Yes, this article’s title is a deliberate Seinfeld reference. Did it hit you in the feels? See, that’s what nostalgia in marketing is about: We grab your attention by reminding you of a bygone era, get you feeling all warm and fuzzy, and hope that makes you more susceptible to buying. No, seriously—it’s a real marketing tactic these days. And what is the deal with that?
More than ever as the world goes mad around us, we’re looking back at what we perceive as simpler times: our childhoods, the rose-tinted-glasses view of yesteryear. With the political and economic world in upheaval, consumers are feeling unsettled. Unsure. Nervous to commit. Nostalgic thinking can make them feel more optimistic, and therefore more likely to buy. Read marketing theory, or even some press releases, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a cynical, deliberate ploy for brand awareness. Appeal to the original fans while introducing yourself to a new, younger audience. And so you have Microsoft reminding you how Internet Explorer was your first browser, or Eggo bringing back its famous “L’Eggo My Eggo” tagline from the 1970s.
And, boy, does it work. We’re in the midst of a nostalgia boom; the box office records this summer for reboot of It’s scary clown and the live-action Beauty and the Beast were a nice distraction while we wait for the second season of Stranger Things on Netflix. And there’s more coming, with new Star Wars and Ready Player One coming to fill the gap once you’ve binged on the paranormal antics of some kids in Hawkins.
But, as John Montesi has previously pointed out in these very pages, nostalgia as a term is “widely misunderstood; it’s more of an emotional connection to something that feels warm, sepia-toned, fuzzy, and authentic than it is an actual tie to history.”
Image attribution: Amos Bar-Zeev
While brands like Coca-Cola have been tapping into nostalgia for generations, the last several years have seen a noticeable uptick in brands borrowing the same strategy. In an interview with Lisa Lacy of Linkdex, Kristin Kovner, president of K-Squared Strategies, notes that though nostalgia marketing is usually on the rise during unsettled times, “today it seems marketers are using nostalgia as a way to build authenticity and claim a real, long-time relationship with consumers. In a way, nostalgia marketing is the natural extension of authenticity marketing, especially during the holidays.”
“Put another way,” says Nathan Safran, “when we take a close look at the buying funnel, what gets buyers off the couch to begin a research and exploration process at the computer is emotion. It may be the pursuit of pleasure, the desire to avoid pain, the desire to appear a certain way to friends or colleagues, or any other feelings from the range of our emotional spectrum, but it is emotion that sails the buying journey ship.”
Yet it’s not enough to just look and feel vintage; you need to do so in a way that feels natural to you, and that keeps attention in a noisy, messed-up, interactive world. Nostalgia is modernizing, bringing the old and the new together to create something warm but disruptive. And the more you can make old work with the new, the better it is for your brand awareness.
Alibizu Garcia looks at the modernization of nostalgia in the context of our favorite Netflix outing: “This Stranger Things Lightbulb Message Maker enables fans to customize their own light bulb messages. There is also a text creator that allows you to put text in a Stranger Things font. This creative blend of old and new can be found just about everywhere in today’s digital world. For example, apps such as Instagram allow us to express our creativity in a nostalgic way. New controllers plug into our smartphones allowing us to play retro video games. Thinking about how your brand can combine nostalgia with interactivity can go a long way in boosting engagement with your product or service.”
Image attribution: Felipe P. Lima Rizo
So how can you maximize the coming next wave of nostalgia for your brand awareness? Apart from being glued to Netflix from 27 October, it’s about knowing your audience. This is key when it comes to nostalgia in marketing, as it is with any content marketing; while a millennial may get misty-eyed thinking about Air Jordans, your grandmother is hardly likely to want to be like Mike. Or maybe I just don’t know your gran.
The other key is to know your timing. There will be a slew of 1984-related memes and campaigns coming our way for the rest of the year, so you’ll need to be special to rise above the noise. Perhaps a better way would be to tap into the overall nostalgia theme, but don’t overtly copy everyone else. What does your audience yearn for that fits in with your brand story? Could you make it disruptive by adding AI or VR?
And yes, that’s the final key: authenticity. It’s a recurring theme in articles in this publication, but that’s because it’s the most important thing you can aim for. Even nostalgia in marketing can feel empty and forced when it’s done for the wrong reasons. Only do it if it makes sense for your brand awareness; otherwise ditch the DeLorean and stick to the present day.
“Nostalgia is an excellent way to show your brand’s human side,” writes Meg Cannistra. “But remember to construct an authentic narrative by making sure the reference you’re using has relevance to your company. It’s also important to choose your memories wisely to avoid triggering any sad feelings.”
So a word of caution, as we hold hands and gaze into the distance: Nostalgia’s appeal is sometimes short-lived. Do you see anyone playing Pokémon Go in the street today? That’s, like, so 2016.
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Featured image attribution: Yaroslav Blokhin