Retro Design, Retrovores + Throwback Packaging

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Why do we all love throwback design? Well, for one, vintage-inspired design gives a nod to the “good old days,” reminding us of those moments – perhaps through rose-colored glasses – that we like to recall and, in some cases, perhaps relive.

As designers and marketers, we understand how retro packaging and its classic characteristics evoke nostalgia – helping brands bond with their audience. Call them retro, old-school or throwback, but new designs that echo those of the past are leveraging something old to sell something new.

NOSTALGIA (noun) a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations

Something old (or something inspired by the former) conjures up memories of days passed, possessions cherished and distant times we’d like to remember. Plenty of retro-inspired packaging has arrived in nearby store shelves and online over the years. The designs that may have been marketed “limited edition” have become some brand’s staple products – because they’ve faired so well with consumers. Adults may buy, share or gift throwback-packaged products to reconnect with a fond experience.

In many cases, we bridge generational gaps and establish commonality with younger generations by sharing stories about the trends of a different time. So what does all of this “throwback” mean? Here, we’ll a deeper dive into how the past informs the present (and future) of design – in essence, where the old and new collide.

Underoos Are Fun to Wear! Again!

If the throwback deals with superheroes, you’ll find me racing to the store to make a purchase and add to my collection. As a child of the 1970s, Underoos have forever been ingrained in my memory, and now that I have my own children, one of the more frequent trips down memory lane has been, “Remember Underoos? They were awesome. I wish they came back.”

underoos-bats; retro design

The wait is over!!! via Hot Topic

We finally got our wish: Underoos are back. Not only are they made for adults (I can dress up in my superhero undies when my own children wear their superhero pajamas!), but the new packaging looks straight out of the 1970s.

If and when I acquire my “new” Underoos, not only will I wear them, but I’ll also keep the packaging (which I’ll probably promptly hide to avoid finding it in the garbage). I may even buy some extra pairs for when my own sons leave for college.

Sweet Nostalgia

You’ve heard it time and again, but what goes around comes around – and what’s old eventually becomes new again in fashion, cultural phenomenons and the like. Witness the 1920s and 1930s swing craze at the close of the twentieth century and early aughts that had teens and young adults putting on dapper duds to hit the town and dance the night away.

With food and beverage, the old comes back around again, too, only it’s how you dress up the food – and package it to sit on shelves – that matters in the consumers’ eyes.

anthemww-kello; retro design

Kellogg’s retro packaging, via Anthem

As part of Kellogg’s 50th anniversary celebration of Froot Loops in 2013, the company worked with Anthem to design a series of retro boxes for not only Froot Loops, but also Cocoa Krispies, Rice Krispies and Frosted Flakes. The limited edition packaging was sold exclusively at Target retail stores, and in comments viewed on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the retro design approach was very well received.


General Mills 2011 throwback


General Mills 2013 throwback

General Mills released its own limited-edition retro design packaging at Target in 2008, 2011 and 2013. The 2011 editions included Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Honey Nut Cheerios, and Trix with designs from the early 1940s to early 1970s. And later on, throwback editions ofReese’s Peanut Butter Puffs (1994), Cinnamon Toast Crunch (1984), Honey Nut Cheerios (1979), Lucky Charms (1964) and Cheerios (1945) also proved popular, selling out quickly according to some blogs.

Pepsi Goes Retro Design with Throwback


Pepsi’s 2009 throwback

In 2009, Pepsi made its own throwback packaging for bottles and cans. By turning back the clock on their product, Pepsi hoped to capitalize on not only nostalgia, but also the days when real sugar was used as a sweetening agent instead of high fructose corn syrup.


Pepsi’s most recent throwback, which is more of a semi-throwback – since the new logo is matched with an old-fashioned script

Pepsi’s throwback look was also a throwback to the days of less refined ingredients, which many consumers have been taken an interest in during the whole foods, farm to fork movement. Retrovore, a term used in Anthem’s 2012 “Sightings” newsletter, is a food category that has good qualities from the good old days, making it more than mere nostalgia on the surface. According to Anthem, it’s not just about the look and feel of the food packaging, it’s the ingredients themselves and the quality of those ingredients such as “full fat butter, cane sugar, and other rich, un
adulterated ingredients.” Most consumers use phrases like “whole foods” or “whole ingredients” or “unrefined ingredients” when discussing that category. Others, such as myself, tend to refer to it generationally: “like grandma used to make” or “with ingredients only grandma would have used.”

