Last year, our design lead, Jeffrey Rabin, wrote about how design has changed and evolved over the past few decades. But it’s important to note that design — and marketing — trends don’t solely move forward: they often reach back into the past as well. Jeffrey’s design team partner, Jessi Simpson, examines the broader trend of nostalgia marketing in the blog post below.
Nostalgia and Generating Revenue
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have comforted myself by reflecting on old memories to regain a feeling of normalcy. When I reflect on the past, I feel nostalgic. Nostalgia, as defined by CogniFit, is a phenomenon that invades us when we think of the past. It is often distorted and an idealization of the past; humans often selectively remember, keeping only the best aspects and forgetting the bad ones. Nostalgia is a strong, powerful feeling that leaves us feeling attached, happy, and reminiscing. Many things trigger nostalgic phenomena in our brains, including trauma, depression, and anxiety — all of which are common afflictions during these quarantine times. Nostalgia manifests when we see sentimental objects like old photographs, outdated technology, and clothing from past decades. Some research suggests that feeling nostalgic is a natural way our brains cope with difficult moments, transitions in life, or distress.
I am not alone in taking nostalgic trips to a pre-pandemic world. Whether we are cognitively aware or not, nostalgia has been a prominent coping method for many in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a recent Billboard survey, across TV and music platforms, more than 50% of consumers have been seeking comfort in nostalgic, familiar content since March 2020. Among the findings, Generation Z (“Gen Z”) and Millennials are the top consumers of nostalgic content, with Boomers not far behind. Gen Z is the first generation to grow up in a recession and with a digital footprint of their childhood — creating a world where it’s easy to romanticize both their past and times they weren’t around to see (Digiday). Nostalgia marketing, just like nostalgic feelings, is a way for brands to build trust and good feelings by associating with past comforts. Brands this year have been increasingly using nostalgia marketing tactics to appeal to all generations, and they are finding that it is increasing company revenue.
Yet nostalgia marketing has always generated high brand engagement in target audiences, even before the pandemic. Below, I’ll discuss a few brands that have released various tactical nostalgic marketing campaigns in the past few years — some very effective and some less so — and a few tips on how your brand could implement nostalgia marketing.
Successful Nostalgia Marketing
Some of the largest brands in the world have recently been implementing nostalgic marketing campaigns and have been successful in creating consumer engagement and sales through retro-inspired TV shows, commercials, new products, and subscriptions.
“Making Old New” Tactic
Making Old Mascots New
During the 2020 Super Bowl, Planters killed off its iconic 1916 “Mr. Peanut” character and revived him as a baby, making him a cute and refreshed mascot. The rebirth of this character and the follow-up revival commercial generated a 132% spike in social media traffic and an increase in Planters product sales. The old Mr. Peanut style resembles a comic book line drawing style that feels outdated and like a relic from one hundred years ago (which he is). The new advertisements use contemporary 3-D modeling, vibrant blue and golden colors, and simplified clean fonts. His oversized hat, big eyes, and refreshed graphics draw me in like a puppy would — adorable, and I can’t get enough of it!
Making Old Products New
Companies can create nostalgic feelings by celebrating their milestones or anniversaries. The car company Nissan celebrated its 50-year anniversary of the GT-R car with a commemorative video of the car with clips of the model from the ’70s and ’80s, stitched together with modern clips of the GT-R vehicle. Visually, the contrast between old and new tells me it’s the same brand people have loved in the past, but with modern-day amenities. Using a Sans Serif font to narrate the clip helps remind the viewer of the brand’s modernity while reflecting its decades-long popularity. This video reached over 1 million views on YouTube.
Brand Collaborations Tactic
Collaborations for established brands
In 2019, to promote the third season of its show Stranger Things, Netflix partnered with Coca-Cola to rerelease the product “New Coke,” which had originally debuted in 1985 and garnered mostly negative nationwide responses. Coca-Cola Trademark’s senior designer, Elyse Larouere, who with her team recreated the look of New Coke cans for this limited edition release, explained why they would revive this product, stating, “Stranger Things fans love the nostalgic vibe of the show, so to be able to bring New Coke back to life in a physical way takes the experience to another level. We hope people who remember New Coke can relive those memories, and those like me who weren’t alive in 1985, can appreciate the fact that a show that honors cultural icons of the time is honoring this one.” After this announcement, #NewCoke trended on Twitter and sparked social media conversations on the taste of the previously failed recipe. Some were quick to stay away from the relaunch, while a younger audience flocked to the online shop, quickly selling out a limited run of 500,000 cans and crashing the Coca-Cola website on launch day. Coca-Cola promoted the new product with advertisements imitating 1980s graphic design featuring retro color layer fonts, film photography, and blue neon effects. Overall, this campaign generated buzz for both Coca-Cola and Stranger Things, proving to be a successful cross-campaign for Netflix and the beverage brand.
