OPINION19 May 2022

How to harness nostalgia

Opinion People Trends

Nostalgia can be a powerful emotion if used correctly. India Doyle considers how marketers can use nostalgia to support their brand.

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It will have escaped almost no-one that we’re in a nostalgia rut. From Y2K beauty to ultra-mini miniskirts, Smash Hit revivals, vinyl, Baby Gs… if you can remember it, there’s almost certainly a TikTok dedicated to it (at the very least). And more likely, there’s a brand revival of it. Indeed, with nostalgia-based campaigns from Gap, Polaroid, Ganni x Juicy to Barbie, Balmain, Creme Egg and more, it’s easy to feel a sense of temporal inertia. What’s going on?

As we start to examine our relationship with recent history, it becomes clear that the solutions we’ve come up with to tackle the challenges of the world we live in haven’t landed well, making the past all the more compelling. Reserach from the Institute of Economic Affairs found that 67% of Gen Zers say they want to live in a world with an explicitly socialist economic system, and feel that capitalism is to blame for the climate crisis. The sheen of the internet revolution is wearing off – even the Sims has created a ‘scared’ mode to reflect the anxiousness people feel online and in real life.

In the new age of space industrialisation, futurism is falling out of favour –  24% of Americans believe it’s unethical to go to space, and 48% of teens say that they’re either not interested or at least unsure about the metaverse. As the innovation-focused promises of this new millenium wear thin, the vast cultural archives we’ve amassed as part of growing digitisation also makes it easier to comb through recent history and old ideas and look at them in new ways.

Without leadership to guide people to look forwards about how to tackle the problems we face, people just keep getting stuck in retro vibe shifts and reboot cycles. At its most extreme, this becomes a form of toxic nostalgia where our relationship with the present is soured irreconcilably by a longing to return to a former state of being or way of doing things. Brexit and Donald Trump are both cultural examples of where nostalgia becomes ideologically weaponised. We know that nostalgia can be a really helpful and positive thing. Research has shown that not only can nostalgia relieve pain, but it can also make us more optimistic about the future. We also know that humans already use nostalgia to anticipate and solve upcoming challenges they may face. We’re calling this process of hacking the past to build for the future ‘Futurestalgia’.

Futuresalgia shows that people’s obsession looking backwards is actually being fuelled by a desire for guidance on how to navigate the future. It reflects people’s more active and inquisitive relationship with the past. And it’s not an abstract topic. Brands – having always played a key role in how people shape and build their identities – are in an exciting position to empower people to move beyond old favourites and start sprinting in new directions.

Three ways to elevate your brand’s nostalgia marketing strategy:

  1.  Reinterpretation. People’s emotional connection with products and programmes that they loved in the past doesn’t need to stay there – that connection can be revived to respond to the new problems and cultural moments of the present day. The key opportunity here is to use brand familiarity as a means to an end, not the end in itself. Barbie’s YouTube channel sees the positioning of Mattel’s iconic toy transformed for parents and their children. While Generation Y may have felt uncomfortable with the out-of-date stereotypes that Barbie represented when they played with the Barbie as children themselves, the 2022 Barbie plays a culturally aware role as a big sister to Generation Alphas, giving advice over YouTube about topics such as race and women in the workplace. In doing so, Mattel has harnessed the nostalgia connection parents have with the brand and leveraged that investment to build deeper loyalty among new parents. 
  2. Create social value. With niche references defining internet culture, futurestalgia can be used to empower people to create their own insider communities and show off social clout. From memes and TikTok challenges to the vinyl revival, we know that people want to participate in the culture that they watch and listen to. The opportunity is to think about what elements of your brand are pliable and playful, and offer new spaces for nostalgia culture to be shared and consumed. No context groups are a great example of this community investment element within Futurestalgia. In these groups, creators share screenshots from the show with captions of dialogue. The images rely on the audience to have the knowledge of the exact moment in the show that the screenshot is from, creating an insider element to the community building that deepens the emotional bond.
  3. Unlock the power of overlooked cultural memories. Rather than accepting the history they are given, people are exploring what their history, heritage and collective cultural memories mean to them. As people want to celebrate their personal histories, businesses can look to the blindspots of cultural memory for new forms of inspiration. At the moment, 39% of global consumers agree with the statement ‘not enough brands do a good job of representing people similar to me or my community’.   Brands have the opportunity to celebrate and platform group-specific cultural memories of the past – especially where they help create solutions for current crises. Habibi Collective is an archival platform behind the Shasha streaming service, a platform setup for female filmmakers of South-West Asian and North African heritage, and that celebrates cultural history from filmmakers in the region. 

India Doyle is deputy editor at Canvas8.