Brand Strategy

Reimagining Retro: Classic Design and the Cycle of Fashion

Reimagining Retro

In recent times we have witnessed a progressive trend in consumer markets towards modern product designs that are informed directly by classic design frameworks. From automobiles to electronics, retro design motifs have been reimagined with streamlined, new age aesthetics to produce some of the most compelling consumer goods to hit the market in decades. These new products have not only reshaped the visual landscape, but they have provided us with a deeper sense of reflection regarding the evolution of consumer culture, as well as the application of form and function as they relate to the material composition of everyday life and its various artifacts.

In the quest for market leadership, strategists must attempt to set the trends of tomorrow by first analyzing the past in order to either A.) predict the next major transition or to B.) break with the current momentum by introducing what are often idealized as “disruptive innovations”. But how does one gain the positioning needed to set the next trend, and what is the method for activating innovations that will disrupt the status quo? 

Form & Function

As form follows function, the evolution of industrial product design follows closely in tandem with the development of new technologies. Yet, technological breakthroughs of the revolutionary sort can often be far and few between. Consequently, we find ourselves in a postindustrial consumer market that is in many cases dictated by the mercurial symbolism of the fashion cycle rather than the grounded sense of demand that is driven by functional usage values. Under such conditions superficial trade dress and design motifs have not only gone a long way towards establishing a popular understanding of brand status, but they have become the dominant signifiers of performance-based valuation in the popular conscience as well.

From electric guitars to digital cameras, many modern iterations of consumer products have retained vestigial features in their form factors that serve little value other than to inform us, semiotically, how those products are used or what brands they represent, through the employment of visual references. This phenomenon has been well documented in the work of Gary Hustwit, particularly in his treatment of the subject, titled Objectified (2009). There is substantial evidence in support of the assumption that industrial product design of all sorts travel along the cyclical continuum of prevailing social norms that we understand to be the cycles of fashion. 

Theorist James Laver once posited that fashion trends existed on a 150 year cycle, which very well may have been the case at the time that he authored his analysis of the subject. But since that time the duration of that cycle has been reduced as a result of multiple factors, including technological advancements in manufacturing, distribution methods, travel, and communications, which have resulted in a virtual compression of time and space as barriers to, what Everett Rogers termed, The Diffusion of Innovations.

Trend Spotting

As strategists remain in constant pursuit of market domination through the assertion of trend leadership, it is important that we analyze the market for recent trends in order to discern the most effective ways that brands have anticipated the momentum of social preference and found ways to effectively deviate from its trajectory. In this way we might provide informed insights about design philosophy as a keynote of innovation, the role of the fashion cycle in the direction of the current market’s trends, and the possibilities for future trends that may be forming on the horizon. 

Interior Décor

Pronounced vintage patterns have become a mainstay on the palettes of interior décor suites ranging from custom studios to upscale boutique chains to mass-market big box department retailers and DIY designers. Modern producers have taken a likeness to updating these design motifs with more brilliant color hues than the traditional tones found in the originals.

 

Sneakers

 

In August 2016 Nike released the Air Jordan XXXI sneaker. In honor of having issued its marquis shoe for a whopping three decades, the brand chose to return to the roots of the line’s design philosophy by taking direct references from the Nike Air Jordan I and integrating them into the new shoe’s design, which incorporates the use of high tech fabrics and cushioning to maximize performance. The shoe is most notable for reintroducing the prominent Nike swoosh and original Air Jordan ‘Wings’ logo into its design—both of which had been largely absent from Air Jordan sneakers over the past two decades.

 

ROLLER SKATES

Rocket Skates introduced a line of lithium-ion battery powered, motorized, strap-on roller skates reminiscent of the vintage strap-on roller skates popularized in the first half of the 20th century. In recent times roller skates have taken on more sophisticated design, culminating with in-line ‘roller-blade’ design formats, but the old model has recently resurfaced in this wearable tech line which has gangrened great enthusiasm.

Cameras

Coming out of the 1960s the Super 8mm camera was a classic tool for amateur film production that was largely displaced by the coming of magnetic video cameras, which was followed ultimately by digital video recorders of all sorts (e.g. DSLR cameras, MiniCams, Drones, Smart Phones, etc.). Since that time, the “old Super 8” cameras became celebrated for their rich use of analog technology and their vintage quality. In 2016 Kodak responded to the market’s sentiments by introducing its renaissance Super 8 camera, which uses Super 8mm film stock and a digital interface to produce DIY motion picture footage using an enhanced version of the classic Super 8 perspective. More importantly, the camera’s form factor took direct reference from the old cameras with its lateral brick-like body and its trademark grip handle for diverse camerawork.

