As the new face of Keds, Taylor Swift is driving growth for the brand she loved as a child. “When I was a little kid,” she says, “I had a pair of white Keds I wore everywhere.” I, too, wore Keds as a teenager and have been buying them ever since. 

Keds is just one of a growing number of iconic brands that are using nostalgia to motivate buyers. Here’s why and how nostalgia spurs spending.

The Science of Nostalgia

The Swiss doctor who coined the term in 1688 described it as an abnormal state — a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.” The word itself is based on the Greek nostos (return) and algos (pain). But as New York Times science columnist John Tierny explains in his article “What is Nostalgia Good for?” modern research reveals that nostalgia is a normal and universal emotion. 

At times sad but most often positive, nostalgia is a powerful means of connecting with other people. With the process of telling and listening to stories, nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness and anxiety. We feel closer and happier when sharing memories. 

More importantly for brand marketers, studies show that we are more likely to spend when we are feeling nostalgic. 

Nostalgia Sells

Marketers agree that content marketing is a smart strategy for brands to connect with potential buyers. To succeed you need a well-defined target audience, preferably characterized in persona profiles, and a clear vision of the buyer journey. Ultimately though, you need to find what will motivate the audience to buy. 

In her post “The Good Old Days” blogger Olivia Roat considers whether it is effective when marketers use nostalgia in an attempt to “breathe new life into old favorites, or harken back to the good old days in ad campaigns.” Roat notes we often try to preserve the past through “nostalgic consumption activities.” She maintains that evoking nostalgic feelings through advertising arouses more positive emotions in people than non-nostalgic modern advertisements. Her explanation is that “people form strong relationships with merchandise and characters from their past, and these relationships never die.”

Want some proof points that nostalgia sells? 

Coca-Cola used nostalgia to double its sales volume with iconic bottles shaped like those vintage contour ones from 1923. Calvin Klein reissued items from the collection that launched Kate Moss’s modeling career, and five of the styles sold out within two months. Jack Daniel’s BPI (brand power index) rose 27 percent when it promoted a special edition to mark Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday and his 50-year relationship with the brand. 

Nostalgia can even drive spending for an entire industry. Nielsen Soundscan reports that last year’s vinyl record sales increased by 52 percent. While music purists contend that the sound quality of vinyl is creating the demand, most agree that nostalgia is the significant driver of this trend.

Further, in marketing terms, nostalgia is “sticky” — it binds users to a brand. Shared memories can be the strongest. In the social media world, Facebook introduced its Year in Review feature, surfacing the 20 most popular posts in one’s timeline. The site also has its On This Day memories feature, admittedly one of my favorites. Both of these nostalgic looks-back help to increase the value of the Facebook social media brand as a destination to store and relive memories. 

Remember When

As novelist and satiric wit Peter De Vries said, “Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.” What has nostalgic power for each of us depends upon the times our generation lived in, especially our formative years. Early on in my career at GE, I participated in a program developed by Dr. Morris Massey that addressed the issues of values and generational differences. Massey’s bestselling video series, “What You Are Is Where You Were When,” provides an excellent backdrop for understanding nostalgia-driven buying motivation.  

For example, brands like Calvin Klein has successfully leveraged millennial nostalgia for the ’90s. And while they are a particularly rich target, accounting for 21 to 25 percent of consumer discretionary purchases, millennials are not the only group that can be influenced by nostalgia. Each generation has its own nostalgic hot buttons. 

The study “Nostalgia, autobiographical memories and brand communication” defines four consumer classifications with corresponding brand communication strategies:

  • Kidults, belonging to Generation Y (ca. 1983–2000), are nostalgic for their childhood. Advertising with TV icons that were popular in the ’80 and ’90s and products like candy or video games will resonate strongly
  • Traditionals are from Generation X (ca. 1965–1982). They are nostalgic for traditional celebrations, and brands targeting this group should play on authenticity of their products
  • Transitionals are made up mainly of Baby-Boomers (ca. 1946–1964). This group often sees nostalgia as the definition and maintenance of their identity and connects with brand advertising associated with rebellion and freedom
  • Transgenerationals, defined by World War II and at times overlapping with the transitionals, respond well to advertising that creates a romantic atmosphere. Techniques that connect to their nostalgic sentiments include black-and-white visuals and iconic songs

Play the Nostalgia Card

Using nostalgia to connect consumers with their shared generational experiences means marketers can tap into buyer motivation and ultimately drive consumption. Playing the right nostalgia card to successfully target one generational group is a winning market strategy. Even better though, according to Georgetown University's Marlene Morris Towns, is “to focus on something that can appeal to more than one generation.” 

Case in point: Wheaties cereal. The “Breakfast of Champions” is well known for featuring prominent athletes on the package. But the Wheaties brand is in decline and has seen sales drop by nearly 80 percent over the past 10 years. Now Wheaties marketers are putting the power of nostalgic content marketing to the test to target multiple generations. It is attempting a strategy to reinvigorate sales with a bowling ad campaign spotlighting a pro bowler whose heyday was back in the mid-20th century, because, as General Mills Chief Creative Officer Michael Fanuele points out, “Bowling happens to be one of those sports equally appealing to baby boomers and millennials.”  

Family Ties

Appealing to more than one generation with nostalgia can explicitly leverage family connectedness to evoke feelings of comfort, security and fondness for a brand. The recent Reading Rainbow Kickstarter campaign is a great example of multi-generational, family-related nostalgia. A 20-something might donate because she remembers watching the show as a child. The parents might also donate, as the show reminds them of their early years of parenthood. 

A new Arm & Hammer commercial plays to the strength of family and the brand comfort that comes with generations of trust. With the Cyndi Lauper song “Time After Time” playing in the background, the advert says “Any brand can measure success in years. At Arm & Hammer we measure it in generations.”  Over properly nostalgic imagery, it proclaims: “If you want to know the name your family can trust, ask your mother and her mother and her mother.” The ad has a 99 percent “Spot On” rating on the web.

The Cool Factor

Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars have remained a favorite for close to 100 years. The sneaker is bigger than ever, selling more than 70 million pairs last year, 35 times its yearly sales of a decade ago. While the company is now risking a disruption “because it couldn't afford for someone else to come along and do it,” the Chuck II will innovate for comfort only on the inside. It will definitely still look like a Chuck, retaining all the emotions associated with the iconic brand profile, because as John Hopkins writes in his blog post

"Admit it, how many of us covet Converse, that classic American sneaker with a studly sense of style? Teenagers across the country aspired to own a pair of stitched-canvas, thick-laced, rubber-sole shoes synonymous with the greasers of the 1950s, nonconformists of the 1960s and hipsters of the 1970s. They were cool."

For today’s content marketers and brand promoters, nostalgia can be a very cool way to create relevant and engaging content that motivates your audience to buy. You might want to put on your Chucks or Keds for inspiration.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Title image by  kthrn