Elizabeth Goodspeed on the delicate art of nostalgia in branding

Our US editor-at-large dissects the emotional potency of heritage branding and how companies try (and sometimes fail) to capitalise on it.

This February, UK brand Lyle’s Golden Syrup unveiled an updated packaging design for the first time in 141 years. The earlier design, which held the Guinness World Record for the world’s oldest packaging, had remained essentially unchanged since 1883, a year that also ushered in the first rodeo, overhead wires being used for electric lighting systems, and the discovery of Cholera bacteria. It featured embellished frames and detailed filigrees as well as an illustration of a slain lion surrounded by insects — an Old Testament reference, chosen by Lyle’s religious founder, to the lion killed by Samson whose body was infested by a hive of bees after death (“out of the strong came forth sweetness,” as the package said). The new modernised design, developed internally by the Lyle’s team, retains many of the same visual conceits as its Victorian predecessor: a symmetrical arch, a gold and green colour palette, organic ornaments, and uppercase typography. It also retains the lion, albeit updated, simplified, and re-animated into a smiling animal head comprised of drops of syrup. But despite all attempts at a gentle transition “into the modern day,” as Lyle’s brand director James Whitley put it, the response has been swift and decisive: people hate it. They really hate it. In fact, when It’s Nice That shared news of the rebrand on Instagram, responses ranged from “I need to call my therapist” to “this ruined my day.” So... what happened?

As an American, I don’t have the same nostalgia for Lyle’s as my UK compatriots (to be honest, I’m not even sure what Golden Syrup is used for), but I felt the loss of the old design all the same. Much of this is due to my being a maximalist at heart; I simply prefer the busy look of the old tin to the sleek blandness of the new one. I also canonically care about old stuff! But the charm of the original tin isn’t its intrinsic age. Rather, it’s what that age signifies about the tin’s creation and its place in history. The original Lyle’s tin, like much late-19th Century packaging, was made at the peak of the industrial revolution – a period characterised by a wave of experimentation in printed materials, when branding was in its infancy, and graphic design still deeply intertwined with the traditions of print culture and fine art. Lyle’s old tin isn’t just arbitrarily historic; it’s specifically Victorian. The intricate aesthetic of the 1883 design is a direct product of the techniques and visual norms of its time. If the 1883 tin is an art history index fossil, the new packaging finds itself in art history purgatory instead, unanchored by time or tradition. It lacks the distinctive qualities or artistic cues that tether it to a rich past or propel it firmly into contemporary relevance.

Of course, putting aesthetics and cultural salience aside, I do understand that when it comes to subject matter, there are obvious reasons why a rotting carcass is a bad mascot for a food brand. The same goes for obscure biblical references (“the story of it coming from religious belief could put the brand in an exclusionary space, especially if it was to go viral on TikTok,” Helen Edwards, a professor of marketing at London Business School, told the BBC.) And yet, the unexpected contradiction of a dead lion surrounded by delicate scrollwork was precisely what made the old Lyle’s tin so good, and so distinctive. The original packaging, macabre as it may be, is an artefact of the days before brand strategy and focus groups. It wasn’t overly concerned with what consumers wanted (though Christian doctrine did likely resonate with a Victorian audience more than a 21st century one). Instead, it simply reflected what was important to the founder personally. All the focus groups and visual research in the world can’t replicate that kind of authenticity.

And while my personal taste (tackled last time!) leans towards the historic, consumer behaviour also suggests a broader predilection towards heritage and the perceived authenticity it affords, even when that heritage isn’t attached to a superior aesthetic. In fact, public preferences often lean towards traditional or seemingly “worse” designs, so long as they’re backed by an appropriate connection to nostalgia. One notable example is the recent rebrand of Bahlsen, a renowned German biscuit manufacturer. In 2021, Bahlsen’s redesign was acclaimed by the design community for its clean, bold modernity (even winning them a D&AD award). Nonetheless, the rebrand resulted in a 12% drop in sales the following year. This decline was attributed to a variety of factors: low on-shelf recognition, reduced emotional resonance, and smaller, less appetising photos than the original, “dated” packaging. In other words, even if the branding was good, it didn’t feel right.

The emotional connection we have with packaging, compared to other forms of commercial art like posters or magazines, seems to run deep. I think this is because packaging is the set dressing of daily life; it’s the diaper box seen in the corner of a baby photo, the perfume vial on your older sister’s dresser, or the expired ketchup bottle lingering in the back of your parent’s fridge. Like Proust’s Madeleine, these branded items, often unnoticed in the moment, become imbued with nostalgia in retrospect, evoking profound feelings of comfort and recognition upon sight. This emotional potency makes packaging a powerful tool for brands. By maintaining or reverting to heritage designs, brands can tap into a reservoir of collective subconscious, triggering involuntary memories that foster a profound emotional connection. Nostalgia doesn’t just evoke fond memories either: it also creates a sense of trust and safety, as evidenced in the sharp increase in nostalgic content during the height of the pandemic.

