Then and now: the trend for nostalgic branding

Woman in a red coat holding co-op bags, circa 1968Recently, Great Western Railway, Co-op, and NatWest have all re-branded by drawing from their heritage branding. This is a trend that’s been happening since the financial crash of 2008 and one which I thought we might have moved on from by now.

It poses the question why are these brands still looking to their past in order to help them move forward? And in the fast-paced, ever-changing world of branding, why is the heritage trend still relevant?

First Great Western is Great Western Railway once more

A bench with the old Great Western Railways logo on the baseWhile the identity is new, First Great Western reverted its name back to Great Western Railway in a nod to its rail network heritage spanning back to the mid-nineteenth century. It was the nationalisation in the 1940s that resulted in the discontinuation of the name. The work was carried out by John Rushworth and his team at Pentagram’s London studio. He said:

“The initial brief was very good, it was part of First’s rebidding for the franchise,” says Rushworth. “It was all about the ‘renaissance of rail’ … putting pride back into the sector, but in a way that was tangible and believable rather than it just being about – let’s say – a coat of paint. We wanted to make sure that it was delivered as a modern, contemporary railway company, relevant to rail travel and travellers today, but obviously one that was conscious of its history,”… “You shouldn’t walk away from your history, you should always celebrate it.”

A train in the new Great Western Railways livery

The Co-operative heads back to the 60s

The Co-op returns to the 1968 clover leaf logo in a bid to reorganise a brand that had turned into something “confused and too corporate” according to the group’s design director Ben Terret. It marks simultaneously a step forward with the vibrant new blue, and a return to something more familiar with the 60s marque, which will resonate especially well with customers for whom the Co-op has been a fixture for decades. The old-new brand coincides with announcements about new membership benefits: the group will give £100m a year to its members.


The pitch to return to the classic logo came from the agency North. North’s founding partner Sean Perkins says:

“Returning to the familiar can be a radical act, but it is the timeless quality of this iconic logo that makes such a move possible – it is distinct, recognisable, approachable, and dynamic, giving us the opportunity to signal a shift back to the ideas that made the Co-op special for its customers.”

NatWest explores new-old dimensions

NatWest has also taken something old and made it into something new. The set of three cubes (originally signifying the bank’s three merged entities: National Provincial Bank, Westminster Bank and District Bank) is now the starting point for exciting visuals, dynamic illustrations and three-dimensional typography. Futurebrand undertook the work, and executive creative director Dan Witchell talks about how the heritage mark has “gravitas”.

“The cube has always been an intrinsic part of their identity … we wanted to build on something that was always there rather than create something new.”

I thought this word summed up perfectly the effect that every retro-brand is going for on one level or another. Each one is trying to convey the idea that you can rely on them, and that you should take them seriously, without compromising other brand attributes.

Witchell goes on:

“[High street banks] have tended to look slightly more conservative – I think [NatWest] have been slightly braver with their choices, certainly in their advertising and their identity … on the whole, the category has tended to be a little bit same-y” … “But you know, it’s an interesting challenge. Banks also need to look and feel trustworthy and that tends to lead you down a slightly conservative path.”

Things are changing

We are living in uncertain times (Brexit, Trump) and in times of uncertainty, we all need reassurance. Our communities were once anchored by our physical location. Community centres, churches and even shopping centres were significant places for people to come together. But in our increasingly digital lives, things are changing.

The Community Report from research group Protein expands on this further:

“The connectivity of the digital age has enabled people worldwide to share ideas and identities that perhaps once left them feeling isolated… It is no longer solely about physical locality, above all else it’s about values.”

And fundamentally this, in my opinion, is why brands like Natwest and GWR have utilised their heritage in order to help them move forwards. They are both in sectors that have had their brand values damaged through poor service levels, and where being honest and trustworthy is fundamentally important.

It is a gift for them to have a heritage to draw from, to remind people of a time when values such as honesty and trust were a given, and to help establish in their customers’ minds that in turbulent times these brands have always been there – the foundations of our communities. These brands want us to know that they can be relied upon to provide some of the reassurance we are all craving in our physical and digital worlds.

About Nicola

Creative Director

Nic has a thorough understanding of, and passion for, brand. She has worked at mark-making* for over 15 years. Bringing fresh ideas and approaches to her projects, she has won multiple awards for her work. Nic’s role involves collaborating with the strategic and client leads, and the studio team, to shape the creative articulation of the brand as a visual and verbal identity. Nic has worked across a spectrum of B2B and B2C sectors, delivering diverse projects from identity creation and communications collateral to website design for brands such as F.Hinds, Nutricia, British Cycling, LV=, and The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.