How can marketers harness our obsession with nostalgia?

By Sam Anderson | Editor, The Drum Network

Jellyfish

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nostalgia article

July 11, 2022 | 8 min read

At 63, Kate Bush recently claimed a UK number one thanks to 80s nostalgia-fest Stranger Things. Trends all across media and marketing point to a mania for the cultural touchstones of years gone by. How can marketers ride this retro wave? What does our preoccupation with the rear-view mirror say about what people want from their media and ads? We asked seven leaders from The Drum Network.

Kate Cliffen, senior creative lead, Jellyfish

The retro wave shows that people of all demographics are still leaning into nostalgia for relief and comfort because, let’s be honest, the future is scarier than ever.

Brands can ride this wave by creating media that matches their audiences’ moods, but it’s all about finding a balance. Content should not just be about the past, or even pinpointed to a certain era. We can combine the old and new, embracing modern technology and mashing decades together to create something that re-imagines the future that we want to see, rather than the one we’re living in.

The world has changed a lot since the 80s, so while nostalgic content has to feel comforting, it must also be forward-thinking and inclusive to hit.

Music is a form of escapism. If Stranger Things had chosen Rock You Like a Hurricane to save Max, it likely wouldn’t have had the same effect. In Running Up That Hill, Kate Bush is asking God to switch places with a man so he can understand how difficult things are as a woman. Perhaps accidentally, that perfectly lines up with our very current conversations about bodily autonomy. This, combined with the fact that it's harnessing the power of audio in a time where we have more screen fatigue than ever, creates something powerful.

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As marketers, we should be thinking about how we can lean into this even further with 3D audio to create meaningful and dynamic experiences for fans.

Daniel Liddle, search engine optimization lead, Impression

Cultural moments that are considered retro, vintage or passé are often labeled nostalgic, or a pastiche of the past. Often, we’re haunted by a past that is no longer there, or nostalgic for something that never existed (hauntology) in some recent trends.

The key thing with nostalgia is the feeling that something has been lost.

The global pandemic, the war in Ukraine, internet discourse and general economic imbalance are making consumers feel grim about the future, so we’re looking back (rose-tinted-ly) to these imitations of positive cultural events.

With digital marketing, we could cynically tap into this with content and ads that cement the idea of cultural bereavement. It would be more progressive to look to the future than the past. Whether that’s some sort of ecotopia or something else, brands can be drivers of this force. In the words of another Kate Bush song: “I just know that something good is gonna happen.”

Jamie Maple, managing director, Wilderness

The wave that current moments are riding has been cresting for a long time. Back in the early 2010s, almost every band from the 90s got back together and went on tour. Then Disney started to make live-action remakes of every beloved cartoon property. Since then, it’s been a steady stream of reissues, remakes, films, TV, albums and theater based on pre-existing (and, importantly, pre-sold) intellectual properties.

It has always struck me (a cynic) that the place nostalgia marketing comes from is the fear that unless you have something recognizable and comforting (with a readymade audience) brands are far less likely to take a risk.

Where the creativity and excitement comes from on social is the fan groups curating detailed and niche collections of curiosity for other like-minded culture vultures to engage with and explore: channels such as synthwave1989 (compiling the best 80s aesthetics in one place), retro1sheet (taking classic movie posters and giving them new life) and italysegreta (bringing together beautiful images of an idea of Italy).

It’s not for every brand to jump on a retro trend. What brands can take from these examples is that there’s joy (and engagement and brand loyalty) to be had in exploring the details that make you and your audience unique. Showing passion and knowledge about your area of expertise will bring other passionate and knowledgeable users to your channels, who will be given a reason to follow a brand.

Sophie Lewis, chief strategy officer, M&C Saatchi London

Ahhh nostalgia. Warm, rose-tinted perfection. Looking back and forgetting all the crap bits. A piece of music, a sound, a smell. A place, a person, a chocolate bar.

But beware nostalgia in communications. It’s a dangerous game.

For legacy brands, it’s a tempting place to go. Let’s remind people how much they loved us way back when. Let’s take them back to that school disco, that first kiss, that family dinner around the table – and they will want us again.

But everything is different now, and you can’t go back. Yes, I know things are difficult and we all love the comfort and stability that the ‘old days’ provide. It is a lovely warm feeling in a sea of rubbish.

It’s not that you shouldn’t understand or think about the past. As Sir John Hegarty says: “You’ve got to understand the past to move forward.” But you have got to be moving forward – taking those elements of the past that are still motivating now. Trying to recreate the past will take you down a cul-de-sac. Try it at your peril.

I speak from experience. I’ve tried it. For jeans, for a kids’ chocolate bar, for salad cream – the list goes on. Oh, and Kate Bush? In 1985, Running Up That Hill was a banging track. Go and have a listen now. Still a banging track. It’s not nostalgia. It’s brilliance.

Anna Beynon, strategy director, Anything is Possible

Every generation thinks it invented retro. Marketers need to know how to frame this recurrent behavior to their advantage. In the 00s ‘vintage’ was coined as a new category to create a positive movement around embracing the trends of previous decades. Positivity is key: fond memories, stories from ‘the good old days,’ 80s-themed parties, outfits and hairstyles. In uncertain times that comfort in the known, in what we shared before, is vital for social cohesion.

Generation Z embracing the mid-80s via Stranger Things is interesting: the last pre-internet days. The final moment before we all began living in the permanent ‘now’ of digital. The secret paradox of nostalgia is that it’s not really about a longing for the past, but how we can evolve the now. Sometimes you have to go back in time to find a future that looks more open, positive and full of possibility than our view of it today.

This tells us two things about how to reach gen Z. They grow weary of digital experience, but crave authentic in-person connection. And they want the future to be a better version of what we had before.

Jim Bowes, innovation director at TPXimpact

Tapping in to nostalgia is about taking an edited or curated look at a moment in time and representing that authentically but with a sense of knowing fun. You can't pretend your audience is a 1980s audience, so breaking the4th wall can offer great results.

This means picking out little details that demonstrate the difference between then and now, while still creating an authentic experience that doesn't mock what went before. You need to hit notes that appeal to a wide audience, from those that remember it first time around, to those that have no idea. That's about the narrative being as strong as the context you set it in.

Amy Naughton, client services director at Jaywing

With political turmoil, a cost of living crisis and the backdrop of Covid-19, we're craving normality: the ability to enjoy experiences, family and friends, or tomorrow without the tempestuous shadow of 'the world' hanging over us. Nostalgia isn’t new; every generation looks to the past for comfort in the present.

Even if it’s never been lived in person, the past can feel relatable, and discovering past icons opens gateways for escapism to another time and place. Music especially evokes a time, place and feeling of being where we can self-identify. When you can’t figure out 'forward', bind people by looking 'backward'.

For advertisers, it’s about leveraging that connected feeling. Don’t just pop some neon in your social posts, expecting a facet of your brand that was never iconic to become so now. Take influence from popular culture; use heritage brands; unearth your own classic ads. Find the levers that will collectively connect people with times they remember fondly, not the future that they’re unsure of.

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