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  • Writer's pictureAmy Donovan

What Makes Nostalgia Marketing so Effective?

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Though technology has become more advanced, people still long for the emotional connection to landmarks from their past. A big draw comes from the familiarity of the TV shows they watched as children and the brands they used to love. Whether a specific football roster brings you back to one particular Thanksgiving, or a song transports you to an eventful summer, nostalgia is a powerful feeling.

Now, nostalgia is creeping its way past family gatherings and high school reunions. It seems that it’s always there: whooshing past us on subway ads, popping up in our inboxes, or in between videos. Nostalgia has become ever-present through targeted marketing campaigns, all carefully crafted to evoke past feelings. It’s clear that tugging on the heartstrings of the wistful and using dated references can be an effective tool in eliciting brand loyalty.

Nostalgia Makes Its Mark

Looking at the past can help spur commonality among consumers while also demarcating the brand’s history. According to some, nostalgia can even help decrease feelings of loneliness, sadness and anxiety. These results can aid a brand by attaching it to positive and personal associations for the consumer. But the emotional benefits alone don’t ensure a successful marketing campaign.

While nostalgia marketing techniques can help prompt a desire to remain loyal to a brand, the most successful campaigns are also tied to a relevant trend or work to help highlight the brand’s evolution.

Disney Plus’ recent marketing campaign, for instance, featured a slew of Tweets showcasing every movie and show that will be available on the media conglomerate’s upcoming streaming platform. The tweets gained rapid attention as people retweeted their favorite childhood movies and shows. The campaign not only exhibited Disney’s 80-year mark on the movie and TV industry but also enlisted fans to share their Disney favorites from the past.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Additionally, various brands have approached nostalgia by enlisting past campaigns to influence present-day ones.

This year, Geico looked back at 25 years of ad campaigns choosing ten of their most popular ads to re-air. ‘The Best of Geico’ campaign showcased the brand’s two-decade history highlighting iconic commercials from the Caveman to the Hump Day Camel while enlisting people to vote for their favorite. The ad successfully uses nostalgia, not particularly referencing a past cultural trend, but instead highlighting their own brand history.

Similarly, in 2017, Xerox paid homage to a popular commercial the company ran in the 1970s. The original ad showcases a monk called Brother Dominic being asked to make 500 copies of a manuscript, ultimately turning to a Xerox machine for help. Reviving a 40-year old-campaign, Xerox touts its new capabilities. The new and improved Brother Dominic TV ad tasks the monk with not only making copies of the manuscript but translating it into 35 languages and sharing it across all seven continents. Fortunately, this can all be done with the help of new technology from Xerox, successfully showing the company’s progression and emphasizing new features.

Looking at Geico and Xerox, it’s easy to see how nostalgia can help highlight a brand’s impact on an industry over the years while also providing a snapshot into how the brand has changed to remain relevant to current market needs.

Marketing for the Millennial

Nostalgia marketing today commonly targets Millennials. Through references that are 23–38 years old, these campaigns typically hone in on moments in time when many Millennials were coming of age.

Lisa Frank, a beloved brand from the 80s and 90s known for its eclectic colors and designs, partnered with to launch a Lisa Frank-themed hotel room last month that fans could rent for $199. The brand also saw a resurgence in 2012, after Urban Outfitters — the graveyard or perhaps savior of forgotten brands — began reselling Lisa Frank vintage merchandise.

Brands don’t just have to stick to this Millennial timeline. They can still utilize nostalgia and pop culture trends from decades prior, even if their target audience members weren’t alive then.

For example, Coca-Cola, in partnership with Stranger Things, re-released “New Coke” this past summer, a beverage that has largely been dubbed a failure since its 1985 launch and demise in 2002.

For a brand that has been around since 1892, this was a relatively short life span. New Coke has since acted as a cautionary tale for companies that may want to tamper with a successful legacy brand. Despite its original failure, the relaunch of New Coke helped evoke nostalgia for Generation X and Millennials, ultimately producing a successful marketing campaign for both the Coca-Cola company and the nostalgia-driven show Stranger Things. Past failures are now granted with a certain sense of charm when connected to a larger modern trend or culturally relevant topic.

Nostalgia for Startups

Not a legacy brand? Don’t worry, younger companies can also manufacture nostalgia through targeted marketing campaigns even without a well-established history. Wellness startup Blume recently came out with a “Puberty Do-Over” MTA campaign in New York. This push targeted women in their 20s and 30s with early 2000s references, and models posed for an awkward picture day. The ads reference popular 2000s songs like “Perfect Day” by Hoku using AIM language to advertise various products like face wash. Even the computer arrow icon on their website is designed to be reminiscent of cursors of yore.

Blume cleverly inputs their brand in these references while connecting it to the more current self-care trend. One AIM message reads “Bluming with my girls,” accompanied by humorous ad copy: “It’s 2006. You’re wearing Von Dutch. The OC just got canceled. Blume doesn’t exist yet. *Wakes up in panic*.” Blume leans on time-specific humor to target its ideal customer, signaling intimacy through emblems of the mid-aughts that viewers will immediately identify with.

For younger companies, nostalgia can be a way to rewrite history as they insert themselves into the past. Blume does a good job of this by highlighting the ways that people were missing out on their brand’s services in years past.

Maybe it’s no surprise that Millennials are the ones largely being targeted, having been projected to surpass Baby Boomers as the most populous generation this year. However, while marketing with nostalgic references has largely been geared towards Millenials wistful for the 80s and 90s, as we approach a new decade, the early 2000s are being used to reach Gen Zers coming of age. This trend shows that nostalgia marketing can be a constant and adaptable tool for brands that can repurpose ideas, swapping out the references.

Nostalgia: A Storytelling Tool

What these campaigns all have in common is their shared technique: using nostalgia as a storytelling tool, which allows them to hit on key points related to their brand. For Geico and Xerox, nostalgia emphasized brand legacy, highlighting an anniversary and pointing to longstanding positions in the landscape. For, nostalgia allowed the brand to move past an older audience and into younger Millennials or even GenZers. Finally, for Blume, nostalgia created a more intimate connection with their target audience using pathos and in-jokes.

Besides being employed to reach a particular goal specific to each brand, the nostalgia play is also mutable and has legs beyond marketing. These campaigns were also repurposed by media, with each one receiving media coverage. This not only points to the power that nostalgia has, but also reminds us to determine our best use for it. How can we best use this hard-hitting tool to meet goals for ourselves, our customers, and our brand?

As we officially enter the ’20s and Gen Z enters the workforce, we will no doubt be faced with more and more 2010s references popping up in marketing campaigns. These will likely be filled with Uggs and Vine throwbacks in an attempt to stay current, by lagging ten years behind. As we enter this new realm of references, make sure you’re not just hopping on the bandwagon, and think specifically about how you will use nostalgia to target your specific audience’s needs.


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