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Nostalgia Marketing and its Appeal to Younger Generations

Three kids sharing a joyful moment at an arcade, a perfect snapshot of youthful exuberance that evokes a strong sense of nostalgia marketing

Effective marketing is all about creating a genuine connection with the audience, sparking emotions that are as real as they are impactful. That's what we aim for with nostalgia marketing. It's a power move in the marketing playbook that leverages the fond memories and warm feelings from the past. It's catching on fast and shows no signs of slowing down. Using nostalgia in marketing connects with people on a deeper level, often reminding them of home or the familiar comforts of bygone days.

“The Barbie movie, celebrating the 64-year-old toy brand, became the top-grossing movie of the year, taking in over $1.4 billion at the box office. It significantly boosted Mattel's revenues, with an expected increase of at least $125 million due to movie proceeds and sales of toys and related merchandise.” - US Chamber

2023 witnessed a significant surge in nostalgia marketing, with the Barbie movie campaigns shining as a prime example. The iconic Barbie doll has a special place in the hearts and childhood memories of many. This emotional connection explains why movies that tap into our collective nostalgia resonate so strongly and become major hits.

Why is Nostalgia So Strong?

So what’s the hook? Why is nostalgic marketing so effective? Nostalgia is a powerful emotion that connects us to our past through various triggers like smells, music, or familiar objects. It strongly influences our memories and identity, evoking feelings of longing and warmth for times gone by.

As we’ve seen from studies conducted like the one done by M&C, nostalgia can reduce the desire for money and increase the willingness to spend. People experiencing nostalgia are more likely to pay more for products and even perceive money as less significant, as indicated by drawing coins smaller after recalling nostalgic events. Nostalgia marketing taps into these warm, familiar feelings, associating products with positive memories to build trust and engage consumers.

It is a strategy that has and will become increasingly relevant, particularly during times of uncertainty like the recent pandemic, as it provides comfort and counters negative emotions like loneliness and anxiety. In hindsight, nostalgia makes us feel safe. It feels familiar. It reminds us of home. 

The Evolution of Nostalgia in Marketing

The 1980s saw the dawn of nostalgia marketing, where a wave of longing for the past swept across consumers. This was a time when icons and imagery from the 1950s and 1960s made a grand re-entrance, coloring everything from pop culture to tunes and films.

For example, the 1985 release of the film ‘Back to the Future’ took place in the 60s. Popular TV show ‘The Wonder Years’  also took place in the 60s, Bruce Springsteen 1984 hit single "Born in the U.S.A. '' echoed similar rock styles of the 60s, and new pop sensation, at the time, Madonna drew inspiration from groups in the 60s in her art and style.

With the boom of the digital age in the early 2000s through to 2020, social media allowed for just about anyone to produce and engage with content. Trends like “Throwback Thursday” and “Flashback Friday” became popular. Brands would also use digital platforms to share throwback content, including old commercials and product designs. Streaming services also became popular during this time, helping older entertainment become popular and available again for marketing purposes.

In the case of Coca-Cola, the brand re-released and digitally remastered its iconic 1971 Hilltop commercial for newer and younger audiences for consumption. Nintendo re-released the NES Classic Edition in 2016, a compact version of its 1985 console, pre-loaded with 30 classic games.

For widely known popular brands like these, tapping into their content bank has demonstrated how they can bring their audience along their own historic journey. This transcends generations. Think about that for a moment. Brands like Coca-Cola and Nintendo can leverage older material to tap into the nostalgia of their older consumers while re-introducing itself to their children and much younger demographic. That’s powerful.

Graphic showcasing Nostalgic Trends from 2020 to 2030, highlighting various elements of nostalgia marketing. Categories include 90s and Y2K fashion, Mid-Century Modern home decor, classic food and drink revivals like Crystal Pepsi, Polaroids and film cameras, vinyl records, arcade and retro-themed bars, classic cars, retro sneaker releases, flip phones, and nostalgic celebrity endorsement

With the COVID-19 pandemic, and many people now only being able to leverage digital platforms for a bulk of their entertainment purposes, there was a significant uptick in nostalgia marketing as people sought comfort in familiar and simpler times. Streaming services continued to capitalize on nostalgia by reviving classic shows and creating sequels or reboots, such as "Saved by the Bell" (2020) and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion" (2020). These campaigns, paired with a rise in influencer marketing, brands partnered with stars and influencers with nostalgic appeal or those who recreate vintage styles and trends even more.

