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Thinking back, playing forward with nostalgic innovation

February 25, 2013

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.

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