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  Portuguese Brands: Why the Past is the Future   Portuguese Brands: Why the Past is the Future  Joe Ray  
Portuguese Brands: Why the Past is the Future Tucked down the Rua Anchieta is A Vida Portuguesa, a boutique filled with a huge selection of Portugal’s historic and still-thriving brands. For anyone interested in a brand-wise archaeological dig of this country’s last century (even more time than that, actually) and a study on how to take age-old brands and turn them into luxury goods, this is the place. The store’s brochure indirectly boasts that it is full of Proust-worthy madeleines, which would be a painfully dumb claim if it weren’t true.

Owner Caterina Portas started the digging several years before the store opened in May 2007. As such, she’s an expert on the country’s best brands and what makes them tick.

“I started looking for products that were at least 40 years old,” she says, “where the quality of the product was important and the packaging was beautiful.”

Her shop is a shrine to the past, but curiously and cleverly in tune with the present. It exalts everything from ceramic swallows, which are a national symbol, to a soap that Oprah can't get enough of, to Coração metal polish, which still uses its original 1928 logo of a heart pierced by an arrow.

“Brands spend millions to create a history for themselves. Normally items that are 60 to 80 years old won’t be bad things,” she says with a touch of irony. “If they’ve lasted this long, they’re bound to have a certain quality.”

The objects Portas stocks are iconic brands and part of the greater "national brand”—each one having reached a hallowed status where it can be equated with what it means to be Portuguese—each possessing little bits of the country’s collective soul and the reverence that brand managers around the world would die for. The products trace the arc of the 20th century, including the 42-year reign of dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, up to the country’s 1986 inclusion in the European Union and the rapid modernization that followed.

Now many say the country is going through a reflective period where people are weeding out the globalized products they don’t want and keeping what they’ve been doing right the whole time.

"My feeling was that with globalization, we were all starting to be alike, to dress alike, to use the same products. It was clear that we'd see a resurgence of the local," Portas says.

“A chocolate manufacturer told me the other day, ‘We’re successful today for the same reasons we had trouble ten years ago: we’re small, local, have a tiny production, are artisanal and have an old-time image and packaging.”

Portas is conscious of the blooming nostalgia of older Portuguese citizens for the good products from their past and of a younger generation’s newfound appreciation of them.

Some of A Vida Portuguesa’s clients are of the generation that grew up with these products and sees them as practical, nostalgic and part of something good that came from a tough time. Younger clients seek a connection to the past and often use the products simply because they work well.

“Our clients are old, young, rich, poor, people from Lisbon, Portuguese, foreigners and old ladies who still want their favorite hand cream,” Portas recounts. After the better part of a century, her brands are still expanding. “Couto toothpaste is 75 years old and still finding new clients,” she says, citing one example: “Now vegans like it because it was never tested on animals.

“When you get to investigate products from daily life, you touch on a lot of subjects,” she says, explaining that many of her products are still in production thanks to their quality and connection to the Portuguese past. “It’s quite possible to tell the story of a country from the products they use.”

Curiously, she explains this using soap.

“There were king’s soaps, soaps for Salazar, for national fairs, soaps for songs of the revolution,” she says. “Most of our products,” she adds, cutting off the question about the worrisome idea of being identified with a dictator, “existed before Salazar. You can’t make an absolute connection between the two.”

It’s also the soap brands Ach Brito and Claus Porto—founded in 1887—that she says have best understood their potential and continued growing as brands.

“They know how to do it. They use the best vegetable ingredients and do a lot of milling to make their soaps softer and keep them from cracking,” Portas says simply.

They also got smart and got lucky. Portas explains that though the soap brands were struggling 15 years ago, they began targeting the high end of the mass market with Ach Brito and used Claus Porto as a premium brand. At around the same time, a New York lawyer found their product in Newark—where it was catering to that city’s large Portuguese immigrant community—and he soon negotiated to become their US distributor. Now they’re the darlings of women’s magazines around the world.

“Oprah loves them,” she says, grinning quietly.