Polaroid’s pioneering of the instant camera made its products all the rave throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Around the 1990s the instant camera lost some popularity to less expensive, higher clarity, 35mm film with the rising support of1-hour development found in drug stores and big box retailers everywhere.. Later digital cameras and rich media communications ate the core out of amateur analog photography altogether with instant, high resolution, digitally editable, -transferrable, and -mass-publishable technology—leaving the instant cams of the old days as little more than afterthoughts and party gimmicks. However, ‘all things analog’ have lately fallen back into favor among creative professionals and enthusiasts, largely due to the realization of the value of subtle distortion and other natural artifacts with comparison to the pristine yet ‘sterile’ output of digital systems. Polaroid has taken advantage of this trend by issuing modern instant cameras with updated features using many of the vintage design motifs of the old units from the 60s.

Leica recently introduced its line of Sofort Instant Cameras, which take design inspiration from the classic trade dress of its highly renowned rangefinder cameras, but in a miniaturized form factor. Leica has spiced up its new instant line with a vivid color selection including mint, orange, and white.

 

 

 

Record Players

Many manufacturers have introduced USB powered vinyl disc turntables for vintage music listening pleasure. Some of the designs follow antique design schemes down to the suitcase form factor, save for the digital components. However, others take inspiration from these retro product designs and flip them with brilliant colors, streamlined angles, and innovative layouts.

 

Appliances

Whirlpool front-loading laundry machines were an early leader of the reimagined retro trend at the beginning of the millennium. Since that time, manufacturers from Kitchen Aid to Kenmore have had substantial success with lines of vintage inspired household appliances, which offer a strong complement to any modern or retro interior designs.

 

 

Automobiles

The trend of reimagined retro has been especially extensive in the automobile market, as these goods are more durable, with higher levels of conspicuousness, and broader audiences. We see this trend in stylish compact family cars like the rebooted Mini Cooper, the Fiat 500, and the Volkswagen Beetle. It has also shown up in sporty classic pony, muscle, and performance cars like the revamped Ford Mustang Shelby GT, Dodge’s Challenger, and Chevrolet’s Camaro and Corvette Stingray. Car manufacturers have had much success in revitalizing classic design frameworks to inform retro inspired body styles that break with the current trajectories of automobile evolution because these disruptive designs stand out from the redundant body styles that currently dominate the roadway. These classic designs speak to the legacies of their makers and have been lauded by tastemakers, fashion-conscious consumers, and car-enthusiasts alike for their significance in paying homage to car culture at large and the brands that brought that heritage to market as an enduring lynchpin of American society.

On The Horizon

What we find in the market’s current affinity for vintage design motifs is more than a mere exploitation of consumer nostalgia—it is the recapitulation of the ‘classic’ at the conclusion of a fashion cycle. The reimagining of retro is an apparent progression from the “devolutionary” stagnation in fashion noted by Kurt Andersen as characteristic of the timeframe roughly between the early 90s and the first decade of the new millennium. It is reasonable to assume that we might have a ‘return to origins’ across industrial design in the wake of this dormant period. As these recycled themes regularly find themselves laced in a layer of postmodern sensibilities, it is also reasonable to suggest that, given the timing, context, and ‘temperature’ of this retro trend, we might expect to see a dramatic shift towards some rejuvenated version of futurism as a reaction to the prior half century. Though nothing is for certain, the current revisiting of the past has been intriguing to say the least.

I Want My MTV (Classic): Nostalgia and The Quest for Comeback

THEY’RE BACK!!!

The classics are back! Viacom’s MTV Networks division has done some shop cleaning with a format adjustment to its station programming by replacing the now defunct VH1 Classic with a “Spankin’ New” channel called MTV Classic. The MTV brand was once a definitive voice of authority on ‘all things cool’ to youth audiences. However, blinded by its own success, bloated by over-expansion, and weighted down by the bureaucratic strain of the Viacom media machine, the network’s influence has waned significantly over the past ten years. Having officially jumped the proverbial shark some time in the millennium’s first decade, the new ‘Classic’ aims to reinvigorate the MTV brand by nostalgically reminding old audiences of its golden era and introducing new ones to the critically acclaimed content that built the network into one of the premier gatekeepers of pop culture relevance. But will it work?