How Are Brands Using Nostalgia Marketing?

Leveraging influencers as part of your nostalgia marketing strategy can be promising. It is certainly what brands are doing. Brands are partnering with influencers, who themselves evoke a sense of nostalgia, more than ever. It can be the fastest and easier way to reach your target audience, reinforce their values, and connect with them on things and experiences that matter most. Influencers can include celebrities or personalities from the past who resonate with target audiences' childhood memories. By associating these familiar faces with their products or services, brands create an instant connection with their audience.

How are brands using nostalgia marketing effectively? Consider the aesthetics of your brand’s marketing collateral and packaging. Incorporating vintage color schemes, retro designs, old-school fonts and graphics, or reviving popular design trends from past decades into your designs can tap into the psyche and emotions of your audience.

Since clothing has always been used as a great tool for reminding us of timestamps and phases in our lives, using it as a nostalgic factor can have positive results. Releasing retro clothing lines, including reissues of iconic outfits or accessories from past decades can certainly have nostalgic factors. Collaborating with designers known for a particular era’s style and creating ad campaigns featuring styles and fashion trends of specific past eras will allow you to better connect with your audience who have fond memories from those time periods as well.

Sharing social media content of throwback photos or historical milestones related to the brand can also be an effective approach to launching a successful nostalgia marketing campaign. And don’t be afraid to have some fun. Creating filters or themes that mimic old photography or video styles from those eras can add a bit of stylistic flare to your campaigns.

The Future of Nostalgia Marketing

The rise of virtual reality (VR) and Augmented reality (AR), has enabled more integration of these elements with nostalgia marketing. These types of technological enhancements allow for creating more immersive experiences, such as virtual tours of historic moments or AR-enhanced packaging that brings back memories in an interactive way.

While nostalgia marketing has traditionally targeted older generations, there's a growing trend of targeting younger audiences with nostalgia for the recent past (1990s and early 2000s). This includes fashion revivals, music comebacks, and reboots of popular TV shows as we’ve seen with ‘Save by the Bell’ and ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ and even movies from these decades.

We anticipate that future nostalgia marketing will see a blend of various decades in a single campaign, appealing to a broader range of consumers who resonate with different eras, connecting the old to new.

Nostalgia Marketing Examples from Recent Years

The 2023 ‘Barbie’ film success demonstrated how well people respond to their fondest childhood memories and experiences, especially ones that feel nostalgic. This success marks a significant turnaround for the Barbie brand, which had seen a decline in social currency with parents over the previous decade. Barbie sales increased 14% in the third quarter following the movie's release and helped Mattel break a streak of declining sales, with third-quarter earnings showing a 9% increase in net sales to $1.92 billion.

Pepsi’s Crystal Pepsi, launched in the 90s, was a caffeine and preservative-free version of the popular soda. Though popular at the time, the drink was eventually discontinued. In 2016, Pepsi tested an interest in Crystal Pepsi by doing a limited-edition release. Then in 2022, for what would have been the 30th anniversary of the drinks debut, Pepsi announced a unique contest where they planned to reward 300 fans with a free bottle of Crystal Pepsi.  Participants were invited to share a personal photo from the 1990s, connecting their own memories and experiences from that decade with the Crystal Pepsi brand.

While the product didn't garner enough consumer demand to make a full return, it did manage to be cemented in the minds of the consumers who did love its flavor. And with each limited-release, Pepsi has still managed to re-engage its loyal consumers with a bit of a nostalgic factor.

Key Takeaways

Nostalgia marketing is more than selling a product or service.  It taps into deep-seated emotions, connecting consumers to cherished memories, thus driving engagement and loyalty. This approach has proven effective across various eras and platforms, from the 1980s to the present. 

With the success brands have had by tapping into the nostalgic factor for their marketing and advertising campaigns as of late, it is clear that nostalgia marketing is here to stay. It is likely we will continue to see a rise in this approach. If consumers are willing to spend on items conveying their favorite artist, television show  and films from a beloved era, time, date or from their early experiences, brands will continue to invest in it.

It’s also likely that new technologies being introduced each year, like virtual reality and augmented reality, will make it easier for brands to produce content that taps into the nostalgic factor. Companies should think about how to utilize these moving forward to bring nostalgia marketing into their own campaign strategies to continue to connect with their loyal consumers and grow with them, and their children, over time.


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