Don’t let nostalgia become inertia and hold back your innovation

I was at a wedding reception last Saturday, where the groom was from Rawtenstall and the bride from Haugesund, Norway. It was held in a Methodist Hall with dark wood tables and chairs, dimly lit by candles, but set alight with a vibrant atmosphere of celebration and noise, born from the warmth and intimacy of belonging and togetherness that humanity creates.

It was a Norwegian wedding, so on each table was a huge basket of fjellbrød – a nutritious Norwegian bread (there are all sorts of seeds in it, made from a mixture of whole-wheat and rye flour and rolled oats) and an even bigger bowl of fresh shrimps. I was looking forward to getting stuck into the quivering crustaceous flesh.

The place filled up quickly as we got to work on the shrimps, emptying the flimsy shells faster than a fishwife. The cold bits of pink flesh were washed down with Lervig Aktiebryggeri Stout. At 13%, no wonder the Vikings were fierce fighters. Then, just before I disappeared completely behind a pile of husks, a hush fell over the room and in strode a large bearded man.

He introduced himself as Toralf, a lubricous man with a hangdog expression, he took to the stage. He was a standup comedian. Interesting wedding entertainment! As he was from Norway, half the gathering didn’t get a word, but I was not concerned, as I was busy scoffing. Shrimps.

Toralf was going down well, but not half as well as the shrimps. You could have covered me in Thousand Island dressing, laid me on a bed of lettuce and I’d have passed for the starter on any menu.

I’d struck upon a conversation with a bloke from Utsire, which I found out was a lump of rock in the North Sea off the west coast of Norway. I don’t think I’d ever spoken to a Norwegian before. After chatting, he said he had to go – and reappeared on stage as the band struck up, a Norwegian folk ensemble. The room was filled with whirling figures, their rosy cheeks shining, caught in the candlelight, eyes flashing and laughter rising above the music.

A (brave) Norwegian woman whisked me from my seat and whirled me around the dance floor. Given that I dance about as well as a squirrel plays the piano, this was a selfless act on her part. My shrimp ‘n ale fuelled attempts at shaking my booty in a lithe and groovy way went well, even if I say so myself. The lady was Wenche (pronounced ‘Venker’), from Stavanger. I thought they had played in the UEFA Cup some years ago but Wenche didn’t know. End of conversation.

Norwegian folk music filled the room, and Wenche gave me a running commentary on the instrumental, vocals and dancing. I learned that as a rule, instrumental folk music is dance music (slåtter), whilst Norwegian folk dances are social dances and usually performed by couples, although there are a number of solo dances as well, such as the halling.

We lurched into traditional wedding dances (bygdedans), then the band moved into Sami music centered around a particular vocal style called joik, the sound comparable to the traditional chanting of the Native Americans Indians.

Exhausted, the lights came on, the night had to end, the floor awash with folks awash with shrimp. The air was warm with laughter and back-slapping. Brexit? hey, I prefer the Norwegian model.

It was a great night, a throwback to memories of parties of my youth. It was a traditional, if somewhat ‘old fashioned’ event, filled with nostalgia and away from i-this and i-that, just talking and enjoying good company, storytelling, banter and people being people. Twenty years ago I’m sure Toralf and Wenche could become pen pals, but today we’d probably default to a WhatsApp group.

Nostalgia, a longing to return home, is a word that comes from Greek –nostos (to return home) and algo (pain or ache), first coined by C17th Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer as a label for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries in their return from fighting away from home. Whilst we mostly regard nostalgia as warm memories of an evocative past, it was initially recognised as a real medical condition, often a pre-cursor to depression.

I’m sometimes a little wistful, but I see nostalgia as passing history forward. It’s not just reliving the past, but thinking about how events in that past affected where I am today. But there’s no room for nostalgia in today’s business, nowhere more so than on the High Street where many established brands have disappeared as consumer preferences, choices and options moved forward, and they didn’t, locked in their business models of yesteryear.

Nostalgia can add value to brands that tap into their heritage and yet be relevant to the customer choice and demands of today – consider the resurgence of the Mini – but generally nostalgia makes you hold onto the status quo, become closed minded to change and complacent, and you take your eye of the ball.

Recent examples include Psion, developers of the Palm Pilot had what seemed an amazing power of organising your diary and phone book electronically. Sadly, Psion failed to spot early enough that mobile phones were catching them up and would soon incorporate all that and more.

Related to this, as the mobile phones of the 1980s became smaller, Nokia quickly became synonymous with small, practical mobiles. Sadly for the Finnish company, it failed to see the growing importance of internet-enabled smartphones, and a decade’s technical advantage was eroded.

Nostalgia creates inertia. The challenge is to focus on the future, and not let nostalgia block innovation to challenge what has always worked – Kodak are perhaps the prime example of this. The world’s biggest film company filed for bankruptcy in 2012, beaten by the digital revolution. The only problem is, the enemy started within.

George Eastman, the company’s founder, invented roll film which replaced photographic plates and allowed photography to become a hobby of the masses. Kodak did not quite own the C20th, but it did become the curator of our memories.

There is an emotional connection to Kodak for many people in that you could find their product and name in virtually every household. But 1986 was the year when Kodak, a company that for so long was the emblem of American industrial innovation, began to be eaten by others, notably from Japan, who learnt to innovate, and more quickly.

Kodak was the great inventor. In 1900, it unveiled the Box Brownie camera. You push the button, we do the rest, ran the advertising. Kodachrome film, the standard for movie-makers as well as generations of still photographers because of its incredible definition and archival longevity, was introduced in 1936 and only went out of production 2009.

Nor should we forget the Instamatic, the camera with the little cartridges of film that spared us the fumbling of trying to get film to spool properly. Between 1963 and 1970 Kodak sold 50 million of them.

