Business

Don't tell Lenin: making money from communist nostalgia

Andrei Botescu
Image caption Andrei Botescu has brought communist bike Pegas back to life

When his fancy imported American bicycle was stolen, Romanian Andrei Botescu was inspired to cycle back in time to his country's communist past.

Hunting for a replacement bike back in 2012, Mr Botescu decided that the best way to avoid a repeat theft was to buy a humble Pegas, the ubiquitous bicycle produced by a state-owned company during the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu.

So the native of Romanian capital Bucharest phoned the old factory in Transylvania, only to be told that it stopped making bikes in the 1990s, and now solely produced armaments and other military products.

At this point, Mr Botescu could simply have purchased a second-hand Pegas, but looking for a business opportunity, he had a light-bulb moment.

Remembering how much he liked the bike when he was a child, he guessed that millions of other Romanians above a certain age must have the same sense of nostalgia. And so, the 35-year-old wondered if there was a possibility that he could re-launch the brand.

Image caption The Pegas bike was the only one you could buy in communist era Romania

"For many Romanians, a Pegas bicycle is a symbol of their childhood," says Mr Botescu.

"During the communist period [that ended following the overthrow of Ceausescu in 1989], Pegas was the only type of bike in stores. At the time, every child had a Pegas or wanted one."

Doing some research, Mr Botescu found that no-one owned the rights to the Pegas name, so he quickly registered the trademark.

Raising 70,000 euros ($77,000; £55,000) from savings, family, friends, and bank loans, he quit his medical research job and set up his business Workshop Pegas.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Nicolae Ceausescu was removed from power in 1989, and subsequently shot by firing squad

Mr Botescu had no prior experience of either making bicycles, or running a business, but after taking on a specialist bike designer, his company was up and running.

In 2013 the firm sold 500 bicycles, which then doubled in 2014, and reached 3,000 in 2015. To help build up sales, Mr Botescu was savvy with his promotional work, setting up a Facebook page, a YouTube channel and Instagram account.

'Local pride'

As communism ended in Romania in the 1990s, a great many former state-owned brands like Pegas disappeared as factories were closed or privatised.

Yet fast-forward two decades and other Romanian entrepreneurs and businesses are realising that there is money to be made from communist nostalgia.

Image caption Beer brand Zagau aims to offer a taste of what beers were like in Romania under communist rule

When Laurentiu Banescu quit his job to open a small brewery in 2013, he was inspired by the former beers of the communist era.

"I wanted to create a new contemporary Romanian brand, but I was nostalgic for the communist period, when each county in Romania had its own beer," says the 36-year-old. "These beers represented local pride."

The old communist-era beers had long since stopped being made, and their breweries closed, but Mr Banescu says he wanted to echo their small scale production, natural ingredients, and handmade ethos.

To set up the new brewery, Mr Banescu and his business partner bought an old factory in the town of Maneciu, 114km (70 miles) north of Bucharest. They named their beer Zaganu, after an extinct type of eagle that used to be found in the region.

Image caption Laurentiu Banescu (right) set up the brewery with his friend Alexandru Geamanu in a old factory

Mr Banescu says: "We named the beer Zaganu as a parallel between the small beer factories that disappeared, and the disappearance of the eagle."

With a number of years of experience in sales and marketing for big companies, including global beer firms, Mr Banescu was very aware of the need for a good logo, so picked a drawing of an eagle and a font that harked back to the communist era.

The brewery is yet to make a profit, but Mr Banescu - who now has 17 employees - says he is confident, and is inspired by the success of the craft beer industry in the US.

'Emotional connection'

It is not just start-up companies though that have been looking back to communist era Romania for inspiration.

Rom is a Romanian chocolate bar that was first introduced in the 1960s under communist rule, and is today owned by Romanian company Kex Confectionary.

Romania

Capital: Bucharest

  • Population 21.4 million

  • Area 238,391 sq km (148,129 sq miles)

  • Major languages Romanian

  • Major religion Christianity

  • Life expectancy 71 years (men), 78 years (women)

  • Currency new leu

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While it has remained popular with middle aged and elderly shoppers, by 2005 the owners were worried that young people and children were instead preferring the chocolate bars made by the global confectionary giants.

So the Bucharest office of international advertising agency McCann Erickson was brought in to boost sales.

Catalin Dobre, executive creative director at McCann Erickson Romania, says: "We had a very popular brand for our parents, and we had to make it relevant for young people, the new generation of consumers.

"There was no emotional connection between youngsters and the product."

Image caption Rom is a Romanian institution

McCann's successful campaign involved adverts that played on Rom's communist past, including a poster of Ceausescu yelling at a teenage girl.

Mr Dobre says that for young people, who didn't have to live through the horrors of Romania's communist regime, brands from that era "have become retro and cool".

Meanwhile, Romanian business reporter Moise Guran says that older people are happy to buy products from the communist era, or inspired by the communist era, not because they miss that form of government and society but because it reminds them of their childhood.

Carmen Bistrain, a colleague of Mr Dubre at McCann Erikson Romania, adds that when people look back on the communist period, they see a time when food and drink was generally better.

"The idea is that everything produced during communism was natural," she says. "Whereas the 1990s came with processed food.

"We ate more healthily before then. It is the nostalgia for a certain way of life, when people cultivated products in the countryside - it is not people being nostalgic for communism."

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