Top image: Nostalgia marketing

How brands embrace nostalgia to connect with today’s audience

Recreating a time when people felt like life was so joyous, easy, and familiar with nostalgic marketing really allows us to go back to “the good old days.” 

Especially for younger Millennials and Gen Z — with the bulk of their childhood taking place in the 90s and early 2000s, they grew up during a time of rapid technological advancement, and witnessed the rise of the Internet and social media. This was a time of cultural shifts from iconic TV shows, movies, music, and fashion trends that have continued to resonate with people decades later. 

Therefore, leveraging cultural references from this era by brands holds significant sway. When campaigns incorporate these references, consumers perceive them as relatable, forging seamless connections with the content and subsequently, being more inclined to embrace the brand's offerings. This influence ultimately drives their purchasing decisions. This approach is particularly due to the substantial purchasing capacity of Gen Z and millennials. This demographic duo is a lucrative audience because of their spending power. Millennials hold the most purchasing power and Gen Z currently earns $7 trillion across its 2.5 billion-person cohort.

Does this digital trend live up to the hype? See how the power of nostalgia holds true in marketing and how brands have successfully won over their customers by tapping into this sentiment.

What is nostalgia marketing?

Nostalgia marketing involves leveraging favorable and recognizable elements from past eras ​​such as trends, icons, or cultural reference to establish credibility for fresh concepts and rejuvenate modern marketing initiatives. It's essentially a way for brands to connect with their audience through elements that hold strong feelings to past memories. 

The role of social media in nostalgia marketing 

Social media plays a huge role in nostalgia marketing as it has the power to instantly transport your audience back in time, triggering memories and emotional sentiments of the past. However, it plays out differently on each social channel. 

For example, the visual and interactive nature of Instagram allows brands to tell stories through images and videos to showcase vintage aesthetics with throwback photos, filters, and designs. Meanwhile, platforms like Facebook and Twitter (now “X”) facilitate conversations and capitalize on trending topics, anniversaries, or pop culture references from the past. 

Sharing short, witty posts that incorporate nostalgic elements can spark conversations and engagement, creating a nostalgic connection with the audience that may even turn into a viral moment. Video-sharing platforms such as TikTok and YouTube provide opportunities for brands to craft nostalgic narratives through video content. Brands and Creators can showcase transformations, trends, or challenges from the past and invite users to participate.

How nostalgia influences purchasing decisions and brand preferences

Nostalgia, at its core, is an affectionate yearning for experiences, events, people, or places from one's past. It arises from specific stimuli, like familiar scents, music, photographs, or cherished objects linked to those memories. 

In a world that seems to race forward without pause, nostalgia acts as a comforting refuge, particularly for young Millennials and Gen Z who navigate uncertain times. This sense of familiarity serves as a safe haven amid the rapid changes of modern life, offering a comforting retreat to the days that once were.

In recent years, a trend has emerged, bringing back beloved shows from the 90s in the form of reboots. The likes of Full House, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Boy Meets World resurfaced, sparking a wave of nostalgia that resonated with audiences. While some debates may surround their quality in comparison to the originals, that hardly seemed to matter. People were simply thrilled to be transported back in time, reliving their youth. 

This wave of nostalgia not only reignited fond emotions but also sparked a surge in subscriptions to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and others, all eager to offer this blast from the past. As consumers encounter products or brands that effortlessly tap into these sentimental sentiments, they create an emotional connection to consumers, making them more likely to choose those brands or services over any others.

Why does nostalgia have such a powerful influence? The answer lies in research, which suggests that emotions significantly shape consumer decision-making. Brands that effortlessly weave nostalgic elements into their marketing campaigns or product designs are often perceived to provide a sense of meaning and continuity, as consumers associate them with good past experiences. Nostalgia also fosters a profound sense of community and connection among individuals who share similar memories.

4 successful brand examples of brands using nostalgia in their marketing campaigns

1. Mattel 

Mattel's Barbie is an iconic and immensely popular fashion doll that has been a staple in the toy industry since its debut in 1959. Evolving into a cultural phenomenon, it now stands as one of the most recognizable and influential toy brands worldwide. Notably, the Barbie movie’s marketing team left no stone unturned, wholeheartedly ensuring that women who grew up playing with Barbies felt not just seen but also exhilarated with every ad and collaboration. The Barbie movie surpassed all expectations, soaring to great heights with a staggering $162 million in its thrilling opening weekend in the US. The director, Greta Gerwig is now part of the billion-dollar movie club as the only woman! 