The trouble began with the decline of film photography. In the 1990s, Kodak poured billions into developing technology for taking pictures using mobile phones and other digital devices. But it held back from developing digital cameras for the mass market for fear of killing its existing film business. Others rushed in.

So who invented the digital camera? Ironically, Kodak did or, rather, a company engineer called Steve Sasson, who put together a toaster-sized contraption that could save images using electronic circuits. The images were transferred onto a tape cassette and were viewable by attaching the camera to a TV screen, a process that took 23 seconds.

It was an astonishing achievement. And it happened in 1975. Sasson was met with blank faces when he unveiled the device. For Kodak’s leaders, going digital meant killing film, smashing the company’s golden egg to make way for the new. Sasson saw in hindsight that he had not exactly won them over when he unveiled his invention.

In what has got to be one of the most insensitive choices of demonstration titles ever, he called it Film-less Photography. Talk about killing heritage and nostalgia! Other manufacturers, notably Fuji, were nibbling at Kodak’s dominance: at the 1984 Olympics it was Fuji that supplied the official film, after Kodak declined the opportunity.

In 1976, Kodak sold 90% of the photographic film in the US and 85% of the cameras. Historians may one day conclude that most of the company’s unravelling can be traced to the failure of its leaders to recognise the huge potential of Sasson’s invention. But this is what we do…you can imagine the fear going through the minds in the Kodak boardroom.

So, Kodak developed the world’s first consumer digital camera but could not breakaway from the shackles of their heritage and their nostalgic anchors to launch or sell it, because of fear of the effects on their existing film market.

Reflecting on Kodak, how does this reshape your marketing thinking, because there is a lesson not just in innovation, but also a case for challenging the traditional marketing solutions most businesses adopt arising from their decline.

C20th marketing has been dominated by Jerome McCarthy’s 4P model – Product, Place, Price, Promotion – but its legacy has created a culture that focuses on the product’s attributes, neglecting its value and appeal to customers from the customer’s perspective.

Richard Ettenson completed a five-year study involving more than 500 organisations and found that the 4P model undercuts the current needs of business in three ways:

  • It stresses product technology and quality, even though these are no longer differentiators.
  • It under emphasises the need to build a robust case for the superior value of a solution compared to others
  • It distracts from leveraging their advantage as a trusted source of service, support and advice – attributes in addition to the product

From his research, Ettenson developed a new marketing model for C21st, Solutions, Access, Value, Education:

  • Products to Solutions Define the offering by the needs they meet and benefits provided, not their features, functions or technological superiority.
  • Place to Access Develop an integrated multi-channel presence that considers customers’ entire purchase journey, instead of individual purchase locations and channels.
  • Price to Value Articulate the benefits relative to price, rather than stressing how price relates to cost or competitor prices.
  • Promotion to Education Provide information relevant to customer’s specific needs at each point in the purchase cycle, rather than relying on general advertising, PR and selling activities.

There’s little doubt that marketers who continue to embrace the 4P model and mind-set risk getting locked into a repetitive and increasingly unproductive technological arms race – just as Kodak. There’s no doubt with the advent of digital media and changing customer expectations, there are some fundamental strands to marketing today around creating meaningful conversations, communicating value and developing an online community.

The future rewards those that press on, experiment and have a go. You need to have a picture of your future self and make decisions on that basis. Life is divided into three periods – that which was, which is, and which will be.

Don’t look backward, you’re not going that way. The past is both a wonderful and an awful thing, both our best friend and our worst enemy, depending on how you look at it. There will be times throughout our business lives that we don’t want to remember, and there will be times that we won’t ever want to forget, but we can’t continue to dwell on the past that we can’t change.

As Walt Disney said, Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

My shrimp feast was a throw back to days gone by, but you can spend your life living forwards whilst looking backwards over your shoulder.

All our yesterdays: looking back to the future

I was clambering around in the attic recently and found a dusty box of mementos dating back to my ‘O’ and ‘A’ level years of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It’s always a bit unnerving looking at the visual evidence of your past life through the lenses of today, not least when you don’t know what you might find.

Aged 17, my face looked more like I was a ten year old, it’s shocking how young and thin and geeky I looked, old terylene school blazer and tight, tiny tie knot. I was in my Latin-American-Marxist affiliated with Tony Benn phase – intellectual posturing, because I could be cantankerous, irritable and juvenile back then. I was all about Devolution for the North – ahead of my time.

There were also photos of me outside our touring caravan in Cornwall in the hot summer of ’76 in obscenely tight blue Adidas shorts, and another going to a Joy Division concert trying to look earnest and intense. My mum and dad preferred Abba, to them it was bleak, harsh music. You can almost hear the overcast Manchester skies in their music.

A quick rummage through school exercise books revealed a one-sided view of religion as a CoE Protestant, despite the behaviour of King Henry VIII, who cut off his lovers’ heads, was sexually voracious and destroyed the monasteries. My history books were pretty empty. I only learned about the Spanish inquisition from Monty Python.

Some nice photos of me, mum and dad, and my sister Jane suggested there was a simplicity to life in the ‘70s, perhaps having just three part-time TV channels made family values more prescient. Our suburban existence was very pleasant. Manchester was 45 minutes away on a bus, a very different place than it is today. My only forays were to visit record shops and to buy cool music that wasn’t in the charts.

Another colour photo was of a trip to Blackpool. We used to go every year and drive up and down the Golden Mile looking at the Illuminations from the car. Staggering though it may seem now, it was exciting to see trams covered in light bulbs to look like they were space rockets. We didn’t even get out of the car except to buy fish & chips.

