Ketchup is many things - tangy, handy at barbecues, unnervingly non-perishable - but it's not exactly innovative.
If anything, ketchup's image is built on always tasting the same. It's a staple. It's familiar. Its effect on fries is predictable. For a household name in ketchup, the best marketing technique may just be to tell consumers that at your business, it's business as usual.
A hundred years of nothing-to-see-here-folks stability is a whole lot of brand history, and that's exactly what Heinz Canada is trying to communicate with its latest set of ads.
But they're not actually the latest. Heinz's current campaign dredges up three vaguely familiar commercials from its history in Canada, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its first factory opening here. The ads are all Canadian-made, taken from the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Reaching into the vault to rerun old commercials is a tried-and-true formula, but with brands increasingly wanting to showcase their staying power in these turbulent times, the technique is being dusted off even more this year. Everyone from fast food chains to makers of laundry detergent have been turning to their archive footage, hoping to strike a few nostalgic chords with consumers by making old ads new again.
"We're trying to recapture the experience of those consumers. The ads are a bit nostalgic," said Don Holdsworth, director of retail marketing for Heinz Canada. "They capitalize on the experience people have had with the brand through the years."
Take "Slide," from 1991, which features three flirtatious women at a bar, lending ketchup to nearby men for their bone-dry burgers. The ringleader has a knack with sliding the bottle so it stops in front of her bachelor of choice. This gets his attention, allowing the girls to wiggle their voluminous eyebrows and flip their even more voluminous hair coquettishly.
For anyone who was watching TV in the early 90s, it's a recognizable spot. It's also a bit jarring. The feathered bangs and denim shirts alone make it look dated. But even if it's unfashionable, it may help Heinz send the right message.
"For brands which require a lot of trust and customers want to be a rock, to be stable, that's useful," said Robert Kozinets, a marketing professor at the Schulich School of Business at York University, who studies retro marketing. "It's certainly not a way to update your brand or reposition your brand," he said. "It's simply a way to reassure the customer that everything is the same."
Using nostalgia in advertising is an old trick. During a recession, when public sentiment favours comforting, familiar images, it's a popular trick, too. In the downturn of the early 1990s, Timex revived its 1950s "takes a licking" slogan, Wendy's opened its 1984 vault and dug out "Where's the Beef?" and Coca Cola brought back the I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke jingle from the 1970s. Coke even hired detectives to track down the same people who had performed the song 20 years earlier.
Heinz is tapping into that same nostalgia. Intros to its vintage ads show a montage of old print advertisements, photos, and TV spots, and say when that ad was released.
"People go, 'Wow I can't believe it's been that many years,'" Mr. Holdsworth said. "We know people have a real emotional attachment with the brand. The spots touch a chord with consumers."
In a Toronto editing studio, they've been hearing the same chords over and over for days: the familiar strains of that classic Christmas carol, It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Staples' director of advertising and creatives from ad agency MacLaren McCann are overseeing the production of a "new" campaign.
It's a remake of another 1990s spot for the office supply chain's back-to-school products. The original showed an overjoyed father dancing through a Staples store, trailed by his grim-faced children whom he gleefully taunts with binders, pencils and other scholastic tools. As the music plays, a cheery voiceover proclaims, "It's that time of year again. They're going back!"
Staples' Canadian remake of the ad, which launches this Monday, will avoid the outdated fashions of the Heinz spots. It has the same plot as the older version, but with new actors (and haircuts). The children have also grown more resistant over 15 years, now refusing to leave the couch to go to the store. Luckily the pending relief of his childcare duties has given the father superhuman strength, and he drags them there, couch and all, at the end of a rope.
"Running a spot that was 15 years old didn't seem right," said Ryan Timms of MacLaren McCann. "We wanted to build off of it, pay homage to it, but do something more current and relevant."
There's also a financial consideration: the original ad was American-made, and paying Screen Actors Guild fees for rights to run it in Canada would have been too costly, said Sandy Salmon, director of advertising for Staples. So while the old ad is running on U.S. stations, the new one will launch here in Canada, in both languages.
The company's research found that even after 15 years, about a third of consumers recall the song as linked to the Staples brand.
"Lots of times after we run a campaign, we're in the 50- to 60-per-cent recall mark," Ms. Salmon said. "This is before we've even got it on the air. To go out with a campaign knowing you've got 33-per-cent recall, that's incredible. You can't buy that kind of recognition."
Some consumers who were school-aged when the ad first ran are now parents, Ms. Salmon said, and that recognition from early in life helps shape customers' decisions when shopping for their own kids.
But its effectiveness depends on the brand. Vintage charm may work for pencils and ketchup, Prof. Kozinets said, but nobody wants to use the same computer as their grandfather. And the Walkman's heritage hasn't done Sony's much good in its efforts to dethrone the iPod in the MP3 player market.
A stable brand like Heinz, though, can use old ads to make consumers take a second look. The women who were the same age as the flirtatious ketchup lovers in the 90s have a lot of buying power now.
"They may be targeting people who were in their teens and are now mothers making decisions for their families," Prof. Kozinets said.
That old-time feel (another Heinz ad actually features that pinnacle of nostalgia, the jukebox) gives the product a sense of trust and longevity. That's an important marketing tool.
Or as Prof. Kozinets puts it: "It gives companies like Heinz an advantage to say, we've had this brand for 100 years, so trust us, just like your grandparents did."