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Little Chef: Brand nostalgia versus the modern market

By Beverly Wagner - Posted on 28 May 2013

Dr Beverly Wagner of Strathclyde Business School’s Department of Marketing considers the power of nostalgia and a possible future for Little Chef…

Little Chef recently became the latest ‘brand in crisis’. While survival has been top of the menu for this former roadside favourite for some time it seems the end could be in sight. Bidders for the franchise seem more interested in bricks and mortar than the brand itself with potential suitors for the remaining outlets including McDonald's and Costa Coffee. The reality for little Chef has been fewer paying customers, but the power of nostalgia always seems to elicit a strong response when a once loved icon faces permanent retirement.

The word nostalgia is derived from the Greek nostos, meaning to return to one’s roots, and was generally attributed to severe melancholia related to home sickness. However, it is now more commonly referred to as a sentimental yearning, or wistful memory, for the past.

It is essential that marketers understand this complex phenomenon and the reasons for its appeal. The “brand” has never been so important and people are seeking brands and services from transparent sources meaning that organisations have to manage customers’ perceptions of authenticity which is crucial to sustained growth and profitability. Consumers are well versed in marketing manipulation and respond by choosing to buy, or not buy, based on how real they perceive the offering. Purchase behaviour reflects individuals’ needs, wants, experiences and nostalgia marketing entices purchasing through the power of emotions.

Nostalgia marketing clearly strikes a chord and consumer power is very influential, especially with the advent of social media platforms. But understanding the difference between fleeting consumer nostalgia for a familiar product and a genuine, enduring market for a brand can be difficult. The role of new media cannot be discounted in this era of nostalgia marketing as “classic” brands that are well established in our consciousness are available in the digital environment. The best publicised example of this is the revival of Cadbury’s Wispa bar, due to a massive consumer campaign on Facebook, in 2007; there were ninety three “bring back Wispa” groups on Facebook.

The role of marketing is not merely to supply products and services to satisfy needs and wants, consumer culture is much more than the things we own. This nostalgia marketing phenomena is complex, cognitive, emotional and sometimes primitive and attempts to re-invigorate a dying brand are not always successful. For example in 1965 Nova was a popular women’s magazine and was re-launched in 2000. It folded the following year because the competition in the magazine market was crowded. It is not just about reliving a particular era and buying brands that evoke a strong personal memory from the past, but re-interpreting it to be relevant and valued in today’s world. For marketers this is very important.

So what about Little Chef? If the brand survives will depend on whether it can be portrayed as alive in consumers’ minds, iconic, relevant, authentic and in sync with contemporary culture. If it fails then nostalgia alone will be the order of the day.

Is it realistic for people to expect brands to survive on past glories or can brand crisis actually serve to reinvigorate fallen favourites. Let us know what you think in the comments section below…

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