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The Pros and Cons of Using Nostalgia in Marketing

Nostalgia is described as a longing for the past; a desire to return to a time and place that is long gone. It can emerge as a variety of emotions.

Sometimes nostalgia is bittersweet and tinged with sadness, while at other times it retains a bright and warm glow.

Any number of sights, smells and sounds can elicit a flood of nostalgic memories: a photograph in a dusty picture frame, an old toy found in storage, a favorite pair of shoes, the irresistible scent of an old family recipe or even the familiar creak of a grandparent’s rocking chair.

Brands often try to imbue their image with nostalgia. To do that, they use their marketing to build emotional resonance. However, there are both advantages and disadvantages to using nostalgia. Let’s look at a few of those.

Pro: Renewed Optimism

The demand for nostalgia usually surges during times of uncertainty and pessimism. Many look to the past to search for the positive vibes that they feel the present is lacking.

Research indicates that nostalgia can help people “move forward with less fear and greater purpose.” Given the issues that we now face in this country, it’s hardly a surprise that nostalgia has become an effective marketing tool again.

Currently, ’90s nostalgia is at an all-time high with Millennials. It is a decade that they associate with the comfort of their childhoods, as well as the greater stability of the country.

Coca-Cola is one company that has successfully capitalized on this trend. Recently, they brought back the citrus soda known as Surge, which was introduced in the ’90s, but was discontinued in 2003 and eventually faded into cult status. The reissued Surge cans even feature the original logo as a throwback.

Con: Over-Idealization

One of the biggest problems that can arise with nostalgia is that it can paint a picture of a past that never existed. It is easy to fall into the trap of viewing history with rose-tinted glasses, pretending that there was once a time in which everything was perfect.

The truth is that every era has its own problems. This isn’t something that can be ignored or smoothed over. It would be irresponsible to avoid acknowledging the mistakes of history.

To avoid this problem, use nostalgia with a sense of honesty. Try to realistically capture the moments in time as they were, flaws and all.

Pro: Stirring Emotions

When nostalgia is provoked, the response is emotional rather than logical. It is a deeply personal feeling of attachment that borders on instinct. Certain brands can trigger this effect by referring to the long-held connection they share with the consumer.

Earlier this year, Nintendo aired a commercial for Pokémon’s 20th anniversary at the Super Bowl. It was a stirring advertisement that reminded many old fans of their adventures over the years.

The commercial was so effective that 1 in 10 viewers on Twitter admitted to crying while watching it. An even larger number reported experiencing an emotional response, which led them to reaffirm their feelings of love toward the game company.

Con: Blatant Sentimentality

Not every attempt to pull on heartstrings works, though. Sometimes these endeavors come across as unashamedly obvious, unearned and mawkish. The consumers can usually tell when a brand is phoning it in without putting in any real effort.

Appeals to emotions should never be halfhearted or thrown around without a care. That is a good way to lose the trust and patience of the consumers.

Even worse, it could lead to the brand being mocked for being corny, trite and phony. Emotional appeals should be reserved for appropriate contexts, such as important events and anniversaries.

Pro: Relatable Experiences

Nostalgia is usually shared through the bonds of common, relatable experiences. When people grow up in the same decade, they tend to talk about the little things they remember from their childhood. Their ability to remember the concrete details of their collective memories unites them.

Internet Explorer created a notable example of how to relate to an audience through nostalgia with its video “Child of the 90s”:

The sheer accumulation of memorable objects sells the video. A multitude of the generation’s touchstones are mentioned, many of which are now defunct relics of the past.

This successfully reinforces the video’s main theme of “growing up” and moving on to new things.

Con: Inauthentic Pandering

Actual knowledge and research are absolutely vital to using nostalgia in a marketing campaign. If something does not seem authentic enough, it will be automatically rejected by the audience.

If it relates to a moment or object ingrained in their memories, they will be the first to spot any inconsistencies or errors.

Pandering is another problem that must be avoided. Don’t just throw nostalgic imagery at the viewers without an underlying reason.

Simply pointing at a source of nostalgia isn’t enough. You must understand its importance and value to the consumer, and respect it as they do. Otherwise, you’ll be seen as a fraud in a transparent disguise.


Written by Neal Hallenbeck

Neal Hallenbeck is a graduate of Adrian College. He is a freelance writer, media critic and computer game designer.

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