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Iron Curtain soda, sneakers stage rally on '70s nostalgia kick

Nostalgia has led eastern Europeans to embrace the products they shunned in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Iron Curtain opened borders to goods from the West.

Ildikó Nagy likes to toast her upbringing in communist Hungary with a grape-flavored soft drink. Nagy buys Traubi soda as part of her weekly shopping trip with her 9-year-old daughter. Together, they sing the Traubi soda song from a 1970s commercial Nagy can recall from memory. „It's all about my childhood,” Nagy said inside her Budapest kitchen, sipping a glass of Traubi. „It tastes better than western brands, so I buy it for the home every week.” Nostalgia has led eastern Europeans to embrace the products they shunned in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Iron Curtain opened borders to goods from the West.

From Traubi in Hungary to Inka coffee substitute in Poland and Jar dish soap in the Czech Republic, brands created to replace capitalist products are now attracting consumers with disposable cash and credit cards. Hungary's „retro” brands, including Traubi, Tisza Cipő sneakers and Túró Rudi chocolate-cottage cheese bars, are also attracting younger buyers searching for local products, said Réka Markovich, chief secretary of the Hungarian Advertising Association. „These are Hungarian brands, which makes us feel that they are our own and no one can copy them,” Markovich said. The new appetite for home-grown food, drinks and clothing labels that were ignored after the Berlin Wall crumbled isn't based on price. Tisza Cipő sneakers sell for as much as $100 in chic own-brand stores in central Budapest, and the leather-soled shoes are now considered an up-market product.

Éva Molnár a journalist at a Budapest Web site, was drawn by childhood memories to snap up a pair of Tiszas last year for about Ft 20,000 ($93). „Tisza shoes were not cool when the communists were still in charge, but now they are cooler than any other brand,” she said. At the Traubi soda factory in the village of Balatonvilágos, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Budapest, machinery that hasn't changed since the 1970s churns out 80,000 bottles of grape soda daily, catering to consumers keen on reliving the past. The soda, made with 5% grape juice, is the country's most popular behind Coca-Cola and Pepsi, according to Traubi owner Salamon Berkowitz. The leading brand under communism, Traubi lost popularity to western drinks, and the Hungarian government sold the company to Berkowitz in 1992 for $3 million. Traubi, which is also sold in Romania and Croatia, has total sales of Ft 3 billion ($13.8 million), up from Ft 1 billion five years ago. The company is planning a sportswear line to profit from Traubi's new popularity, Berkowitz said.

„People are now coming back to the old-fashioned products because they are unique,” said Berkowitz, who fled communist Hungary with his family in 1951 for the US The brand will be available in the Czech Republic and Germany next year. At the George Soros-funded Central European University in Budapest, archivist Robert Parnica is creating an Internet catalog of everyday products under communism. „Every kid 20 years ago had Tisza sneakers,” Parnica said. „The road of remembering the past comes even now if you are 45 or 35, you have a personal relationship to this product.” Communist-era products are so popular in once-divided Germany that the consumer phenomenon is called „Ostalgia,” a play on the German word for east. Túró Rudi, a chocolate-covered cream-cheese bar introduced in Hungary in 1968, is now owned by Friesland Coberco Dairy Foods Holding NV, the largest Dutch dairy. The company is marketing the product through a joint venture with Paris-based Groupe Danone in Slovakia, Romania and Italy.

Similar trends can be found elsewhere in eastern Europe. Inka, a company that produces a grain-based coffee substitute in Poland, spent about 10 million Polish zloty ($3.2 million) reviving its main brand and developing new products, including Inka Junior, a drink for children. The company is owned by Biograin, a unit of Germany's KORD Group, which bought the Inka factory and brands in 1998. Annual sales are about 20 million zloty ($6.4 million), said Pawel Jasienkow, Inka's director of sales and marketing. „We decided to revitalize the brand, to freshen the image, not only in the eyes of current consumers, but also to find new consumers,” Jasienkow said.

Jar detergent, which first appeared in what are now the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1959, also made the transition to the free market. Procter & Gamble Co., which in 1991 bought the company that makes Jar, expanded sales to Hungary and Croatia. The soap was the only dishwashing product available at the time and has stuck in people's minds, Norbert Racskó, an assistant brand manager at Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, said in an e-mail. „It's a memory from childhood, and I even sometimes buy it,” said Daria Spackova a film production manager. Similar memories led Ildikó Nagy to teach her daughter the Traubi ad tune. „We love nothing but Traubi. We want Traubi,” she sings, mimicking the ad broadcast on Hungarian state television 20 years ago. „Traubi reminds me of my childhood, and I hope my daughter will remember it with her children one day too,” Nagy said. (Bloomberg)