My dad seems to have had the same hair cut for about 40 years looking at the photos. There was a photo of a wedding where the young blokes had long hair and looked like Mungo Jerry. My dad’s short haircut made him look like the men from NASA Ground Control. He always had an air of polite defiance and measured individualism. Meanwhile there was me with an elasticated snake belt – an elongated ‘S’ as a buckle.

I have acquired some of my dad’s wisdom, but none of his practical nous. I remember him telling me in detail how a toilet cistern worked – I don’t recall what he told me and I’m rubbish at plumbing today. I also remember him crawling about under the floorboards laying the central heating system and drawing diagrams of the pipes and connections, saying when it breaks he wouldn’t be here. Suffice to say both are still going strong.

Thinking back, I realise I am part of the television generation, although it was rationed and books were considered to be far more important and outdoors play was always encouraged. I am very nostalgic about the television I watched in my youth, I recall watching Star Trek and Coronation Street with my mum. Of course, you had to watch and listen carefully because there was no recording or playback.

Teletext was part of my education, I was addicted to the smorgasbord of information. I remember my Mum always liking Sean Connery as James Bond and having no time for Roger Moore. My dad never liked Jon Pertwee as Doctor Who. I recorded Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns and football matches with microphones balanced on cushions in front of the television on my portable cassette player. I listened back to these cassettes time and again. Sadly, I spent so much time listening to these comedies and commentaries I could repeat them verbatim.

Finally, I came across some old copies of the NME and Sounds, my first crush was Kate Bush, then Siouxsie. Siouxsie is 60 this year. Where has the time gone? Music was tribal at school, we had the Genesis, Roxy and heavy metal lads, then the punks and new wave. My wife Susan’s claim to fame is that she once had a lift in the back of the Buzzcock’s van on a way to a gig. Being so near Manchester was surreal in the years from 1976 to 1983, book-ended by Joy Division and The Smiths.

As you can see, I’ve always been slightly obsessed with how we mark the passing of time, none more so than I have a clear recall being at school at 12.34pm on 5 June 1978. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. I also recall 31 December 1979, the end of the first decade I can remember, and where I was and whom I was with. Mark, Paul, and Nick at The Railway. Funny what sticks in your mind.

Pulp’s song Disco 2000 released in 1995 has always stuck with me, won’t it be strange when we’re all fully-grown. It will. I loved maths at school and was obsessed with the year 2000, I remember writing it down and thinking about the passage of time and the digits, must have been my liking for science fiction from Asimov, Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke. Oh nostalgia, it makes us a bit more human.

Nostalgia, a longing to return home, is a word that comes from Greek –nostos (to return home) and algo (pain or ache), first coined by C17th Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer as a label for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries in their return from fighting away from home.

I’m sometimes a little wistful, but I see nostalgia as passing history forward – it’s not just reliving the past, but thinking about how events in that past affected where I am today. Nostalgia has a strong social side to it. It engenders feelings of belonging. As a son, husband and dad, I feel closer and happier when sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

Alas there is no room for nostalgia in today’s business world. In the last few weeks it’s been announced that 120 branches of Austin Reed will close, costing 1,000 jobs, and British Home Stores will close 163 stores with the loss of 11,000 jobs. They join a list of well-known High Street stores that have disappeared over the last 40 years.

It’s 1976 and you’re out shopping. If you want to buy a record or some sweets, try Woolworths. Shoes? Have a look in Freeman, Hardy and Willis. For a shirt, go to C&A. If you need some money, join the queue in the Midland Bank, and for tonight’s tea, pop into Dewhurst for meat and Fine Fare for the rest of the food shop.

So, what happened to these shops whose logos once dominated the High Street?

Woolworths The US-founded store opened in the UK in 1909, selling goods ranging from hardware to pick ‘n’ mix self-service sweets, records to toys, but failed. All 807 stores went, the last in Glasgow’s Argyle Street, closing in January 2009. Around 30,000 people lost their jobs.

C&A The chain of clothing stores, founded in the 1920s by the Dutch brothers Clemens and August Brenninkmeijer, closed in 2000, with the loss of 4,800 jobs. Its 109 shops had come under increasing competition from other mid-market clothing retailers. The last UK store in Bradford, closed in May 2001.

Radio Rentals Set up in Brighton in the 1930s, Radio Rentals catered for a growing demand for radios. The rental model continued through the introduction of televisions and, later, video cassette recorders. But, as consumer electronics became cheaper, more people bought than rented.

Freeman, Hardy and Willis The shoe manufacturer was founded in 1870, and became a familiar presence on hundreds of High Streets. It ceased trading in the mid-1990s.

Comet Founded in 1933 as a business charging radio batteries, Comet opened its first store in Hull in 1968, expanding rapidly. There were 236 stores when it went into administration in November 2012.

Dewhurst The chain of butchers shops was founded on Merseyside in the late C19th, and had 1,400 outlets by 1997 but went into administration in 2006. Its traditional model faced increasing competition, as the supermarkets started packaging meat in plastic containers, so it became commoditised, rather than people wanting to request specific cuts or a certain weight of meat.

Midland Bank With its distinctive griffin logo, Midland was one of the ‘big four’ UK banks in the 1970s, along with Barclays, Lloyds and NatWest. In 1958 it had become the first UK bank to offer unsecured loans and in 1966 the first to provide cheque guarantee cards. Midland, established as the Birmingham and Midland Bank in 1836, was taken over by HSBC in 1992 and its branches were renamed HSBC from 1999.

Nostalgia can add significant value to brands that have the opportunity to tap into the heritage and stay relevant to the customer choice and demands of today – consider the resurgence of the Mini – whilst there are some iconic brands have defined Britain for years, some remain as strong as they were when they were founded – Hovis (1886), Marmite (1902), Brasso (1905), Bisto (1908), to name a few, have all stood the test of time as has Lyle’s Golden Syrup, Britain’s oldest brand, founded in 1885.

