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Marketing and nostalgia: Taking your audience on a trip down memory lane

Sam Akbari - July 14, 2018 - 0 comments

This weekend my sister and I are taking our parents to see Beauty and the Beast. More than 25 years ago, they took us to see it. There’s something pleasing about this role reversal, even if it does involve four fully grown adults sitting in the dark while a flamboyant French candelabra engages in a tête-à-tête with a feather duster.

I’m not sure whether it’s my age, but recently there seems to be a heightened sense of nostalgia in everything I read and consume.

If it’s not a BuzzFeed article on a toy, fashion item or band from the ’90s, it’s a wave of social posts signaling 10 years since the O.C. ended. Thanks to social media, millennials particularly are at the mercy of nostalgia with hashtags such as #ThrowbackThursday providing opportunities to gorge on the past. I’ve probably spent way more time thinking about Dawson’s Creek as an adult than I ever imagined I would when the final curtain fell on Pacey and Joey’s love story in 2003.

Nostalgia and millennials

Back to Beauty and the Beasta recent piece from Bloomberg suggests that millennials are Disney’s target audience as it rolls out the release of the live action juggernaut and accompanying merch. Disney’s consumer-products chief James Pitaro’s strategy is “to peddle gear to millennials who grew up watching Disney films and now want to relive their childhood or share the stories with their own kids.”

Source: Christopher Kane’s Beauty and the Beast Collection

Source: Christopher Kane’s Beauty and the Beast Collection

This merchandise isn’t limited to Disney store trinkets, but incorporates Juicy Couture tracksuits and a collaboration with British fashion heavyweight Christopher Kane. The Scot designer’s Beauty and the Beast collection includes a £3500 silk blue jacket with bow, and enables well-heeled millennials to live out their Belle fantasies in style.

What is nostalgia?

Author, psychologist and philosopher Neel Burton M.D. explains, in The Meaning of Nostalgia, that once upon a time nostalgia was considered a mental disorder. Nowadays, nostalgia is widely viewed as a favourable state; a state of mining the past to strengthen the present mind. Burton notes that it’s not unlike the way we use anticipation and excitement to carry us forward into the future.

The fact that nostalgia is often like a trick of the light – where we remember the good things and the best of people – is probably another reason why human beings enjoy the feelings associated with it.

study by Dr. Constantine Sedikides at the University of Southampton revealed that nostalgia “makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.”

Why brands market memories

So, with all the positive vibes associated with nostalgia, it’s little wonder that marketers have taken advantage of it. Also, we remember things better when we associate a strong emotion with them. Emotion is one of the quickest ways to capture your audience’s attention, which is usually why it’s included in top of the funnel marketing activity.

Emotion and the Buying Funnel


Good marketers pay attention to the needs of their audience, communicating with them on the topics they can identify with. Likewise, storytelling is a key part of the marketing arsenal and nostalgia is inherently narrative driven. For marketers, it involves summoning up a story from the past and sharing it with an audience who already understands the references and contextual detail around it.

Marketers and advertisers have long been using nostalgia to perpetuate the sales cycle. Burton explains how nostalgia at once fulfils and reminds us of what we don’t have: “In supplying us with substance and texture, it also reminds us of their lack, moving us to restoration. Unfortunately, this restoration often takes the form of spending, and marketers rely on nostalgia to sell us everything from music and clothes to cars and houses.”

Content marketing and nostalgia

Nostalgia pervades the wider marketing ecosystem, but it’s proved particularly effective in digital content marketing, especially in video. It helps brands create a connection with consumers by demonstrating a shared understanding of the past. As well as adding character – and in the case of Cigna’s TV Doctors of America campaign, characters – to campaigns, brands can take all the positive emotions associated with nostalgia and turn them into goodwill. This is important when you first engage with a customer – and when you’re trying to encourage brand loyalty and persuade customers to repurchase.

In Cigna’s TV Doctors campaign, nostalgia is not only used to make a difference to a brand’s bottom line, but also the lives of its customers. Faces from America’s TV past implore the audience to get a health check.

A similar tactic was employed by director Richard Curtis on this year’s Comic Relief, which celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the ultimate Christmas movie, Love Actuallywith a 10-minute special. Reuniting the cast for a charitable cause was a stroke of genius. All those combined warm and fuzzy feelings helped to generate a whopping £73 million for Red Nose Day in the UK in 2017.

Source: Love Actually / Comic Relief

Of course, you don’t have to be a charity or healthcare provider to create nostalgic content. Microsoft’s Child of the ’90s promo for Internet Explorer calls out consumer goods and toys from Pokémon cards and Tamagotchis to floppy discs and Walkmans. The simple yet effective video demonstrates the speed of technological change, while reminding the audience of the role they play in innovation – through the treasured items of their childhood. It’s nearly as nostalgic as a Fresh Prince of Bel Air marathon, but not quite.

Source: Microsoft Child of the 90s

Creating effective nostalgic content

So, there we have it. We know what nostalgia is, why it works and how brands are using it. But before you introduce nostalgia into your content mix, heed the following advice.

Be age appropriate

Are your target audience millennials, Gen X or baby boomers? Do they more closely associate with the Brat Pack or the Rat Pack? Nostalgia marketing only works if it’s meaningful to the audience.

Consider their context

Your audience’s location is also a factor in the choice of nostalgic content you create. A New Yorker is unlikely to understand the cultural significance of ’80s British TV presenter Pat Sharp. Likewise, my Australian colleagues frequently mention chocolate bars, pop stars, TV shows, fashion items etc. that never saw the light of day outside of Oz.

Make it meaningful

If the audience haven’t heard of your brand, product or services before, nostalgic content could be a great way to capture their attention. Remember that people tend to feel nostalgia for past events that were either personally meaningful or involved those they are close to (or are at the very least familiar with). Think about the key life events your audience is likely to have experienced and how you can use nostalgic content to trigger positive memories, from the birth of a first child to a wedding day.

Existing hashtags like #ThrowbackThursday make it easy to post something nostalgic without appearing like a bolt from the blue. If you’re a heritage brand, like Volkswagen, you could share some archive footage or imagery from a commercial your audience is likely to remember. It’s amazing how many people can recall the tunes of archive advertising jingles.

Capture the new old moment
Some old things are given a new lease of life, e.g. a band reunion or a film remake. When that happens, you know there’s going to be lots of buzz around the event that you could capitalise on through your content. It could be as simple as referencing it in your copy.

Provide a new take on an old format

Is there an old format you can provide a new take on, whether it’s a Mystic Meg-style prediction feature on the future trends in your industry or an Agony Aunt to solve your customers’ professional problems?

Finally, remember that not all memories are good memories. When it comes to nostalgia, err on the side of caution.

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