THE MAKINGS OF A JUGGERNAUT

Launched 35 years ago in August of 1981, the Music Television network has undergone many evolutions since its introduction as the home of Rock ‘n’ Roll video. The brand was originally targeted towards young adult audiences and it played a pivotal role in facilitating the Second British Invasion of successful rock acts into the U.S. market during the 1980s. The use of videos to promote musical recordings was a well-established practice that reached new heights after the introduction of MTV. The network’s commitment to pop culture fueled record sales and demonstrated an ability to have a massive impact on the evolution of the modern celebrity as a social construct. By the time of its heavy support of Michael Jackson’s 1983 release of “Thriller”—widely regarded as one of the greatest pop culture works of all time—the MTV brand was cemented as a preeminent fixture in the consciousness of American youth; a position it would dominate for three generations.

As time progressed, the cultural zeitgeist continued to inevitably shift and the network adjusted appropriately as it came to serve as not only an outlet, but a source for youth entertainment—pushing new boundaries of social norms with the introduction of its edgy original content. From MTV News to Liquid Television, the brand found wide success in the groundbreaking programming that was suddenly surrounding the music videos that had drawn its audience in from the start. As the network came of age in the 1990s it developed a liberal ethos of creative freedom, a penchant for social activism, and a brand personality with its own unique voice. This content was largely independent of the material it was force-feeding its viewers from the hand of the maturing record industry that was on the verge of its peak, and eventual rapid decline. MTV endeavored into game shows, films, and explicit animation, and it played a pioneering role in the reality television genre with its creation of shows like “The Real World” and “Road Rules”. It asserted its authority across the pop world with elaborate ceremonies for its MTV Video Music Awards and MTV Movie Awards, and it spawned a portfolio of sister channels to support its leadership role at the epicenter of pop culture media.

THE BIGGER THEY COME…

After two decades of unbridled ascension MTV sat atop a commercial empire as a ruler of influence in the lucrative teen and young adult markets. But the signs of storms ahead were already on the horizon. The thing about gatekeepers is that one can keep people outside of their gate, but one cannot force people to stand before that gate begging for entry, in order to maintain one’s status. Since 2005 MTV has seen a steady decline totaling a loss of over 50% of its reported audience size—a secular trend that has been heavily reverberated across broadcast and cable television at large. A number of forces have taken effect in the development of this outcome, and if we are to learn anything at all from the case of MTV we must examine these factors more closely in order to produce meaningful insights.

To begin, the music industry, which had served as the DNA of MTV’s core brand identity, was on the brink of peril as digital file sharing had unexpectedly overrun the traditional models of music sales and distribution in ways that the industry had not been equipped to deal with. Meanwhile, MTV, for its part, was mid-stride in the process of abandoning the central tenets of its ‘Music Television’ concept in exchange for a greater focus on original content. Critics, including A-list musicians, levied heavy charges against the network of forgetting its purpose and having disavowed itself of its intended usefulness to the audience that made it what it was. After all, what is MTV without the music? They say that hindsight is 20/20, so one cannot fully blame the company for making the programming decisions that it did at the time. The brand had amassed a streak of hit shows in the reality-based format ranging from “Cribs” and “Pimp My Ride” to “Jackass”, and “Laguna Beach” with its series of spinoffs. Reality television was all the rave at the start of the millennium with shows like “Survivor” and “American Idol” storming onto the scene at the forefront of an onslaught of low-cost programming that would dominate both airwaves and cable for a decade to come. As an early innovator in the category with an established track record of success, MTV had the expertise and every logical impulse to pursue the reality market with the intensity that it did. Except, it did so at the cost of its identity. But the cultural climate of the time had pointed the network in that direction. The ending of “TRL” was a necessary evil, as the TRL stage and its fanfare had grown past their prime. By that time, the novelty of exceptional artistry and production values in music videos had long worn off. Everything that could be done in a four-minute audio-driven clip had essentially been tried, and referenced, and tried again as though it were new.