But wallowing in nostalgia can create inertia. It took 75 years to connect 50 million telephone users, 13 years for there to be a million TVs in the US, and four years for a million users of the internet. Today, a simple iPhone App can reach that milestone in a matter of days.

The challenge is to focus on the future, and not let nostalgia block innovation. What should your thinking be to keep a forward view on your business horizon?

  • Think relationships not transactions; offer experience not products; listen to customers, don’t sell.
  • Think bigger – past strategies may fail to engage new customers; commit a budget to R&D; create a culture of intrapreneurship
  • Move faster and more purposefully; play multiple bet; don’t just run neck and neck with rivals, look for ways to pull ahead of the pack

The future rewards those that press on. Have a picture of your future self and make decisions on that basis. Life is divided into three terms – that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future. Control your own future, or somebody else will.

 

Ramones’ tee-shirts, bisto and Sheffield 1981-1984: surfing on a wave of nostalgia

From 1981 to 1984 I spent three memorable and formative years in Sheffield as a student, a time with an abundance of experience and learning, a time spent in The Leadmill, The Broomhill Tavern, The Fat Cat, The Punchbowl Inn, The Grindstone, The Frog and Parrot, The Museum, The Beehive, The Limit and, of course, the library.

Last week I reunited for a 30th anniversary, and reconnected a lapsed but still warm friendship with housemates from that bygone era. Distance not only gives nostalgia, but perspective, and maybe objectivity, but the three years at university are so significant in your development. There’s a certain nostalgia and romance in a place you left, and whilst I don’t think nostalgia is a healthy modality, it’s in us all.

It’s curious the way we get nostalgic for some hoped-for thing that never happened, as if something that never happened were in the past. I know the fog of sadness came over me the days after the reunion, memories re-energised, and a yearning for those good, historical times. But nostalgia and a sense of history are not the same thing, nostalgia is a dysfunction of the historical impulse, or a corruption of the historical impulse. Either way, we re-connected within ten minutes, lost time a thing of the past, literally.

I sallied forth to enrol at the University of Sheffield in 1984, an adventure equal in magnitude to St. Brendan’s C5th voyages of discovery, creeping alone with sinking heart into the university campus was like entering a huge and austere labyrinth to which there was no key. After all, what was the value of my prized ideas and ideals compared with the rumblings of the universe?

Then came the first lecture, given by the diminutive, prematurely grey Professor Tony Lowe in his proportionately diminutive, understated voice. His subject, the philosophy of numbers was quite unpopular, but I just adored it, building on my thirst for pure mathematics. To this day, his insight, passion and laughing remarks about numbers ring in my ears.

No regrets. Twice I ended up in casualty: nearly breaking an ankle in a rugby match and as a result ended up on a drugs trial – pharmaceutical not judicial, and then chinning it down the concrete steps at Crookesmoor late for a tutorial, almost breaking my neck and giving myself concussion. Still made it out that night though, I recall.

Sheffield has an architecturally compressed culture and beauty, and although the time at university lasted just three years, the lure of the academic buildings and culture has always continued with a strong connection for me. As we stumbled across town, each part of Sheffield held some memory for us – ‘on this street corner this happened’ – and the intensity which we all knew of our time at university and the way that it burned brightly but briefly, spending three years of your life on a choice.

When we asked ourselves if we had any regrets about our time here, or any particularly embarrassing highlights, we each remained somewhat coy, but memories of juvenilia and student experience clearly still hold resonance.

Over pasta and beer conversation turned inevitably to reminiscing about our previous Sheffield lives. We talked about people we hadn’t thought about for 30 years – Simon seemingly a collection of failed romances and constant rejection – about days we would always remember and nights out we’d rather forget. We all left feeling a sense of nostalgia for the student days we would never get back. However, it was also great to see how each other’s lives had moved on, the families we now had, working and living in new places.

If I was a student today I would be excited about studying in Sheffield, it’s wonderful they have an Andrew Motion poem, ‘What if?..’ on the side of a building you can see when you leave the railway station. The great thing about Sheffield is the fact it has a village feel and has extensive greenery you don’t find in the likes of Manchester.  One thing about Sheffield I don’t miss are the hills – some are like cliff faces and are completely evil to walk up!

As for our time, it is forever shrinking. Oppressed by our desire to be multitasking and smartphone driven efficiency, we live under a perpetual time pressure. The disease of this millennium will be called chronophobia or speedomania, and its treatment will be embarrassingly old-fashioned. Contemporary nostalgia is not so much about the past, as about vanishing the present. All our yesterdays make your appreciate the value of time spent.

Nostalgia goes beyond individual psychology. At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time – the time of our student days in this instance, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into a private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition, is where I’ve ended up after last week.

Onto our Sheffield road trip, first was Broomhill, past the shale football pitches, student eateries and well-meaning fair trade shops. I was delighted to see the Record Collector shop remained. Further down, we stumbled past the Broomhill Tavern a hunting ground for collecting beer mats, and then the Broomhill chippy, home of world-class battered sausages. About turn and onto the number 52 bus to Crookes.

So in 2014, 30 years later, we found myself back at the house we shared. Simon (Genesis), Geoff (Black Sabbath) and me (Joy Division), annoying the neighbours in a typical student terrace house. We ended up with two Firsts and another missed by a viva, subsequently two PhDs and an MBA, now all the downhill side of 50, fathering eight children between us. Not a bad set of outcomes from a raw beginning.

