Communist-era brands make nostalgic comeback

  • 2003-04-17
  • Geza Molnar

The people of Eastern Europe are poised to join the European Union, but in recent years they have happily gone back to buying the consumer brands with which they grew up under communism.

Throughout the region the sugary foods, soft drinks and cosmetics that comprised all the socialist-era consumers knew back then have made a comeback, complete with their old retro packaging.

The products had been pushed off the shelves when previously unobtainable Western goods flooded into countries like Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany and Poland after the Iron Curtain fell, but they have been relaunched either by the old owners or by Western companies.

The East Germans call the bittersweet longing for at least parts of communist life "ostalgie" - derived from the German words for east and nostalgia - and had a look at it in the movie "Goodbye Lenin!" at the Berlinale festival.

The craze for communist era products is particularly noticeable in Hungary, where a soft drink called Traubi-soda - a mixture of grape juice and spring water - has become the third biggest seller after Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

The brand disappeared in 1990 but was bought out by Hungarian businessman Salomon Berkowitz, who spent $1 million relaunching it in 1993.

After a slow start, the demand for Traubi exploded in 2001. It is particularly popular with people aged between 30 and 40 and their children.

"Our market research showed that there was a strong nostalgia for it among people who were teenagers in the 80s," said Bela Szemen, the marketing director of Traubi-soda.

"That age group did not know the ugly face of the old regime and fondly remember the products of the period."

The communist equivalent of the chocolate spread Nutella, which sold in East Germany as Nudossi, was successfully relaunched in 1999. Made with 36 percent nuts, far more than Nutella, it comes in all forms, from wafer biscuits to a thick sandwich spread.

But Falke Broedner, the 30-something owner of a shop in Berlin called Ostkost that specializes in typical East German products, says the trend does not mean people long for the politics of old.

"Ostalgie has nothing to do with ideology. We are simply happy that we can find the products of our childhood and proud to show that all was not bad in East Germany."

The Czechs have relaunched their old imitation of Coca-Cola - Kofola - that used to be a hit in the 1950s and 60s.

A Czech firm in 2001 bought the brand and like Hungary's Traubi-soda, it has become the Mo. 3 seller in the domestic market. In 2002, its sales jumped by 62 percent.

Slovakia's version of the same story is called Cofola. It comes cheaper than Coca-Cola and has proved very popular with the youth.

In Poland, another imitation of Coca-Cola - Polo-Cofta - seems to be doing well out of the revival of a 1980s comedy in which the soft drink had the magical power to make people grow.

In the former Soviet republic of Estonia a delicacy made of barley, rye and peas has made it back onto the shelves. Born in the 1970s when the Soviet Union suffered a chocolate shortage, it has been bought by an Estonian businessman and holds its own against the imported chocolate bars on sale.

But many a brand has been revived by a sharp-eyed multinationals who spotted a money-spinner.

In Hungary, France's Danone and Holland's Nutricia have both relaunched their own versions of Turo Rudi, a cream bar covered in chocolate. Nutricia has kept the old wrapper, and its version sells better than that of Danone's, who repackaged the sweet.

U.S.-based multinational Sara Lee in 2000 bought the Hungarian cosmetics brand Gabi Baba, which by then had practically disappeared from the market.

"We kept the old packaging, and the products are selling like hot cakes," said Lorincz Gyongyver, a former marketing director for Sara Lee.