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A complex generation: how Gen Z live in the past but define the future

By Antonia Lowe, Strategist



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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March 31, 2021 | 7 min read

Let’s set the scene. You look back at an old photo of you and your partner at the beach and smile, blissfully forgetting about the freezing-cold wind you endured and the seagulls that squawked above your heads.


Tailify explore millenial nostalgia and look at ways that brands can benefit.

This sentimental affection for the past is a term that we have all coined ‘nostalgia’. Although this is in no way a new concept, it describes the way we humans tend to idealise the past through a pair of rose-tinted glasses (or more recently through an Instagram filter #takemeback).

A huge indicator of this was seen in April last year, when as a nation we looked for comfort in things that connect us: food, music, and social media. The first lockdown saw 37% of UK consumers revisiting dishes from their childhood, and tweets including “I miss” increasing by 63% worldwide. Spotify also reported that in the first week of April 2020 their music-streaming service saw a 54% increase in nostalgia-themed playlists being created.

Surprisingly though, it’s our Gen Z audience who seem to have caught the biggest wave of nostalgia. But what is it about this generation that makes them so fascinated by the past?

Enter Gen Z

Born between 1997 and the early 2010s, Gen Z are the group all marketers are trying to understand. They are growing up in the digital age, where Instagram and TikTok create their trends and help form their outlook. But what makes this group so interesting is that they have a complex and sometimes conflicting set of needs...

#1 They look ahead to a better world

Gen Z is known as the ambitious generation. They not only push themselves forward, but aim to drive change for issues such as social equality, mental health and sustainable planet solutions. They are experts at weeding out the brands and organisations who don’t have their best interests at heart, and according to GWI, 37% of them say the most important thing a brand can do is stand for something and be purposeful.

A great example of this is Patagonia, who used their influence to create political change by printing “Vote the Assholes Out” labels on their clothing in the lead up to the US election. It’s these honest and bold statements which set brands apart for Gen Z, a generation who make brand decisions based on not just purchase value but their own set of values.

#2 They look to the past for belonging and comfort

Despite all of their aspiration and drive, GWI’s Gen Z report states that this generation is 37% more likely to have experienced feelings of panic since the beginning of the outbreak. Not only are they uncertain about the future of the pandemic, but the rise of tech and looming sustainability crisis has left this generation acutely aware and frankly quite nervous of the challenges they face moving forward.

Searching for solace amongst the chaos, a large swathe of Gen Z have turned to nostalgia as a form of escapism. Whilst we know Millennials are famous for returning to the ‘90s, Gen Z are creating their own comfort blanket by embracing trends from the early 2000s. We see this manifested in Instagram accounts like @2000sanxiety, which revels in the past and describes its content as appreciating the ‘elegance’ and ‘sophistication’ of the time.

Although it doesn’t stop there: celebrities and influencers are having a huge impact too. Ariana Grande’s embodiment of the Mean Girls theme in her ‘Thank U, Next’ video is keeping this time alive for Gen Z, and influencers like @lovevie are wearing everything from butterfly clips to rhinestones and tie-dye. Juicy Couture tracksuits have even made a comeback at ASOS, so if that's not enough to transport you back to the Paris Hilton era, I don’t know what is.

It’s clear that this idyllic view of the turn of the century soothes the younger generation, but what’s interesting is this often reflects memories before they were even born.

So what happens when aspiration merges with comfort?

As we can see from the above, Gen Z’s mindset is quite conflicting. They experience tension between longing for the past and trying to shape the future.

A great example of this collision of values is the booming vintage and resale market we are seeing on sites such as Depop, where the “Y2K” hashtag has become increasingly popular. According to YPulse, the shopping app has received a 65% uplift in sales since March 2020, with a large proportion of the items listed being customised or upcycled.

What this tells us is that Gen Z’s mindsets are merging: their nostalgic tendency towards the 2000’s era and their heightened consideration for the planet. In this case, they are looking to make ethical fashion choices and are using the style they know and love to do so.

But how can marketers navigate this complex set of needs?

This generation's emotional drive sits largely with nostalgic messaging. Their values on the other hand, mean they want to tackle social and environmental issues head on. Gen Z love the idea of an old school product, but what’s key to remember is they won’t respond to old school values. They are looking for something more than just the past.

So the answer? Embrace the tension. Merge old and new. Market to Gen Z using a mixture of comfort and inspiration. Your content should hook them with what they know, and give them a reason to believe by showcasing what they want to be. You are appealing to their hearts whilst reasoning with their heads, and this can be translated and adapted in multiple ways:

  • The nostalgic element could come through in the style of your content, whilst the aspiration for the future could be part of your messaging. It could be as simple as a vintage filter used over content which promotes a sustainable product, or a reference from an old TV show or character.

  • You may want to go deeper. Using brand heritage can be a great way to get consumers to fall in love with your brand again by highlighting the qualities they already know and love. Burger King’s recent rebrand does just that. By returning to their original 60’s logo, the brand has been stripped back to it’s authentic and genuine roots. This is the perfect time to introduce something new your brand is doing and appeal to Gen Z’s need for relevance.

The key is to tap into history, but also highlight that your brand is forward thinking. As mentioned in our 2021 trends article, these memories should aim to be uplifting and joyful. You should use nostalgia to romance your audience and avoid any messaging that feels melancholic.

Consumer-brand relationships are like any other; we want to feel comfortable with our partners but also feel excited about the future. Your consumers want to hear about your childhood but are intrigued to learn about your aspirations for the future.

Antonia Lowe, strategist at Tailify.


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