Nothing much had changed apart from some double-glazing, sky dishes and some wheelie bins. It was no longer a student house, it was neat and tidy, well maintained – I have fond memories of my attic bedroom, ice on the inside of the windows. Back on the bus to the city centre, we wandered down Division Street, one of my favourite streets in Sheffield. It’s a sort of Indie Street, with independent stores and boutiques, bars and pubs, second-hand shops, cafes and the odd charity shop.

The day was filled with many hugs, poignant silences, uproar at long-lost moments reencountered, personal moments of reflection, and a tear or two. Wistful recollections of our early friendship seem incongruous until the root of their emotional bond was revealed. Every moment contained elements of the raw, next to each other or even occurring simultaneously, so that truthful observation overlapped with crude caricature, and pieced together story structures yielded moments of considerable emotional force. Nostalgia is a kaleidoscopic cornucopia of what was once in a lifetime. We were talking heads then, and now.

Now with established families, motivated, employed and relatively successful, the day was a flashback to halcyon student days. The present is airy and well-lit, while the past looks dingy and claustrophobic in retrospect, but we all looked back over our shoulders with affection and even gratitude. Time passes like a hand waving from a train you wanted to be on as you stand on the platform. It is strange how we hold on to the pieces of the past while we wait for our futures.

Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were, there are a few moments in your life when you are truly and completely happy, and you remember to give thanks, and we all agreed 1981-1984 was a happy time. Even as it happens you are nostalgic for the moment, you are tucking it away in your scrapbook, I think we’ve all done that. Someone once said, “I don’t have a photograph, but you can have my footprints. They’re upstairs in my socks”, which I think is the best quote about capturing memories you can have.

Our plans for the future made us laugh and feel close, but those same plans somehow made anything more than temporary between us seem impossible.

When you start thinking about what your life was like 30 years ago – and not in general terms, but in highly specific detail – it’s disturbing to realise how certain elements of your being are completely dead. They die long before you do. It’s astonishing to consider all the things from your past that used to happen all the time but never happen anymore, and never even cross your mind. It’s almost like those things didn’t happen. Or maybe it seems like they just happened to someone else.

I realised that I was at home in my past, there are no days more full than those we go back to, and it was the first time I’d ever had the feeling of missing someone I was still with. In an era of unscratchable touch screens and sleek, perpetually connected devices that seem to smoothen all the edges of the world, I suddenly found myself yearning for the reassuring roughness of the imperfect. Ah, nostalgia, so much to answer for!

Nostalgia, comes from the Greek nostos (to return home) and algo (pain or ache) – hence a longing to return home – was coined by C17th-century Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer as a label for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. The Kuhreihen, simple melodies played on the horn by Swiss Alpine herdsmen, were banned because it reminded the soldiers of home, although some military doctors believed their problems were specific to the Swiss and caused by the racket of Alpine cowbells!

We can all see the marketing of nostalgia is serious business. In the last couple of years, when the credit crunch squeezed and with uncertainty about the economy, big brands have been marketing nostalgia to remind us of all the good times we used to have, reinforcing their history and heritage, their products’ endurance and quality, their authenticity.

The reason that nostalgia is now being considered as an important emotion by marketers is because it makes us happy. In times or recession or instability nostalgia is effective because when people are feeling down about their situation now, nothing makes them feel better than remembering the happier times in the past. Numerous studies confirm that most consumers really do look back on the past with rose-tinted glasses and an open wallet for any product that can help them recreate it. Products popular during a person’s youth will influence their buying habits throughout their lifetime. That explains my Ramone’s tee-shirt!

Nostalgia can add significant value to brands that have the opportunity to tap into the heritage of the brand, for example the Mini and Fiat 500, the retro styling of digital radio brands etc.  Nostalgic, iconic brands have defined Britain for years, some remain as strong as they were when they were founded: Hovis (1886), Marmite (1902), Brasso (1905), Bisto (1908), to name a few, have all stood the test of time.

Most importantly, it must have an emotional link The word ‘brand’ derives from the Old Norse word brandr meaning to burn, referring to the practice of burning a mark or brand onto cattle to denote ownership. It is this indelible mark in our mind that makes us prefer certain brands.

Lyle’s Golden Syrup is Britain’s oldest brand. Its green and gold packaging has remained almost unchanged since 1885. Research indicates that more than 85% of us immediately recognise the brand. Its original Victorian logo representing a lion and bees, coupled with its biblical quotation out of the strong came forth sweetness, has stood the test of time. It harks back to the great industrial times of the late C19th, a time we respect and value.

Bisto is another example. Trusted, reliable, and found in most kitchen cupboards across the country, the brand has remained in red-brown packaging since it was founded in 1908. An astonishing billion servings are sold each year, which equates to 18,000 tons of the brown powder. Lashings of piping hot gravy is a nostalgic memory for us all, an emotional link utilising its comforting values and association with family gatherings.

One of the most famous examples of ‘advertising nostalgia’ was the mammoth 122-second TV commercial from Hovis.  The advert won the British Television Awards ‘Commercial of the Year’, told the story of a young boy travelling through time charting Britain’s turbulent history over the past 122 years – including the first world war, the suffragette movement, the first motor car, the second world war, the Queen’s coronation in 1953, the swinging 60s, England winning the 1966 World Cup, the 1980s miners’ strike and the millennium celebrations.

But enough wallowing in nostalgia, it can create inertia. I find that the present interests me less and less. The future continues to preoccupy me as a reliable source of excitement, hope and new stuff, but increasingly the present seems to have no outstanding qualities of its own, being merely a waiting-station through which I travel back to the vast shadowlands of the past, or the bright new shiny future.