Like Portas’ favorite soaps, Regina Ferreira explains the success of her company, the Conserveira de Lisboa (The Lisbon Cannery) and their Tricana brand of products—carried by A Vida Portuguesa, of course—by emphasizing quality first.

“Everything is fresh and local. Nothing is frozen (which would give them an unpleasant mushy texture). It comes from the sea and we can it,” she says simply. “We’ve had a contract with a producer on an island since 1938. They do what we ask.”

Ferreira also understands the nostalgic power her products contain. The cannery still uses the same kitschy/beautiful packaging her husband designed decades ago.

I wonder aloud how a place that specializes in canned sardines (each word a potential kiss of death in other cultures) can be a landmark, and she looks at me like I’ve missed the boat.

Slightly miffed, she walks to the wall of her tiny, picturesque shop on Lisbon’s Rua dos Bacalhoeiros and pulls down a 125 gram tin of ovas de sardinha—sardine eggs—using both of her hands to place it into mine.

“Open them gently. Place them on a plate. Place them on bread—not toast—so the olive oil gets soaked up,” she says. “No forks! It bothers them—use a spatula. Serve these to your sweetie with vinho verde.”

She sees my internal malarkey detector go off and smiles.

“[Michel] Troisgros buys our products. We sell to the Jardin des Sens,” she says referring to a chef and a restaurant in France that, between them, represent a tall stack of stars in the Michelin Red Guide. Later, under the fluorescent light of my cheap hotel room, I test a tin of Ferreira’s sardines, and everything she’s said makes sense.

“We’re five years behind Europe, but if you come back in 2012, these kinds of places will still be here,” explains José Caetano, who co-owns Lisbon’s high-end Italian-influenced restaurant Gemelli and understands both his compatriots’ new openness to outside influences and attachment to the brands they’ve grown up with. “Because we’ve been [geographically and politically] isolated, we like our own things,” he says. “If you talk to 1,000 people, they’ll all say they prefer Portuguese cafés…I don’t think too many Starbucks will come.”     



Joe Ray is a food and travel writer and photographer based in Paris. His published work and contact information can be found on his website. He also blogs with French food critic Francois Simon at Simon Says! along with The Boston Globe’s travel blog, GlobeTrotting.

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Portuguese Brands: Why the Past is the Future
 There are many such brands in Portugal as the Portuguese folk are extremely patriotic and will almost always buy excellent national goods in lieu of international ones. A good example is Vista Alegre Porcelain producing decorative and domestic porcelain since 1824. Vista Alegre is one of the most prestigious porcelain brands in the world. Experts and art collectors acknowledge the quality of its art to such an extent that it was the brand chosen to serve the main political leaders both in Europe and abroad. Another fabulous example is Álvaro Siza Vieira. Álvaro Siza, is a contemporary Portuguese architect and considered one of today's greatest living architects. His works are inspired by the site and tries to achieve what was missing there - there is always a very strict connection between what's built and nature, the new and the old, the sensorial and the rational. His poetic modernism draws on context to illuminate universal conditions. 
Paula Duarte, Client Manager, Landor Associations - January 12, 2009
 There are several examples of excellent and highly idiosyncratic Portuguese brands. But it is unreasonable to say that they've been unchanged for 60 or 80 years. For most of that time they were in crisis. Have you ever tried Couto toothpaste? It may me decorative, but it's not a pleasant experience. These products nearly vanished precisely because of their quality. Riding the vintage tide may not a long-term strategy for brand managers. They should draw from their heritage, but keep up with times. 
Sarah Couto, Corrida Consulting - January 12, 2009
 A Vida Portuguesa is a favourite destination of mine whenever I visit Lisbon. Portas is a curator of national branding history and has turned her passion for the nostalgia into a intimate and successful retail experience.It's very important to keep up with the times, just look at what has happened with Wedgewood! but when your brand is all about remembering the times, it offers a refreshing and clever point of difference that certainly stands out from the haze of "new and improved". 
Adam, Senior Designer, Futurebrand - January 13, 2009
 what the hell.... !! i got this article for my exam.. huhu i dont really understand.. helpp 
LSPR student, student, LSPR - January 26, 2009
 me too! it must be SILIH ideas right??!! 
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