Faculty & Research -“In with the old as well as the new” – consumer attitudes to neo-retro product design

“In with the old as well as the new” – consumer attitudes to neo-retro product design

Whilst “retro cool” or “the vintage look” have become over-used terms, they reflect the continuing interest of consumers in products that evoke the past. The question is, does this merely reflect a sense of nostalgia for times gone by or are consumers genuinely attracted by the technological standard of products and level of innovation, and not just the visual aspect?

Retro-looking products are proving a roaring success in a number of markets – one need look no further than the re-vamped Volkswagen Beetle, the “old school” Gazelle and Stan Smith tennis shoe designs re-adopted by Adidas and the emphatic return of the vinyl record under the banner “Back to Black”, to name but three examples. However, these products are not mere design successes based upon appearance alone. If they did not “perform”, then consumers would quickly lose interest. Retro products and the marketing of them must therefore not only appeal to people’s sense of nostalgia but also meet current technological requirements. However, to what extent can this truly be considered innovative, in comparison to more modern, forward-looking products and designs?

A choice between “the old” and “the new”
Retro products and the degree of innovation therein can be broken down into three categories: repetition (the simple reproduction of a past product), re-interpretation (the re-vamping of a product) and actual creation (where inspiration is taken from a previous product in order to design a new one). Why, then, might firms be hesitant about going down the retro route? Risk is an understandable factor – launching a new, vintage-looking product could lose customers used to a more contemporary look. Alternatively, firms may prefer to stick with what they know, in terms of resources and experience. However, they will also have to weigh up these factors with the potential proneness of consumers to nostalgia and the look of products from the past. The balance is a fine one, and the degree to which consumers perceive retro versus modern products as being both innovative and technologically sound is the key.

Neo-retro product marketing – a step back to the future?
Retro-marketing is defined as the harmonisation of the past with the present by combining current technological features with formal elements from a historical period. However, given the responses collected during a test case we conducted with UK-based consumers ranging from 20 to 60+ years old and a male-female gender split of 53-47, we prefer the term “neo-retro”. “Neo-retro” not only incorporates past visual codes into products with up-to-date technological performance but are also perceived as being more innovative than “standard” current products.
Our tests were based upon the presentation of the same product (a set of headphones) in two designs (neo-retro and modern) and in the exact same test conditions. Participants were questioned as to the degree of novelty, originality or innovation of each design, how likely each product was to feature innovative technological features, the extent to which they actively seek out new products themselves, and their overall attitude to each product. The responses generated led us to deduce the following:
1.    Perceived design newness is higher for neo-product design than more a typical modern design.
2.    There is no significant difference in perceived technological input between neo-retro product design and typical modern products.
3.    Domain-specific innovation is positively related to the attitude towards all new products, neo-retro or otherwise.
4.    Consumer novelty-seeking is positively related to the attitude towards both types.
Not only do these results set a significant challenge to product designers taking the safer option of adhering to a more typical, modern design but it also urges us to re-think what is “typical” and what is “innovative” when the old is combined with the new.

Research and design implications
From a research and practical perspective, this is fertile territory indeed and further studies should take into account the notion of time and memory – at what point should a firm consider re-inventing a former design and launching it as a new product? After how long do consumers become nostalgic for retro designs? The results of our study also pose a fascinating question about the notion of “typicality”. A design that might be considered quintessentially “1950s”, for example, then becomes atypical when re-modelled in the 2010s with current technological performance standards. None of this comes without a certain degree of risk, another element in the equation which is deserving of greater research attention.
What is patently clear is that, in a time of crisis where people’s purchasing power is lower than before, they require extra reassurance about the quality of the products they intend to buy and that a neo-retro design does not mislead them from a technological perspective. Quite the contrary, neo-retro products provide them with a break from current design standards and illustrate that the past and the present can be incorporated into the same technological offer, rather than being viewed with suspicion as radically conflicting. “Out with the old and in with the new” is becoming increasingly passé for many modern consumers….

This article draws inspiration from Consumer innovativeness, perceived innovation and attitude towards “neo-retro”-product design, written by Laurence Fort-Rioche and Claire-Lise Ackermann and published in The European Journal of Innovation Management – 2013 (volume 16, number 1).
Laurence Fort-Rioche is an Associate Professor of Marketing at ESC Rennes Business School, France Her research interests cover design, innovation and new product development, multi-disciplinary teams, time-to-market, and the marketing of high-tech products and services.
Claire-Lise Ackermann is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at ESC Rennes Business School, France. She teaches brand management, sales strategy and international marketing and her research interests cover implicit cognition, innovation, and design management.