The Chinese definition of happiness is having someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to. I’m happy now as I was in Sheffield, 1981-1984, and as the Buzzcocks sang, About the future I only can reminisce, and although this may sound strange I’m surfing on a wave of nostalgia, for an age yet to come. Ah, nostalgia, Ramone’s tee-shirts, bisto and Sheffield 1981-1984.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

In the summer time when the weather is high, You can stretch right up and touch the sky… Mungo Jerry, In the Summertime, from Summer 1970. July 2013, a swelteringly hot week has made me nostalgic for the school holidays and that tune. I miss being a kid. The long days of nothing to do that became filled with so much, the feeling of freedom as it began, the rush to squeeze every last drop out of it as the days wound down.

Some of my strongest childhood memories are from summer, and although some are more than 40 years in my past, there are certain sensations that I remember clearly to this day. There were always bike jaunts. I remember the sound of the cardboard flap I snapped onto my bike spokes to sound like a revving motorbike; my summers were spent being Tarzan, we had jungles in the woods, we swung across streams hanging onto ropes of dubious provenance.

We went to the North Wales beaches, staying with Grandparents. They would get out of the car, put the folding chairs out in front of it and barely move all day, while my sister and I spent the day running between them, across the beach, into the sea and back again. The picnic was always a feast. On one visit I irritated my sister and she responded by stuffing sand into my mouth. The grains of sand took days to leave my mouth.

Three years stand out. Hitting my head falling off the roundabout at Butlins in 1967, nearly drowning in Lydstep Haven in 1972 and in balmy 1976, my dad winning a bet by successfully frying an egg on our doorstep. Oh the nostalgia, it makes us a bit more human.

Nostalgia, a longing to return home, is a word that comes from the Greek nostos (to return home) and algo (pain or ache), was coined by C17th-century Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer as a label for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. The Kuhreihen, simple melodies played on the horn by Swiss Alpine herdsmen, were banned because it reminded the soldiers of home, although some military doctors believed their problems were specific to the Swiss and caused by the racket of Alpine cowbells!

I’m comfortable with nostalgia, sometimes a little wistful, but I see nostalgia as passing history forward – it’s not just reliving the past, but thinking about how events in that past affected where I am today. Nostalgia has a strong social side to it. It engenders feelings of belonging. As a son, husband and dad, I feel closer and happier when sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

I think back to one particular summer photo that is embedded in memory, and still in my collection, of me aged 16 outside a caravan in Cornwall, taken by a Polaroid camera that I received as a birthday gift. My long arms look as though my body has yet to grow into them. I remember that camera like it was yesterday: a big bulky plastic thing that you loaded up with film so expensive that you had to be selective about what you shot. Now people shoot gazillion photos with low-cost digital.

The marketing of nostalgia is serious business. In the last couple of years, when the credit crunch squeezed and with uncertainty about the economy, big brands have been marketing nostalgia to remind us of all the good times we used to have, full of rose-tinted happiness. In doing so, they have been reinforcing their history and heritage, their products’ endurance and quality, their authenticity.

The reason that nostalgia is now being considered as an important emotion by marketers is because it makes us happy. In times or recession or instability nostalgia is effective because when people are feeling down about their situation now, nothing makes them feel better than remembering the happier times in the past. Numerous studies confirm that most consumers really do look back on the past with rose-tinted glasses and an open wallet for any product that can help them recreate it. Products popular during a person’s youth will influence their buying habits throughout their lifetime. That explains my Ramones t-shirt!

Nostalgia can add significant value to brands that have the opportunity to tap into the heritage of the brand, consider Harley Davison, Mini, Fiat 500, Volkswagen Beetle, retro styling of digital radio brands etc. Nostalgic, iconic brands have defined Britain for years, some remain as strong as they were when they were founded: Hovis (1886), Marmite (1902), Brasso (1905), Bisto (1908), to name a few, have all stood the test of time.

Most importantly, it must have an emotional link The word ‘brand’ derives from the Old Norse word brandr meaning to burn, referring to the practice of burning a mark or brand onto cattle to denote ownership. It is this indelible mark in our mind that makes us prefer certain brands.

Lyle’s Golden Syrup is Britain’s oldest brand. Its green and gold packaging has remained almost unchanged since 1885. Research indicates that more than 85% of us immediately recognise the brand. Its original Victorian logo representing a lion and bees, coupled with its biblical quotation out of the strong came forth sweetness, has stood the test of time. It harks back to the great industrial times of the late C19th, a time we respect and value.

Bisto is another example. Trusted, reliable, and found in most kitchen cupboards across the country, the brand has remained in red-brown packaging since it was founded in 1908. An astonishing billion servings are sold each year, which equates to 18,000 tons of the brown powder. Lashings of piping hot gravy is a nostalgic memory for us all, an emotional link utilising its comforting values and association with family gatherings.

One of the most famous examples of ‘advertising nostalgia’ is the mammoth 122-second TV commercial from Hovis. The advert won the British Television Awards ‘Commercial of the Year’, told the story of a young boy travelling through time charting Britain’s turbulent history over the past 122 years – including the first world war, the suffragette movement, the first motor car, the second world war, the Queen’s coronation in 1953, the swinging 60s, England winning the 1966 World Cup, the 1980s miners’ strike and the millennium celebrations.

The advent of social media has seen the digitisation of memory and to some extent, the zombification of nostalgia as the intimacy has been lost by the immediacy and mass broadcast of personalised experience. Essentially the digital camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality. Virtually limitless storage has created a vast, noisy digital canvas that masks memory with too many pixels.

Anything that affects us at an emotional level today is exhaustively mined for commercial reasons, intensified with digitisation and new media. Today’s hottest consumer tech brands take it to an algorithm and machine-driven new heights. Your Kodak moment just got cropped, tagged, filtered, published, shared, liked and stored forever. Great for memory, not so good for nostalgia.

