Is nostalgia the best branding strategy for Singapore?

I’m not sure what the average age of a midlife crisis is, but it sure feels like Singapore is having one right now. This big-little success story turns 50 next year, a significant marker for a country that’s gone from ‘third world to first’ in scarcely more than a generation.

What does this accelerated pace of change mean for a nascent and fragile sense of national identity?

Whether it’s because we’re so close to the Big 5-0, or whether it’s because people are feeling unmoored by change, Singapore seems to be looking back as much as it’s looking forward.

Perhaps it’s this new national mood that’s fuelling a new search for authentic experiences and as part of that, for ‘real brands’. It seems that we’ve finally grown tired of a happy palette of plastic and pastel, and of Disneyland-style family fun in brightly lit malls. We’re ready for a bit more grit. Authenticity is in and nostalgia, by extension, is everywhere.

It’s all-pervasive on social media with Facebook groups such as ‘Nostalgic Singapore’ and ‘If you grew up in Singapore…’, as well as on blogs like remembersingapore and yesterday.sg. Even the government’s feeling the mood, with the launch of the ‘Singapore Memory Project’ – a ‘whole-of-nation’ movement that aims to save the country’s collective memory into a single on-line portal.

Singapore’s canny retail and F&B entrepreneurs are channeling the zeitgeist too. Online lifestyle portals like naiise.com, wheniwasfour and Scene Shang all have a retro aesthetic, whilst places like Sinpopo on Joo Chiat Road serve up Singaporean classics in a retrolicious environment (you can tell it’s retro because it has the word ‘brand’ at the end of the name) and despite the price premium, it seems that people don’t mind paying a bit more for a taste of old school authenticity.

Dong Po Colonial Café on Kandahar Street has been earning rave reviews for its ‘childhood favourites’ and its 70s atmosphere, whilst Chye Seng Huat Hardware Store (hey! It looks just like an "uncle’s" shop from the outside, except it’s not because inside it’s a convergent café/retail space hawking flat whites and retro canvas totes) and Tiong Bahru Bakery both prove that nostalgia is big business on this small island. In short, you can hardly throw a stick in Singapore’s heritage districts without hitting a store or café that’s busy reminiscing about the good ‘ole days.

The nostalgia wave might be peaking in Tiong Bahru, Kallang and Joo Chiat, but what about the ‘mainstream’? Has this cultural wave trickled down to brands on the supermarket shelf? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the short answer is no. A quick walk down the supermarket aisle confirms that as usual, packaged goods lag behind their nimbler and more innovative cousins in the F&B and retail sectors. Packaging generally seems to display badly shot, overly retouched food photography; shiny logos, whizzy graphic effects and bright, neon colours. The world has moved on, and so has Singapore, but brands on our supermarket shelves seem divorced from any cultural context at all.

But it needn’t be this way. FMCG brands need to sit up and take notice of the mood beyond the check-out, because this isn’t a fad that’s going away anytime soon. And it is possible to balance long-term brand identity with an engaging, relevant tonality – even on packaging. Here’s 3 suggestions for Singaporean brands who want to ride the wave.

1. Authenticity, not history

Nostalgia isn’t just about redesigning your labels to include some charcoal sketches of a row of Peranakan shophouses. It’s about making your brand feel authentic and real – made by humans, rather than ‘made on a mac’. Bright shiny logos, ultra-polished graphics and whizzy shapes all feel so out of synch with the design mood in almost every other sphere of life. What brands like Tiong Bahru Bakery, Sinpopo and Dong Po all do so well is that they have an unrefined, almost anti-design feel. So chuck out the cheap and garish, and usher in the unpolished.

2. Heritage brands versus authentic brands

Some brands have a natural head start on this whole nostalgia vibe. Old school brands like Ayam Brand, Tiger Balm for instance, are in the pole position to take advantage of their heritage credentials (whether they are doing that successfully is another question). But you can be a new brand, and, like Chye Seng Huat, put a modern twist on a heritage story. You don’t need to make kaya, bai kafei or egg noodles to be authentically Singaporean. You just need to have a story, tell it truthfully, and tell it well.

3. Food brands, step up to the plate!

If you’re a food or beverage brand, the new mood is a great fit. Nothing conjures a happy childhood memory than food. There is one category of packaged goods that knows this is true, and that’s white coffee. From Ah Huat (okay, so it’s Malaysian, but it couldn’t feel more old school) to Owl, brands are falling over themselves to be the most nostalgic kids on the block.

To sum up then, for Singapore, the past is definitely the future. The trick is to tap into the zeitgeist and find a way to resonate with your audience, but to do so through the lens of your brand.

The author was Katie Ewer is Strategy Director at JKR Global in Singapore.