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Nostalgia marketing explained: Everything you already know

Nostalgia marketing is not a new idea, but it changes throughout the generations. Learn what it is and why it can be a successful strategy in the right context.

Everyone has objects and experiences that bring back cherished memories and transport them back to a time associated with joy or comforting familiarity. That feeling is nostalgia, a word of Greek origin, which roughly translates to homecoming sorrow.

Everyone experiences this emotion, and everyone experiences it a little differently. That's why nostalgia is such a great tool for marketers. Even if individual memories are different, there are cultural touchstones that people collectively relate to and that can be repurposed.

What is nostalgia marketing?

In marketing, tapping into nostalgia means associating a product, service or brand with memories from the past to establish an emotional bond. The marketer uses symbols from the past to associate the modern product with the audience's fond memories. Symbols, in this context, refer to images, signs, icons or other representations that are recognizable and carry particular meanings or associations based on shared experiences. For example, several U.S. department stores sell reissued retro children's toys from the 1980s -- such as Lite Brite, My Little Pony and Care Bears -- that evoke positive memories in the buyer's mind and find a new audience with the current generation of children.

Companies can use nostalgia marketing to sell products that promise to return the customer or audience to a happy time with fond memories. Companies often evoke nostalgia through reboots, remakes and throwbacks.

The content of nostalgia marketing changes with the generations, as each generation has different cultural references. Gen Z may look to cultural references from the '90s or even early 2000s for example, whereas Gen X or older millennials might feel nostalgic about the '80s and its cultural touchpoints.

Why does it work?

When done well, nostalgia marketing creates an emotional hook that offers the best parts of the past in a new way. It's a powerful, ambiguous emotion that in some cases offers an escape from the uncertain future, toward a permanent past. Nostalgia offers a sense of certainty and reliability. There is comfort in familiarity. For example, "Nostalgia contributes to emotional regulatory capabilities that may support healthy aging. Among older adults, nostalgia provides a safe haven in the face of adversity. Nostalgia augments comfort and security, and maintains psychological well-being when confronted with limited time horizons," according to a report from Frontiers in Psychology.

Nostalgia marketing also works because it feels uniquely personal but can be used on many people at the same time. This makes it a social emotion, where people can bond over rosy memories of the past together, catalyzed by a nostalgic advertisement.

Even though a nostalgia campaign might feel especially personal or tailored to the individual, it has broad appeal. This connects people to a shared understanding of the past.

"It's broad enough to appeal to a wide audience because the interpretation is left to the recipient," said Griffin LaFleur, senior marketing operations manager at Swing Education. "It's important to use nostalgia in such a way that it allows people to interpret it in their own way. Everybody has different feelings and memories about certain things."

Why is nostalgia marketing important?

Nostalgia marketing is important because it might lead to increased brand loyalty, engagement and sales. Nostalgia marketing can also revitalize old brands by reintroducing them to a new target audience with a modern twist.

Nostalgia marketing is becoming popular in culture, especially in entertainment, where companies can draw on a large pop culture archive, accrued over the past several decades to platform, reboot and revitalize old content.

One modern example of this is the movie Barbie, which is a modern take on a decades-old staple of American culture. The original Barbie doll dates back to 1959. The 2023 movie became one of the top-grossing films of all time and is helping Mattel (the company that owns Barbie) transition from just a toy manufacturing company to an intellectual property (IP) company that manages entire franchises, with other movies based on Mattel toys, such as Hot Wheels, purportedly in the works. The Barbie movie has grossed over $1.4 billion worldwide according to Box Office Mojo. "The notion of managing your IP isn't new, but the possibilities for what you can do with that IP -- given some of the emerging technology and media -- is certainly changing. It's opening up all kinds of new opportunities," said Chris Ross, VP analyst at Gartner.

Barbie has had onscreen appearances, but this was the brand's first theatrical release. "That intersection of a strong nostalgic underpinning, a very timely, relevant message, and really strong orchestration came together to make [the Barbie movie] so successful," said Ross.


Classic examples of nostalgia marketing

Two classic examples of nostalgia marketing include the Coca-Cola ads of the 1970s and the De Beers 'A Diamond is Forever' campaign from the 1940s.

Coca-Cola

The Coca-Cola "Hilltop" commercial features a chorus of happy people from different parts of the world each holding a bottle of Coke, with Coke labels in various languages, and singing "I'd like to buy the world a Coke."

The commercial emphasizes the connection between diverse cultures by bonding over the central product -- Coca-Cola. It imagines a world in harmony. "One of the reasons that it is iconic is that for a lot of people, it represents a moment in time. The whole spirit behind that ad is so powerful because it represented a mindset in a moment in time that really resonated with people," said Ross. "I would argue that when that spot first ran, it was intended not to be nostalgic but inspirational. Over time, as it's aged, it has become more nostalgic."