It’s been two years since Anthem sung the praises of the retrovore, and many consumers have been paying top dollar to gobble up foods made with “unadulterated ingredients.” Some of those foods are packaged with brand identities that look old, in the hope of connecting with consumers via nostalgia and good old fashioned, hand-made authenticity. But others are taking things into their own hands, growing fruits and vegetables, keeping their own chickens for laying eggs, or partnering with people to buy fresh meat from a local farm. And just as many are getting their beer from smaller, boutique breweries or making it themselves in their own basement or garage.

Miller Lite Stays Classy

Witness the challenge that large breweries have had to face, as big beer companies continue their battle against microbrewerys’ craft beers and citizens’ opting to make beer themselves with home brew kits. Mainstream beer brands haven’t had the same success they enjoyed in the past. But they’re not giving up. Nostalgia to the rescue!


Say “Hello” to the new/old Miller Lite

In an effort to boost sales, MillerCoors tapped into the 1970s by partnering with Paramount pictures in 2013 to give Miller Lite a cameo in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Set in 1979, Miller Lite went era specific with its old can design and found a friend and spokesperson in Ron Burgundy. Although first touted as a limited edition, the iconic can with its hops and barley graphics and “a fine pilsner beer” tagline seems here to stay, as evidenced by a recent visit to Miller Lite’s website and Twitter feed. Riding Ron Burgundy’s coat tails and a flurry of nostalgic ad campaigns on Miller Lite’s Twitter feed has helped the new/old Miller Lite connect (or reunite) with consumers since it was re-released in January 2014.


Even though we all know that Ron Burgundy loves scotch, he also campaigned for Miller Lite.


Miller Lite’s website still promotes the original look coming back

Whether the Miller Lite throwback success is a result of the old-again-new-again can design, Anchorman 2 tie-in, #TBT (Throwback Thursday) Twitter campaigns, initial release near the Super Bowl, or any combination thereof isn’t clear. Maybe it’s something else entirely, but consumers aren’t questioning the tactics as they reach for a Miller Lite.

Reports in Businessweek as well as the New Yorker claim that consumers feel the beer tastes better in its old-look packaging; and yet, it’s really the same beer only it’s dressed up differently. Perhaps clothes make the man, and make the beer.

Something Old, Something New, Something with a Faded Hue

In “Graphic Design in the Postmodern Era” published in Emigre 47 (1998), Jeffery Keedy compared and contrasted the contemporary qualities of modernism (with an “m”) and Modernism (with an “M”) with postmodernism, circling through art and design history, typography, pop culture, and high culture. “For most non-designers, historical graphic design is valued as nostalgic ephemera, while contemporary design is viewed as sometimes amusing, but mostly annoying, advertising,” Keedy says.

In a battle between “nostalgic ephemera” and “amusing, but mostly annoying, advertising” I’m quite sure that “nostalgic ephemera” would come out on top, and the success of retro packaging only reinforces that suspicion.

Making the new look old has been a boon to companies, and the practice shows no signs of disappearing – perhaps because it’s a fresh departure from, well, the fresh. Recounting design from the 1980s and 1990s, Keedy observed the blurred boundaries between “modern and classical, good and bad, new and old.” We continue to see the blurred boundaries with throwback packaging that makes the new look old, or the old look new. It’s a temporary temporal vortex to go back to the good old days. If it really works well, it actually feels old, despite the fact that it’s just the rendering, color, layout, typography, weathering, or all of the above that are fooling our eyes, and our brains. But to quote the rock band Boston, maybe it works because “It’s more than a feeling.”

Feeling Our Way Down Memory Lane

Keedy’s words from 1998 resonate just as much today as they did then: “Designers today are representing our present era as if they were using a kaleidoscope to do it. Or more precisely, a constantly mutating digital collage machine, filled with a bunch of old ‘sampled’ parts from the past, and decorated with special effects. Ultimately, what we are left with is a feeling of aggravated and ironic nostalgia. This electronic Deja-vu-doo is getting old, again.” With nostalgia, whether it’s an “aggravated and ironic” feeling or a feeling of “Deja-vu-doo” doesn’t seem to matter, so long as we’re having just that: a feeling.

Retro packaging continues to connect us to the past as we long for days past. It’s human to want to hold on to those memories, which translates to products in our hands. Designers, advertisers and marketers capitalize on this audience nostalgia, and we allow them to – because feelings matter.

Dig into some nostalgic beer branding with Print’s Cool Beer Labels book.