In this recession, classic is back

I was going to write a post this morning about classic brands and the lessons they can teach us about consumer behaviour and branding in these volatile economic times, and I had planned to use Wedgwood China as an example.

But I’ve googled them and discovered that the brand has since gone into receivership: KPS Capital, a New York private equity firm, has bought the company, and a new future lies ahead. Still, if ever there were a time in the history of Wedgwood when a fresh approach and some random editorializing might be valuable, this may be it.

The much-discussed desire for classic understatement and reserve that has been brought about by the recession is a very good thing for some brands, and serves as a cautionary note for all of us in the business world. In what has now become a cliché example, the “bling” has stopped selling at most luxury retailers, and instead consumers are looking for understated investment items that are well made and will last for a very long time without falling victim to the vagaries of fashion.

The trend is simply illustrated in terms of women’s handbags, which have apparently stopped selling if they have gee-gaws and patchwork exotic animal skins and shiny tassels dangling from multiple straps, but are still selling if they are clean and simple and timeless. In short, the recession seems to have killed the whole “It Bag” trend. Well, sort of: the “Not It” bag is the new “It” bag.

Wedgwood is a great case study, and a company to watch. It is a 250-year-old brand that has, at points in its history, been responsible for making high quality, simple, beautiful tableware. At some point it veered off into a kitsch aesthetic (depending on your personal preferences) and began a long, slow period of decline. But as the photo indicates, they have been capable of simple, clean, classic lines and timeless shapes.

The new owners would be well advised to focus once again on the craftsmanship and centuries of tradition that the brand represents, and produce a simple, clean, classic range of goods that will appeal across all age groups and aesthetics.

The company also owns the Waterford Crystal, Royal Doultan China, Rosenthal porcelain and Spring cookware brands. These brands, combined with a vision to be timeless and above trends, could become a reinvigorated family of brands that trades on generations of Irish and English pride and timeless craftsmanship. My money is on success for the brand, if they give us what we want right now: simplicity, tradition, quality. In short, a hug.

The same principle might be applied to all classic brands that have lost their way. Conversely, those companies, regardless of the industry sector, who absolutely rely on innovation to differentiate their brand (mobile phone companies, are you listening?) need to pause and consider this change in consumer preferences. Simple. Authentic. Classic. Traditional. These are the new buzzwords for success.

Innovation and invention, when clients and customers are filled with fear and uncertainty, should be rooted in simplicity, quality and, where possible, tradition. It’s not a time to scare or intimidate with the latest, greatest, newest, bestest, buzziest thing ever. It is, instead, a time to realize that we are all human, and in these uncertain times a little familiarity, a little respite from the ongoing drive to be innovative, is welcome.

I’m not suggesting we stop moving ahead, toss out the computers, and find those pencil sharpeners lurking the back of the desk drawer. It’s an issue of balance really. (All the same, when is the last time you sat down with a freshly sharpened pencil and scribbled a grocery list on a pad of paper? Try it. It’s oddly satisfying).

At my company, we are trying to find new ways to be useful to our client base, but at the same time focusing on traditional tenets of good business practice. What is your company doing? Is there a place in your innovation-driven industry for classic and timeless concepts? How does your brand strike a balance?