Opal Fruits are back – and so is nostalgia in design

Mike Foster, creative director of agency Straight Forward Design, on bringing Starburst’s predecessor back from the dead, and how hazy memories played a part in the design process.

30 January 2020

Remember Spangles? Those fizzy square sweets with the groovy 1970s logotype along the side? Or Space Dust? Or Campino Strawberry and Creams?

The past is littered with sweet memories that remind us of a moment in time when life seemed simpler and more carefree. These confectionery blasts from the past are more than just sugary treats. They make us feel something. Suddenly you’re 13 again, riding your Raleigh Chopper complete with Spokey Dokeys and reflectors that came free with a packet of cornflakes.

For brands, that emotional resonance is gold dust. Which is why we’re seeing more and more of them tap into the positive memories of yesteryear to drive today’s campaigns. It’s also a powerful way to create a fresh buzz around a brand, reconnect with original consumers, and draw in curious new ones.

According to data consultancy Kantar, UK confectionery sales have grown by 13 per cent to nearly £3.9bn over the past five years. But it’s the retro favourites, like lemon sherbets and rhubarb and custards, that have seen the biggest hikes – a 176 per cent lift to almost £4m, and a 99.4 per cent increase to £3.9m respectively. Parma violets and pear drops have seen sales double to £1.26m and £1.4m, too.

A quick glance online tells us what a phenomenon it is. There are websites demanding the immediate reinstatement of certain chocolates, like Texan and Toffo. And it was a Facebook campaign that successfully pushed for the return of McVitie’s Trio, 13 years after it had been discontinued.

But it’s not confined to confectionery. Brands from lots of sectors are experimenting with nostalgia. Fairy Liquid ‘cleaned up’ when it brought back its original white bottle for a brand anniversary: 3.8 million bottles were sold in just six months. And Colman’s Mustard celebrated its 200-year birthday with a selection of collectable vintage-style pots.

In a few weeks, Opal Fruits will be hitting the shelves again for the first time in 22 years, thanks to a nostalgic redesign we did in collaboration with Mars. The fruity chews (famously “made to make your mouth water”) were launched by Mars in the UK in 1960 and introduced to the USA in 1967 as Starburst. In 1998, the UK product was renamed in order to align it with the rest of the world and meet the global branding trend.

And lots of people were horrified. It was as if a part of our cultural identity was being taken away. When much-loved brands disappear, they leave people wanting. Think Marathon and Snickers, Jif and Cif, Oil of Ulay and Oil of Olay. Many of us vow that we’ll stand by the original come what may.

Designers wading into the nostalgia arena have a lot to consider. Emotions are riding high, and bringing back vintage brands carries a certain weight of responsibility.

If you’re going to do it properly and fully connect with consumers, you need to take a more nuanced approach. It’s not as simple as rummaging around the archives and digging out an old master. There were no such visual archives available for Opal Fruits anyway, so we started looking back through reels of old TV commercials and print ads.

But the pre-digital-age quality was low and it was difficult to pick up the finer details. We quickly realised that the most important archive we had existed in people’s memories. So, we started asking around to find out what people remembered, and what Opal Fruits meant to them.

Nostalgia is interesting, though, and there can be a big gap between what actually existed and what people remember. Add to that the fact that Opal Fruits went through several redesigns in its 38-year history, including the years when it transitioned into Starburst, and it’s clear the brand designer has quite a task on their hands.

People are drawn to different design iterations that existed throughout the brand’s history (you remember 1984’s packaging; 1992 means more to me), so you have to come up with something that works for today as well as being universally reminiscent of the past.

When brands get it right (for example British Airways reviving past liveries without copying them slavishly) they use historic brand elements to transport people back in time on a wave of celebratory nostalgia. Just picking an old version, or dragging a few bits into the present without regard, could be seen as lazy and cynical by consumers.

So how do you strike the right balance? By honouring the production values of the original brand to ensure an authentic result that will fully connect with consumers.

We collaborated with typographer David Bateman and illustrator Simon Critchley, who have both worked with the world’s top FMCG brands for more than 35 years, to help us achieve this. It wasn’t about a straight copy; it was about enabling the redesign to be found and understood by consumers so that they could fall in love with it all over again.

As long as people continue to hanker after the past, we’ll see retro branding popping up ready to tug on our heartstrings and take us back to sweeter times.

GalleryStraight Forward Design: Opal Fruits redesign

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Straight Forward Design: Opal Fruits redesign

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Mike Foster

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