The most recent brand collaboration with amazing success is the Travis Scott X McDonald’s collaboration. Travis Scott has partnered with dozens of brands (including even Hot Wheels), and his overwhelming popularity was enough for McDonald’s to make a generous revenue — but the marketing took it to the next nostalgic level. This campaign has been so successful that fans have stolen posters off the sides of McDonald’s stores. McDonald’s released a video of the rapper as a McDonald’s toy, saying, “same order since back in Houston.” The campaign uses the old McDonald’s brand colors, brown and yellow, a ’90s McDonald’s store interior, ’90s fonts, and film photo filters on images. This demand for an aesthetic that’s familiar for Gen Z and Millennials who were children in the ’90s (even if Gen Z wouldn’t remember much of it), brings back positive memories and has created unprecedented demand for McDonald’s x Travis Scott merchandise.
Collaborations for new Brands
While Coca-Cola has a long brand history with almost 130 years of operations, marketing, and campaigns to revive, new brands cannot create nostalgia based on their own past content. Not to fear, though — nostalgia marketing is still feasible through brand collaborations with those that have a longer history. The brand ColourPop Makeup is one of the world’s most popular beauty brands and is one of Ulta Beauty’s top sellers, with only six years of operations. The brand has recently seen positive outcomes by partnering with nostalgic brands like the 1992 anime Sailor Moon and the classic Hasbro board game Candy Land. They used fonts, colors, and packaging identical to the original Candy Land board game and Sailor Moon show graphics. ColourPop is successful in creating an immersive co-branding experience — stylizing their products, packaging, and advertisements to the fullest extent. Both collaborations sold out immediately online, generating revenue for each stakeholder in the collaborations. ColourPop’s collaborations show that even a brand with only six years of operations can use nostalgia as a marketing tool.
Nostalgia campaign gone wrong
Dr. Pepper debuted its problematic mascot “Lil’ Sweet” in 2015 and has continued to advertise with the glam rocker character to this day. Dr. Pepper uses nostalgia marketing strategies to appeal to lovers of the 1980s and glam rock, but instead comes off as annoying and cringeworthy. The brand cast Justin Guarini, who was runner-up to Kelly Clarkson in the 1st season of American Idol, as Lil’ Sweet. While some fans online have appreciated this nod to the 2002 show, Justin’s fame wouldn’t be recognizable or nostalgic to most of Dr. Pepper’s audience. The character Lil’ Sweet has also been under fire and disputed for its undeniable Prince influence. After Prince’s untimely death shortly after the Lil’ Sweet campaigns launched, Dr. Pepper faced calls to cancel the character, as many lovers of Prince feel like the character disrespects the artistry and style Prince popularized. The target audience finds the character unflattering — which isn’t the type of feedback the soda brand wants.
In terms of graphics, Lil’ Sweet ads are a sensory overload full of sparkly distractions, cheap props, and a CGI miniature Lil’ Sweet, which is difficult to visually process. In the most recent advertisement, the company packed in countless ’80s rock trends, including metallic clothing;wind machine blown hair; high falsetto singing; shredding guitars; fingerless gloves; and a performance of Dr. Pepper’s rewrite of Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” at a crowded concert. Instead of overloading on relics of the past, the company should focus on the presentation. Colors, packaging, and typography are all elements the brand has kept the same despite a 1980s theme. The modern elements are a stark contrast to the era they are trying to recreate in their ads. Overall, even apart from the questionable taste of the campaign, the ad campaign’s visual confusion ultimately is detrimental to the brand.
Implementing Nostalgia Marketing for Your Brand
So, you may be asking yourself, how can my brand have the same success as the marketing campaigns of industry giants like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola but avoid the Dr. Pepper marketing disaster? Consider the tactics I have listed below to see if this approach may work for your brand. It is important to understand that there are challenges and limits to this marketing strategy, but brands that execute it thoughtfully could see worthwhile results.
Making Old New:
- Refreshing an old mascot or image
- Visually comparing an updated brand design with a previous one as contrast, using typography, color, photography, logo, and graphic elements to show continuity despite change
- Visually juxtaposing old products, content, or ideas with the brand’s new offering to show progress and modernity within the brand
- Two established brands cross-campaigning
- Newer brand collaborating with an established, older brand
- Mocking/humorizing the nostalgic elements in your campaign
- Using too many current brand elements in an era-based or themed campaign
This list isn’t definitive, but it should be a good starting point if your company is looking for a new way to market itself. If your brand is reviving an old product or idea, celebrating a company milestone, rebranding itself, or collaborating with a partner, nostalgia marketing can create a positive emotional hook for your consumer. Using this tactic can enable your brand to engage in a personal, relatable, and compelling way with your customer. Along with boosting sales, nostalgia marketing can create a lasting impact and help build an optimistic brand identity in the minds of your consumers.
Whether you decide to employ nostalgia marketing or not, it is critical to make your brand resonate with your audience. With millions of Americans spending most of their time at home and on social media, now is a prime opportunity to solidify your brand’s connection with your audience. Take this moment to define your brand identity and build for a successful future.