Another nostalgia tactic that Coca-Cola has used in its marketing over the decades is the inclusion of Santa Claus, often holding a Coke bottle. This tactic uses warm memories that many associate with Christmas and ties those feelings to the product, Coca-Cola.

De Beers

The "A Diamond Is Forever" campaign used a series of print advertisements that featured medieval imagery with diamond rings added to it. The goal was to make the diamond ring feel classic and timeless, something that knights would give their spouses in medieval times. The ads came in 1948, when diamond engagement rings had gone out of style and the diamond industry was struggling. Diamonds were associated with royalty in the 1800s, became cheaper and accessible in the earlier 1900s, but fell out of style during the Great Depression.

It wasn't until the 1948 campaign that diamonds were repopularized. By the early 1950s, diamond sales had risen in the U.S. The campaign emphasized the timelessness of diamonds, coined an iconic slogan and reinstituted the tradition of diamond engagement rings for the following decades.

Both campaigns influenced culture for the long term by calling on old icons to evoke a feeling of familiarity and comfort to promote their product. Many advertising campaigns do this today. Both examples might have been considered more inspirational and forward-looking at the time of their release, and now can be used and re-referenced to evoke a sense of nostalgia. Someone in the 2000s might watch the "Hilltop" commercial and feel nostalgia for the '60s for example.

Modern nostalgia marketing campaign examples

Aside from the Barbie movie, there are many notable examples of nostalgia marketing campaigns, concepts, products and trends from the last two decades, including the following:

'Star Wars' and 'Indiana Jones'

These film franchises are rooted in many people's childhoods or earlier years. The continuation of these series or re-releases evokes nostalgic memories, often attracting the original audiences alongside new ones. Star Wars allows for continuous world-building because of the franchise's expanded universe and lore. The film creators can continually add new planets, characters and plotlines while retaining and reusing the same iconic characters and tropes.

The original Star Wars movies were released in the 1970s and 1980s. A second trilogy was released in the early 2000s, and a third trilogy was released in the late 2010s.

Indiana Jones's original trilogy spanned the 1980s. A fourth film was released in 2008, and a final fifth film was released in 2023. Both franchises incorporate new characters and storylines in the sequels and feature actors from the original trilogies. Actor Harrison Ford appeared in all five Indiana Jones movies and four of the nine Star Wars movies.

Pepsi

Pepsi has embraced nostalgia marketing through a variety of campaigns and product re-releases to evoke sentimental memories among consumers and celebrate the brand's heritage. For example, Crystal Pepsi was initially introduced in the 1990s as the caffeine and preservative-free version of Pepsi. It was rebooted in 2016 and 2022 to evoke nostalgia among consumers. Pepsi also unveiled a new logo in 2023 that resembles the 1990s logo in response to a wave of 1990s nostalgia among Gen Z.

Nike

Nike uses retro and throwback designs in new products. The brand also launched the "Evolution of the Swoosh" campaign alongside Foot Locker, which celebrated the history of the brand by paring meaningful milestones in a sneakerhead's life with a different pair of sneakers from the campaign.

Atari

Atari plans to reboot several of its well-known retro video games including Missile Command and Centipede, producing an interactive documentary and video game compilation called Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, and releasing a retro console called the Atari 2600+, which was originally released in the 1970s. Atari also plans to release new content and games for the retro console. The console will be launched in the fall of 2023.

Throwback jerseys

Older iterations of sports jerseys are brought back to promote various events, such as the NFL's 75th anniversary celebration in 1994. Throwback jerseys pay homage to earlier iterations of the teams and drive ticket and merchandise sales.

McRib

McDonald's uses nostalgia by bringing back the McRib every so often. Those who enjoyed it in the past anticipate its return. The McRib debuted in 1981, invented by the same person who invented Chicken McNuggets. Chicken McNuggets were so popular that McDonald's didn't have enough chicken to go around, and the McRib was invented to fill that gap.

The McRib was discontinued in 1985, then brought back in the early 1990s as part of various promotions and regional offerings, with several "McRib farewell tours" in the early 2000s and one in 2020. McDonald's announced that the McRib would make yet another return in fall of 2023.

Examples of nostalgic advertisements
A collection of iconic branding elements that have inspired reboots and evoked nostalgia in multiple generations.