For quite some time MTV has faced heavily increased competition on all fronts, from music programming to pop culture news to scripted and reality programming. The sheer increase in total volume of cable stations presents a significant challenge for the network in holding its ground. It has been so inundated with competition in the digital space that even its solid online platform has not been able to gain a dominant position against the scores of newcomers to the alternative, lifestyle, and pop culture media spaces. Most importantly, the way young audiences are consuming media has been rapidly changing, and there has been limited substance that MTV could offer, in form or in function, that is consistent with those changes. Millennials and Centennials are cutting cords left and right. The commercial blockbuster has significantly given way to the long tail of on-demand and niche oriented media—much of which has been the compelling product of independent producers, operating outside of the massive conventions of industrial machines. Unsurprisingly, this timeframe coincides directly with the launch, and astronomical rise in popularity of YouTube, which took a major chunk away from MTV’s following. YouTube eliminated the monopoly that MTV and other music programming stations held for decades over their audiences’ ability to view the music videos of their favorite recording artists. Moreover, it made viewing a self-determined process for all videos, from all artists (mainstream and independent), for all time, with the possibility of repetition, rather than the random, single play programming of recent material from mainly signed artists, offered by network stations.

Programmed live-air content divided by sponsor ads has become less desirable to youth audiences as a media distribution format. This is partially an effect of viewers achieving greater control over their media consumption experiences through the use of on-demand platforms such as Tivo, DVR, YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu. This is especially true concerning the viewing of music videos. Traditional programming formats have also been undermined by the tendency of online content providers to attend to these audience preferences by using less invasive, more integrated, native advertisements as part of their UX. MTV’s target demographic of viewers, ages 12 to 34, are particularly inclined to have adopted these new media preferences and habits, making the impact on the network notably more severe. Nonetheless, these facts shed logical insight on the company’s seemingly misguided decision to shift away from music video programming towards original content. MTV has charged Nielsen with undermining the market valuation of its ad space by producing inaccurate ratings reports that fail to account for the rise in recorded and online viewership that has accompanied its steady decrease in live-air audience size. Many in the industry have suspected for some time that the ratings giant’s tracking methodologies have become outmoded and inconsistent with the reality of actual media consumption patterns in the market.

Finally, social media has severely compromised the significance of MTV’s role in the manufacturing of celebrities. In the race to construct public narratives, its one time status as one of the few outlets dedicated to celebrity coverage, updates, and exposure has fallen by the wayside at the hands of the 24 hour Twitter cycle, the open book access of Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr, and the non-stop flow of self-published, behind-the-scenes footage found on YouTube and Venmo.

 

PUTTING THE “M” BACK IN “MTV”

The network states that the new MTV Classic channel will offer "an eclectic mix of fan-favorite MTV series and music programming drawn from across its rich history, with a special focus on content from the 1990s and early 2000s." This will include favorites such as “TRL”, “Daria”, and “The Hills”, and the much-anticipated revival of the network’s critically acclaimed “Unplugged” series, which produced legendary acoustic performances from acts like Nirvana, Alanis Morissette and Korn. From a brand strategy perspective it would seem more logical to have made an expansion channel of original content while maintaining the core competencies on the flagship channel, ‘Classics’ notwithstanding. This could be done with appropriate adaptations to the modern music market by catering to the market’s proclivity for jumpstarting the careers of independent talents through viral sensationalism, similar to what has been done on REVOLT. The introduction of MTV Classic is a positive sign that the brand has at the very least heard the decade old complaints that it has lost its way, and it has responded in a constructive manner. Whether this move will be enough to salvage the aging media titan from the wreckage of the new millennium pop culture is yet to be seen. There has been much speculation as to whether or not a space even remains in the cultural landscape for a machine like MTV to thrive in the way it has historically.

 

AT THE END OF THE DAY

While the obvious strategy of not ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’—by milking the old media model for everything it is worth until it is finished—is a logical step in the midst of great transitions, if the brand is to survive, MTV must regain some semblance of its past social influence with ‘youth’ audiences both old and new. Its 40 million Facebook fans are a testament to its ability to do just that. Social media presence is an excellent start but the company has much work to do in adjusting its market offering if it aims to ever reign atop the pyramid again. Such a move may require extensive innovation in the realms of content, formatting, and platform structures. The network was founded, and reached the height of its success by continuously introducing simple yet original concepts. New developments in live experience, snackable content, and perhaps some yet to be imagined media product might all go a long way towards actualizing the network’s return to prominence. But one thing is for certain: We want our MTV, and if we’re going to have it, it needs to be retrofitted with new ideas that allow the old concepts to succeed in the new market.