One of their biggest marketing tactics was making sure the color pink was showcased all throughout their branding. So much so, that when people went to go see the movie, everyone dressed up in pink and called each other Barbie as the cast did at the premiere.

@complex “Hi Barbie!”🎀👋 The 'Barbie' movie is officially in theaters TODAY! #barbiethemovie #margotrobbie #hibarbie #complexpop ♬ Hi Barbie Hi Ken Barbie Movie Only In Theaters - Barbie Movie

2. Milk 

The “got milk?” campaign, which debuted in 1993, stands as one of the most beloved ad campaigns in history. Nevertheless, as a surge toward non-dairy products led to a decline in milk sales, the slogan was retired in 2014. However, a strategic move was made in 2020, as they revived the iconic “got milk?” slogan. The results were remarkable, with U.S. milk retail sales soaring by 8.3% to reach an impressive $6.4 billion from January through July 2020. 

In 2020, 'Got Milk?' launched  #gotmilkchallenge. In this viral challenge, talented content creators showcased their love for milk by pouring a glass and savoring every drop on camera, reaffirming their connection to this classic beverage. Recognizing the gradual decrease in milk consumption, the campaign leveraged the power of influential athletes who eagerly embraced the challenge, illuminating the extraordinary advantages of the 'Got Milk?' brand. Among these inspiring participants was Crissa Ace, an esteemed American basketball player and influencer.

@crissa_ace Doing these crossovers without spilling is harder than it looks #gotmilkchallenge What can you do without spilling! #ad @gotmilk ♬ got milk challenge - got milk?

3. Crystal Pepsi 

Crystal Pepsi, a clear, caffeine-free cola beverage, was first introduced by PepsiCo in the early 1990s. Marketed as a transparent and "crystal-clear" version of regular Pepsi, it aimed to offer consumers a unique and different soda experience. 

To celebrate Pepsi's 30th anniversary, they decided to bring back Crystal Pepsi, but with an exciting twist. They launched a photo contest, encouraging consumers to post pictures of themselves from the '90s on Twitter using the hashtags #ShowUsYour90s and #PepsiSweepstakes. Out of all the submissions, the company handpicked its favorite 300 photos. As a reward, those lucky 300 winners received six 20-ounce bottles of Crystal Pepsi, making them the first to get their hands on the relaunched drink.

4. Igloo

Igloo is a well-known brand that specializes in manufacturing and distributing coolers and outdoor products. It has earned a reputation as a leading brand in the cooler industry, known for producing high-quality and durable products. 

To celebrate their 50th anniversary, Igloo launched a special line of coolers featuring a 90s aesthetic, with funky and bright colors, aimed at transporting consumers back to the past. These retro-inspired coolers pay homage to the company's classic designs, reminiscent of their earlier models, as Igloo continues to captivate customers with vintage aesthetics when reintroducing these products.

Some brands go beyond sporadic nostalgia campaigns and instead build their entire identity around tapping into the sentiment of the past. For example, Nike’s Air Jordan shoes have been a staple in the sneaker world, and all because of Michael Jordan's iconic basketball career in the ‘80s and ‘90s. 

Here’s a shoe that Air Jordan brought back from 1995.

Brands like Nintendo, Levi’s, and Clavin Klein also still continue to engage in this practice of reviving retro styles and collections that will resonate with their Millennial and Gen Z audiences. 

Also now with the emergence of podcasts in the last several years, this nostalgic marketing tends to spill over there as well. For example, "The Wizards of Waverly Pod" is based on the Disney show Wizards of Waverly Place and hosted by Jennifer Stone, who played Harper Finkle, and David DeLuise, who played Jerry Russo. In this podcast series, they rewatch the series for the first time in years and dissect how the show influenced pop culture but also how it impacted their lives. 

Another example is the podcast "Zack to the Future" hosted by Mark-Paul Gosselaar — who played the main character Zack Morris — and Dashiell Driscoll, a writer on the series reboot. The podcast launched in 2020. Basically, the premise is that Mark-Paul Gosselaar has not watched an episode of Saved by the Bell since his last day filming the show in the early 90s, and so they revisit the show to recount the most epic moments from the series.

The takeaway

Nostalgia has emerged as a powerful tool for marketers, fostering a deep and emotional bond between brands and their modern-day customers. Through the art of nostalgia marketing, brands have transcended being mere products or services; they’ve transformed into vessels of shared experiences and storytellers of our collective memories. This connection instills the belief that no matter how fast time moves forward, there will always be precious moments from the past to treasure and cherish.

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