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift is one musical artist who taps into nostalgia by re-recording old albums such as Fearless and Red, revisiting earlier styles and cultivating a vintage aesthetic in her albums. The re-recordings include bonus vault tracks that didn't make it on the original album. In doing this, Swift regained control of the rights to her older albums, which were originally released and owned by a record label. The "Taylor's Version" re-releases encouraged fans to revisit Swift's music and attracted new listeners. The next "Taylor's Version" album 1989 was released on Oct. 27, 2023.

Barcades

Barcades owns arcade bars containing vintage video game consoles such as Pac-Man, Pinball and Tetris. They tap into the nostalgic desire for the gaming culture of the '80s and '90s.

Pokemon GO

Pokemon GO is an augmented reality mobile game. Virtual Pokemon are scattered across various real locations for users to find and collect. The game drew fans who grew up with the Pokemon franchise in the 1990s and 2000s and generated a social movement that drew in new players.

Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop has various vintage photo effects to make a photo look older than it is and potentially evoke a feeling of nostalgia. Adobe also ran a series of ads that used an actor playing Bob Ross to imagine what it might look like if Ross had painted on an iPad. Ross was a household name and hosted a television program called The Joy of Painting in the 1980s and 1990s that taught viewers of any skill level how to paint. The ad evokes nostalgia for Bob Ross and the 1980s for those who remember him and those who know him as an internet icon or meme.

Fujifilm Instax film cameras

Instax cameras, akin to the older Polaroid cameras, play into the nostalgia marketing strategy by reminding people of the old physical photos in an increasingly digital world.

Stranger Things

Stranger Things is a TV show that recreates the 1980s aesthetic to evoke a sense of nostalgia among viewers who grew up during the era or have a fondness for that specific style. The show also makes specific references to '80s pop culture, such as movies E.T. and Ghostbusters and Kate Bush's song "Running up that hill."

Dos and don'ts of nostalgia marketing

When crafting a nostalgia marketing campaign, make sure to:

  • Know the audience. Learn what matters to the target audience. Identify the cultural memories that are pertinent to the target audience. Different generations relate to various cultural references. Some audience characteristics to know when crafting a nostalgia marketing campaign include:
    • Age bracket and population characteristics.
    • Pastimes or hobbies.
    • Media habits.
    • Principles and convictions.
    • Character attributes and conduct.
  • Find a timely opportunity to launch. Nostalgia marketing campaigns might be launched in conjunction with a change in business goals, a rebranding or a key event such as an anniversary. They may also be launched alongside a cultural event such as a holiday or the Super Bowl.
  • Use company history. Companies can use brand history to their advantage. The target audience can be prompted to reflect on their past experiences with the brand. The brand might re-release older iterations or designs of its product.
  • Incorporate the new. A nostalgia marketing campaign shouldn't be all about the past. It should be modern in some way. The campaign should include modern references or touchpoints that renew the concept, idea or product.
  • Use social media. In addition to a broad target audience profile, use social listening and other feedback channels to understand customer sentiment surrounding the brand.
  • Use indirect references. In some cases, past icons and symbols will have been previously licensed or copyrighted. Marketers can imitate certain familiar aspects of copyrighted works to evoke nostalgia without outright using them, such as font or fashion choice. Using indirect references might also work when there is no direct symbol, brand or icon to use. For example, the Coca-Cola 'Hillside commercial' had the choir dressed in a 60s style that might have evoked nostalgia for that decade.

When crafting a nostalgia marketing campaign, don't:

  • Rely solely on nostalgia. Nostalgia needs elements of the present to be successful. Without an acknowledgment of the present and some modern elements, the campaign might seem out of touch.
  • Remind the viewer of the problematic parts of the past. Nostalgia marketing is meant to remind the recipient of a glorified version of the past or happy times. It should not remind the recipient of the less enjoyable parts of the past. Nostalgia is often an escape from the present into this idea of the past. "Sometimes nostalgia is a little dangerous because some things don't age well. The good ol' days weren't necessarily the good ol' days for everybody. I think being careful about that is really important," Ross said.
  • Force it. Nostalgia isn't always the best strategy. Trying to capitalize on something that really isn't there will come off as inauthentic. "Make sure you have a legitimate nostalgic opportunity. Make sure that you're not contriving nostalgia or trying to tap into something that feels like a stretch," Ross said.
  • Forget to ensure brand consistency. Nostalgia isn't for every brand. Some industries and brands don't lend themselves particularly well to nostalgia, such as enterprise tech or healthcare, which tend to be more forward thinking. "A nostalgic message can actually be at odds with a more progressive message in some situations. Depending on your brand, category or space, if you're trying to be more forward leaning, more future-focused, nostalgia can actually be counterproductive in some cases," Ross said.

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