This is the endgame, packaging the past as the future and selling our memories back to us, one byte at a time. Etsy, Pinterest and Instagram all combine a pre-digital activity (scrapbooking, photography, handicrafts) with a social platform. How sophisticated is Nostalgia Innovation? Pinterest was the fastest brand to hit 10 million visitors, averages 89 minutes per visitor, and has become a significant source of referral traffic for retailers, and has yet to scratch the surface of its database of individual our tastes, interests and favourite brands. Facebook is now following the Google advertising model, but based on personalisation.

It is well over a decade since the philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued that reality itself had been fundamentally altered by a mediatised world, that there was no objective reality anymore, only a reproducible simulacrum, the nature of which is determined by large-scale corporations in the digital space. We no longer retain our own nostalgia.

But enough wallowing in nostalgia, it can create inertia. Why do we resist clearing out the unused and unusable accumulations in our files, our lofts and sheds? Why are we saving books we will never read? Life’s clutter builds up over time and we stuff it into the space under the stairs and into the dark corners of the attic.

Into my sixth decade now, I find that the present interests me less and less. Of course, the future continues to preoccupy me as a reliable source of excitement, hope and new stuff, but increasingly the present seems to have no outstanding qualities of its own, being merely a waiting-station through which I travel to the vast shadowlands of the past and the bright new shiny future.

Perhaps the reason I feel quite so liberated from the present while more and more attached to an ever-present past is because the hard drive of my computer is overloaded with digital images of the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met, all of them time-coded. There is also an email trail leading back years, comprised of thousands of ephemeral traces. I can employ a few keystrokes and correlate my personal recollection of what was happening on that day, at that very hour, where I was in Burnley, Barcelona or Brisbane.

Because of this, instead of curling photographs and yellowing newspapers, we are possessed of a shiny and permanent now, and so delude ourselves as to our own eternal youth – until, that is, we look down at the wrinkled and liver-spotted hands that rest on the keyboard! However, the trend for social media is definitely faster and faster; as we spend a greater amount of time editing and narrating our own lives, we’re more self-absorbed and prefer a twitter soundbite to a long letter.

Some of our relationships are entirely Skype-chat. That’s cool, technology lets you do some new stuff, and maintain contact with a lot of people that otherwise would’ve fallen by the wayside a long time ago.

Business is about trust and reliability, and you can leverage those in a brand story using nostalgia. Being innovative doesn’t have to project a cold and futuristic image, you can link it into old-fashioned ingenuity like many brands have done. It is a paradox of technological advances such as the internet and the proliferation of TV channels enable us to wallow in the past.

The Chinese definition of happiness is having someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to. I’m happy. But back to my youth, and as the Buzzcocks sang, About the future I only can reminisce, and although this may sound strange I’m surfing on a wave of nostalgia, for an age yet to come. Another hot summer day beckons, we’ll be nostalgic for the summer of 2013 in ten years time. Now, where is my bike?

Thinking back, playing forward with nostalgic innovation

German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk played eight live performances in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall recently – The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 was a chronological performance of classic master works from across their celebrated repertoire, with spectacular 3D visualisations and effects. The performances showcased 40 years of musical and technical innovation, from Autobahn, to Trans Europe Express to Tour de France.

Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider formed Kraftwerk in 1970 at the Kling Klang Studio in Düsseldorf, Germany. They achieved international recognition for their revolutionary electronic ‘sound paintings’ and musical experimentation with tapes and synthesizers creating the soundtrack for the digital age. Their compositions, using innovative looping techniques and computerised rhythms, have had a major influence on several musical genres.

Kraftwerk were the first true pop music futurists, they wrote pieces about motorways, train and air travel, computers and nuclear power, and were obsessively interested in how technology was changing the way we lived, worked and communicated. It used to feel as if they’d been transported back in time from the future, so prescient were they, thirty years before the iPad.

As you made your way into the Turbine Hall you were given a black cushion to sit on (though everyone stood) and 3D glasses to watch the slide show projected onto a large screen, in front of which the four Kraftwerk members stood, impassively, at their synthesiser consoles, twiddling buttons and sequencing sounds. They were dressed in luminous one-piece bodysuits, like demented space age surgeons. There was no interaction with the audience, not even a cursory good evening from Ralf Hütter, the 66-year-old frontman and sole remaining founder member.

As a teenager I was interested in the synthesiser sounds of Ultravox, John Foxx, early OMD and The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Kraftwerk. I loved the way they looked and dressed, pale faces and short haircuts. The sounds they made intrigued me by the use of technology, and the cold austerity and isolation of the music.

Some 30 years on, the ultimate effect of the Turbine Hall performance on me was one of melancholic nostalgia. Kraftwerk no longer seem as if they’ve come from the future, they come from a time before the Internet. They have become nostalgists, endlessly reworking and reinterpreting their best work. It’s 2013, Kraftwerk joined up the dots between electronic music past and present, thinking back but playing forward, a multi-sensory and hypnotic offering, illustrating just how far you can push the format of one man and his Mac.

Kraftwerk were pioneers, but it’s 22 years since I last saw them. I was glad I went but I think I was disappointed – the show they played this time was greeted as a kind of remixed Greatest Hits, a recap of the near past, rather the next bold step into our future. For Kraftwerk, ultimately like all innovators, time has taken its toll and we all sleepwalk into the future. But the memories of their ground-breaking innovation made the nostalgia more evocative.

The challenge is how to create ‘nostalgic innovation’, combining the warm, fuzzy feeling of nostalgia with innovation, and reinvention, not standing still. One industry that has built commercial leverage on nostalgia is the sweet industry – loose sweets from large jars are back in fashion, with the number of traditional sweet shops rising by 15% over the last year, in spite of overall decline in sales of confectionery and high street footfall. What is it that has people hooked?

