold choice. It’s asking your client to come out and say “we’ve lost our way, we’re going back to our roots”. It’s them admitting “what we had before was stronger and who we were back then was better”. It’s a big bold graphic commitment, it needs a why and it needs backing up.
 
The Co-op example is this done brilliantly. I’d lost sight of them as a business that helped people contribute to society and I lived above one of their supermarkets. Now they’ve given me something I can buy into again. The stripped-back blue membership ads stand out a mile, a simple bold identity alongside simple bold messaging about fairness. Heritage as a powerful statement of intent – I get it. The Natwest rebrand doesn’t carry as much clout. The relaunch of a mark that originally represented three banks joining forces doesn’t resonate with me. It’s not bad work at all, I like the pop, but as I stare at those Escher-esque cubes I miss the “why”?
 
So if, and it will no doubt happen, one of our clients suggests we look in the loft for a cool 60s logo I’ll ask “were you a fundamentally better business back then?” and if the answer’s no, I’ll suggest they look forward.

Tim Williams, creative director at DesignStudio

“Modernist design characteristics are more relevant than ever”

It’s a brave move to admit things were better before. Over time brands can often become lost or evolve in the wrong direction. Stripping back to the origin can be a good thing, as long as what you’re left with still holds the right meaning and is relevant to the audience. To me nostalgia is no more prevalent now than at any other time. Design has always been a process of reflection on the past and looking to improve things for the future. 

I don’t think brands are nostalgic for mid-century design. Brands are interested in the ideals of 50s and 60s design – the power of design to change the world. Now that we can communicate to billions of people through a 5×3 inch screen, the modernist design characteristics of economy, simplicity and the use of new technology are more relevant than ever.

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FutureBrand: NatWest rebrand

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Co-op rebrand with North