Optimism, familiarity and comfort are chords marketers can expect to strike with emotional resonance in these times of consumer retrenchment, said brand image developer Cheryl Swanson, president of Toniq.

This story first appeared in the March 25, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Americans are in a “holding pattern,” as they seek greater meaning, simplicity and things they can use with ease, she observed. In the current atmosphere, “anything too terribly new” will prompt people to question whether they need it, Swanson said. In an interview in her Manhattan studio, she gave the thumbs down to PepsiCo’s redesign of its Pepsi, Gatorade and Tropicana branding; since then, the company decided to bring back its traditional Tropicana, straw-in-orange imagery, citing consumer complaints.

While she is anticipating more people will be donning brightly colored fashions — as a “mood elevator” — Swanson herself has taken to black. “I caved,” she admitted. “I now say ‘I am a New Yorker. I am doing the black thing.’”

WWD: What kind of marketing messages and images could be effective in the year ahead, given the economic morass?
Cheryl Swanson: Brands that have a clear story, narrative branding, will do very well in this market. The visual cues have to reinforce the story. I’ve been doing work in personal care, in food, in household and in beverage. Regardless of category, gravitation toward brightness [in colors], not subtlety, has been prevalent. It makes people feel happy. Consumers are yearning for optimism.

WWD: When you describe this shifting palette are you speaking of products, packaging, advertising?
C.S.: The whole thing. Anything that gives consumers a sense of safety, authenticity and joy. Like method soaps. It started at Target. It’s sensorial. It fosters this sense all will be right with the world. The other thing that’s happening is home theater and nesting. People are creating a warm igloo.

WWD: It sounds like anchoring.
C.S.: It is psychological barricading from the badness out there. And not having CNN on, like, 24 hours.

WWD: What role do you see heritage brands playing these days?
C.S.: A very important one, because they anchor back to the past, but also to a place of confidence.

Pepsi has just changed the visual imagery of all its key brands [Pepsi, Gatorade, Tropicana]. I think it’s a mistake. I think it’s so badly timed it’s not even funny. What people are looking for now is things that have been with them and stood by them.

WWD: Is this potentially bad news for the fashion business, which thrives on change and something new?
C.S.: This year. This year is all about familiarity, heritage, authentic, comfort.

WWD: How does fashion survive and thrive, when it’s built on newness and surprise?
C.S.: Focus on basics. Taking a basic like a T-shirt and making it fun. It’s a recasting of these things we actually need, in a fun way. Fashion can do that more than any other category. It’s right on your body, creating this sense of uniqueness.

WWD: You’ve talked about optimism and vitality. Where does it fit in with marketing?
C.S.: It’s a Boomer trend that migrated much younger, to Millennials. I could break the vitality trend into two macro segments: health and physical vibrance; and spiritual enjoyment of the now. It’s this need to reach out to realness as opposed to cyberness.

WWD: You mentioned that going forward, less must do more.
C.S.: This started happening in home design even before the economy tanked, but it’s more important now. Things on casters that roll around. The Murphy bed is back.

WWD: Because people are living in smaller spaces?
C.S.: Because their spaces have to be more flexible. They can’t go smaller or bigger. They can’t move, because they can’t get credit. So they have to be more adaptable. They have to make the most of what they have.

WWD: What’s influencing you these days?
C.S.: I think centered, rational people are going to come to the fore. The broadcast media are very extreme. CNN is the tragedy network. There’s a strong sense of melodrama in the world. What’s interesting is somebody who’s very calm. Seeing [President] Barack Obama sitting after the election in a centered calm. People throughout this country want to not spend a lot of money, and enjoy themselves.