The sweet shop is a pilgrimage, it’s a sensory feast. The bright colours, the smell as you go in. Boutiques lined with glass jars of sparkling, brightly coloured sweets and old-fashioned chocolates are drawing in more customers, who are returning to the tastes of their youth. Nostalgia and novelty is an essential part of the enjoyment of sweets, stimulating a resurgence on the high street.

The sweet shop was born in the C18th, as the price of sugar dropped and the middle and lower classes could purchase a bag of aniseed balls to eat on the street. The 1800s saw the creation of butterscotch, Kendal mint cake, Turkish delight, and sherbet, and after the arrival of the Dairy Milk bar in 1905, the game was on to develop mass-market British confections for a hungry public.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, British chocolate companies like Cadbury, Rowntree’s and Mackintosh grew with a wave of confectionery innovation, when our most popular products originated: Aero, Smarties, Terry’s Chocolate Orange, Black Magic, Dairy Box, Rollo, Fox’s glacier mints. By the 1970s consumers had established an even deeper relationship with brands and their marketing – remember the Cadbury’s Flake girl and the James Bond like Milk Tray man?

Sweetshops remind us of what it was like as children, they transport us back to a particular moment in our life, when we used to ride our bikes and catch frogs and girls were great because they were rubbish at hide and seek. It’s pure indulgence of nostalgia that takes us into these confectionery emporiums.

So what are the ‘nostalgic innovation’ lessons for your business from the retro experience of cherry lips, fling saucers, rhubarb and custard, and strawberry laces? – and note how the pick ‘n mix has become click ‘n mix, as the high street outlets have online shops too. Do you capitalise on what is familiar, giving it a slightly new twist to appeal to an existing audience? Or do you take the risk of being something completely different, innovating your business in a new direction of some sort?

There are pros and cons to both approaches. Let’s say that you are opening a new restaurant, for instance. If you take the former route, you would take some time-honoured recipes, give them a twist, and do your best to live up to those old expectations. You want to make that classic dish better than anyone else, but there is a distinct possibility that you’ll just get lost in the crowd of everyone else making the same dish.

On the flip side, if you take the latter route, you’ll come up with brand new recipes that are unlike anything that anyone else offers. You may attract that initial novelty factor from a new clientele, but will you be able to retain them in the long term? More importantly, will they like your new and fresh approach at all, and then see beyond the novelty factor to become regular customers?

What do you think? Is it better to capitalise on nostalgia or novelty when it comes to your product offerings? Can you combine them? The car industry has leveraged this in recent years with the relaunch of the Mini, an icon of the 1960s, under the ownership of BMW in 2001 with a redesign but an anchor to its heritage. A brilliant commercial that demonstrated this was the little boy dressed as Darth Vader, when he used ‘the force’ to start his Dad’s Volkswagen. The commercial visualised an unexpected way to use the auto start function of the Jetta that made all of us feel like kids again.

Into my fifth decade now, I find that the past interests me more and more, yet the future preoccupies me as a source of heightened anticipation and possibility too. Increasingly the present seems to have its moments, mainly around the growth and development of my children, but it’s merely a station through which events travel forward. It is well over a decade now since the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued that reality itself had been fundamentally altered by a highly digitalised world.

So maybe its all about innovation, and connectivity to nostalgic reminiscences and the ‘good old days’ (when the weather was undoubtedly better) is because of the ever-present past we now live – the hard drive of my computer is overloaded with digital images of the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met, all of them time-coded and indexed automatically, and a journey back so easy at the click of the mouse. There are email trails leading back a decade comprised of many, many thousands of ephemeral traces. Even nostalgia has gone digital.

From a business perspective, thinking back but playing forward, I believe that this ‘nostalgic innovation’ is attractive as a business strategy, because it allows your customers the opportunity to re-engage in a past activity but in new ways and with new rewards and experiences. Because the underlying activities are nostalgic, there is a familiarity that makes them easy to understand, adopt and engage.

This is shown in the advent of social media, where companies can now share their brand with a much wider audience of consumers and members of their product community. Facebook, and Pinterest have taken us back to sharing of photographs and experience, the commercial value of the underlying nostalgia and the connection they provide for marketing is well understood.

While these are technological innovations, they lead the consumer to move beyond the application, offering the cultural linkages that the original activities – photography and scrapbooking – provided. How often do you get the ‘old photographs’ out now, or maybe you’ve scanned them in as digital images? That’s my point.

Taking old activities and using technologies to let people re-engage is a great model for aspiring new companies. Turning your nation into a huge subsidiary of Tescos is not what gives you respect and influence in the world, nor a sense of dignity and value in your society, so we do need rabid innovation to invigorate our future, even if it is inevitable that many of the ‘next-big things’ of the past will become little else but memories as they are eclipsed by their younger, sleeker iterations.

Given the speed of innovation, there’s a very good chance that many of the devices and cultural hallmarks that we’ve grown up with in the last decade will be extinct before the next generation of digital natives knew they ever existed. Even recent technology is generating nostalgia – the brown plastic tape of a cassette getting chewed up, going to Boots to collect physical prints of photographs, handling my first CD and the sound of a modem connecting – are my experiences that my children will never know.

Privacy, not having a mobile phone, and not knowing exactly what all of your friends are doing and thinking at every moment seems unfathomable to my 17 year-old daughter, as does my affection for Kraftwerk, although she will always accompany me into the sweet shop hoping for a Willy Wonka golden ticket. For me, the past is only the future with the lights on, and reality leaves a lot to the imagination if you’re looking forward. William Faulkner said Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Never look back, you only find what you left or let go, and don’t look back in anger I hear you say, not least today.