Many brands use a technique called nostalgia marketing to create a feeling of nostalgia in the experiences they provide customers. Nostalgia marketing creates a positive, emotional feeling by using familiar ideas, concepts, songs, symbols and products from previous years, associating a brand with something that customers have fond memories of. This article will examine nostalgia marketing and the ways that brands have used this marketing strategy to engage and connect with their customers. 

Understanding Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a psychological occurrence that refers to a feeling of longing or wistfulness for the past. It can be caused by a variety of things, including the smell of food that one’s mother used to make, a favorite song from one’s childhood, or photos of friends or family members. Nostalgia can evoke strong emotions and can be a generative force in shaping our memories and identity. Even things that we don’t necessarily miss can trigger feelings of nostalgia — such as rotary phones or eight-track tape players — because they evoke strong memories of the past.

Brian Greenberg, CEO and founder at Insurist, an insurance comparison and review business, told CMSWire that the nostalgia marketing trend is something that has been growing in popularity over the last few years. "This type of marketing capitalizes on feelings of nostalgia by using elements from the past to create a nostalgic feeling in consumers."

Greenberg believes that the key to making nostalgia marketing work is to first understand what makes people feel nostalgic in the first place. “The answer is simple — they're remembering something they loved from their past, and they're longing for it again.”

Related Article: Create a Positive Emotional Connection for a Better Customer Experience

How Are Brands Using Nostalgia Marketing?

James Brooks, CEO and founder at GlassView, a video advertising platform provider, told CMSWire that the phenomenon of forgetting bad, past memories is well known. “Whether this is through suppression or thought substitution is up for debate,” said Brooks. “But the result is clear: With more good memories than bad, over time folks tend to paint rosier pictures of their past.”

“Knowing this, top realtors bake bread when showing a house for sale. After all, smell is the sense scientists believe is most closely related to memory,” said Brooks, who explained that whether selling a house or selling detergent, associating a brand’s image with feel-good memories from the past is good for business.

There are many ways that brands can use nostalgia to enhance their marketing efforts. Most of us are familiar with Coca-Cola’s re-release of Coke using its classic contour-shaped bottle design. Other brands do this by issuing products that feature classic or retro designs, or through a connection with a beloved character from the past. 

Nostalgia marketing can be used in a variety of different ways, including through music and movies, but Greenberg reiterated that it's also important to remember that it doesn't always have to be about what we've lost. “We can also use nostalgia marketing for things we want more of or wish existed today. For example: if you want to sell a product that would appeal to millennials — who grew up playing video games — then you could use nostalgia marketing by releasing an old-school video game inspired by your product line.”

Rudy Mawer, founder and CEO at Mawer Capital, an entrepreneurial ad agency investment group, told CMSWire that his business has had enormous success using nostalgic video game ads. "Some of our nostalgic ads include themes from classic games such as Pac-Man, Street Fighter, Duck Hunt, to name a few," said Mawer. “Our team will choose a retro-style video game to reference, design a script that uses the visuals to line up with our offers, and then our animator animates the ad using our script and reference.”

Related Article: The Importance of Positive Emotional Connections With Customers

Nostalgia Advertising

We have all likely seen a brand using nostalgia advertising to engage customers on television as well as online. One example of nostalgia advertising is Adobe’s Photoshop Sketch campaign.

Bob Ross

In June 2016, Netflix added Bob Ross’ Beauty Is Everywhere TV show, also known as The Joy of Painting, to its lineup, which resulted in a huge resurgence in popularity. At that point, Bob Ross memes became popular on social media, and the public’s revival of interest in Bob Ross caused Adobe to take notice. Adobe then created a nostalgia marketing strategy using a Bob Ross lookalike as a part of a series of tutorial videos used to promote the Adobe Photoshop Sketch application. 

The campaign was successful largely due to Adobe’s focus on the accuracy of the series, as they worked with Bob Ross Inc. to ensure that all of the details were correct. Additionally, they created a nostalgic campaign while embracing the sudden interest in Ross that was brought about by Netflix adding Ross’ show to their lineup. 

Learning Opportunities

Apple is another brand that is fond of nostalgia marketing, and although they often use famous people in their advertising, their iPhone 6s advertisement featured an unusual celebrity — Sesame Street’s own Cookie Monster. In their ad, Cookie Monster is seen to be making a batch of chocolate chip cookies and asks his iPhone’s Siri to set a timer.

cookie monster

The ad had a very impressive 4.5% share rate, likely due to the use of a beloved childhood Muppet, which created feelings of happiness, fun, joy, and of course, nostalgia in viewers.

Brooks told CMSWire that another example of nostalgia advertising is Amazon's vintage ads, which feature men's chorus lines on stage that appear as though they were produced in the Lawrence Welk era of the ’70s.

lawrence welk

The Challenges of Nostalgia Marketing

Nostalgia isn’t the same for people of different ages. Obviously, something that creates a nostalgic feeling in a boomer isn’t likely to elicit any response from a Gen Z customer. A marketing campaign designed around a 1980s arcade game such as Pac-Man may be effective for boomers and millennials, but is unlikely to be evocative for those under 30 years of age. 

Additionally, it is important that brands who are targeting boomers, for instance, do not push other generations away by appearing out of touch or old-fashioned. Brands whose target audience is a specific generational segment are apt to have more success using nostalgia than brands with a multigenerational target audience. 

Brooks said that for brands to effectively employ a nostalgia marketing strategy, it's important that they understand who their target audience is, and where to draw the line. “On the first point, targeting Gen Z with 1970s style ads might just be missing the mark, since the target audience in question won't have been born for another 30 years past when said commercials aired,” explained Brooks.

That said, a multigenerational nostalgia campaign can still be effective when it appeals to each generation for their own reasons. For instance, candy that was once a favorite of millennials, such as Pop Rocks, can be effectively used in a nostalgia campaign that targets that segment, while for Gen Z it may be appealing because it brings out a sense of childlike delight that brings them back to their early childhoods.

Another aspect of nostalgia marketing that must be considered is that what was okay in 1972 might not be acceptable in 2022. “Realize when no amount of rose-colored lenses, (regardless of prescription strength), can obscure the reality of detrimental societal norms that just wouldn't be tolerated today, i.e., the dutiful wife in the kitchen waiting to tend to her overstressed husband,” said Brooks, who added that brands must absolutely steer clear of these outdated stereotypes.

Final Thoughts on Nostalgia Marketing

Nostalgia marketing has been successfully used by many brands to create evocative, emotional connections with customers who are eager to return to a positive, joyful, comforting time in their lives. With a deep understanding of the audience they are targeting, their generational differences, and the stereotypes that must be avoided, brands are able to provide their customers with a positive connection to their past which creates an emotional association with the brand’s products and services.