Established brands have long enjoyed the advantages of consumer recognition and longevity, but it is a relatively recent development that they have started to fully leverage their heritage as a strategic asset. This shift is particularly noticeable in the wave of retro rebrands that swept through 2021, affecting a wide array of legacy brands from Colt 45 and Campbell’s Soup to ABC, Zagat, and Peugeot. These rebranding efforts signal a deeper acknowledgment within the industry that heritage conveys a mark of quality and trustworthiness. In a market so crowded with new brands that multiple editorial platforms exist simply to help us parse through them (Wirecutter, The Strategist, CPGD, Snaxshot, etc.), heritage packaging can be a powerful testament to a company’s enduring value. It’s an implicit endorsement from generations of consumers—even if your grandma never used this, someone else’s probably did. If they’ve existed for this long, they must be doing something right! Plus, why fall in love with a brand that might not stick around, or at least not use the same product formula, after their next round of fundraising? Even brands that aren’t sure about a full return to heritage are tapping into the throwback renaissance by re-releasing products with historic packaging on a limited edition basis, often keeping the change for good after positive response, as in the case of beer brand Natty Light’s return to its 1979 packaging.

But what happens if you don’t have a legacy to tap? Increasingly, brands without an archive to mine are finding you can fake one for nearly the same effect. This strategy, employed by a multitude of brands – though it seems especially common in the alcohol industry, with 1930s-inspired Festif Liqueur and Balholm fruit wine or apple brandy being personal favourites – demonstrates that the semblance of heritage can influence consumer perception and confidence irrespective of its factual accuracy. Heritage design may be art history without footnotes, but consumers, it seems, are less concerned with the authenticity of a brand’s legacy than the feelings of nostalgia and reliability that such narratives evoke. Even brands that do tap into their own history, like Jones Knowles Ritchie’s retro rebrand for Burger King, are often more fiction than fact. Despite being characterised in the press as a throwback, Lisa Smith, executive creative director at JKR, said the system was “never meant to be an homage,” and in fact relied on a typeface that intentionally hybridised many eras and styles together. This mash-up approach to visual history, or as my friend Michael Diaz-Griffith calls it, “Strange Historicism,” is the new normal; equally a product of logistics (historic branding doesn’t map well onto modern use cases) and a culture typified by fast trend cycles and a casual approach to fact-checking.

Just as the Victorian era’s industrial revolution shaped Lyle’s original packaging, today’s rapid technological advancements and cultural shifts are redefining what ‘heritage’ means to a new generation, too. Though brands have traditionally drawn on pre-1960s aesthetics to signal value and evoke emotional responses, timelessness is always evolving to include more recent decades as consumer demographics come of age. You only have to look at wistfulness for 2014 Tumblr or digicams to remember that “things were better back then” and “they just don’t make ’em like they used to” are entirely relative (see also: “no one wants to work anymore” being a phenomenon almost as old as the original Lyle’s tin). If Pepsi’s return to their 90s logo and the success of brands like Vacation (faux 1980s), Tacombi (faux 1990s), or Good Weird (faux 2000s) are any indicator, heritage is a moving target. Today’s innovations are tomorrow’s nostalgia.

I love design history, and I’ll be sad when, inevitably, more old designs get retired and this era of heritage-forward branding passes. But I also suspect that too much focus on the past — my own obsessions included – can prevent us from finding new things we love, too. What we sacrifice in losing the trust and nostalgia of heritage aesthetics might be easily replaced by the excitement and innovation of the truly new. And as Avery Trufelman, writer and host of sartorial podcast Articles of Interest, says, there’s a certain charm in embracing the spirit of the moment, even if it means accepting the inevitable obsolescence of a design. After all, she says, “what’s wrong with something looking like it’s of its time?” You just might miss it when it’s gone.

Elizabeth writes a regular column for It’s Nice That from her base on the East Coast of the US. Check back in every couple of weeks to read her latest thoughts on design trends and hot topics from the creative world.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Goodspeed

Elizabeth Goodspeed is It’s Nice That’s US editor-at-large, as well as an independent designer, art director, educator and writer. Working between New York and Providence, she's a devoted generalist, but specialises in idea-driven and historically inspired projects. She’s passionate about lesser-known design history, and regularly researches and writes about various archive and trend-oriented topics. She also publishes Casual Archivist, a design history focused newsletter.

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