Nostalgia isn't what it used to be... etc

Well that's the corny old joke out the way. But a number brands have been taking nostalgic cues in recent campaigns. Why?

By Jeremy Lee

It's long been established by research from System1 that advertising that appeals to our emotions is more effective at long-term brand building than those campaigns that don't.

It's why in the last decade we had a plethora of "sadvertising" campaigns, the most famous being John Lewis' Christmas ads, and possibly why so many brands currently think that they need to have a purpose that they can shout about.

Recently we have seen a number of campaigns using nostalgia - Oreo's mixtape, Steps appearing a flashmob (the ultimate 2000s phenomenon) for O2, and the use of the Disney soundtrack ‘The Magic Song’ (more commonly known as Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo) written by Al Hoffman, Mack David and Jerry Livingston in 1948 and made famous in Cinderella in 1950J for Skoda, to name just a few.

A yearning for nostalgia is commonplace in troubled times - the success of ITV's 'Downton Abbey' was attributed to it launching at the height of the 2010 economic crisis - and we are undoubtedly living in troubled times now. So will we see more use of nostalgic cues in advertising? And should we be worried it's an indicator of more turmoil to come?

Josh Bullmore, chief strategy officer, Leo Burnett

Nostalgia is everywhere in popular culture right now. We live in a VUCA world, to use the trendy management acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. And nostalgia gives people a momentary refuge from it – in the safety of the past. So it’s tempting for brands to try and take people there, to join them there.

Nostalgia’s powerful, but it can also be a double-edged sword. Our PopIndex research last year showed that brands that enjoy sustained mainstream success balance two things: popularity and progressiveness.

Popularity is in part based on a brand’s past appeal – so nostalgic campaigns are an obvious lever to pull.

But if you’re not careful nostalgia can undermine how progressive a brand is seen to be, you can seem stuck in the past.

The most successful approaches in wider pop culture blend nostalgia with novelty. They remix the past to make it more relevant to today. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was open about his debt to the Beatles. The Weeknd’s megahit Blinding Lights brought A-ha’s Take On Me bang up to date.

We work with many brands that have a rich and emotive past, including McDonald’s, Kellogg’s and Butlin’s, but we only dip into pure nostalgia with care - for anniversaries and the like. Most of the time creative magic comes from reframing the familiar to make it feel fresh and for now.

Raquel Chicourel, chief strategy officer, Grey London

More brands than ever are tapping into the power of nostalgia. Magic Spoon taps into our collective memory of watching Saturday morning cartoons, munching our favourite cereal. Nintendo transports us back to a simpler time where we could play video games all day, without a care in the world, with the release of the NES & SNES mini. Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’, a ‘Goonies’ meets ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’’ meets ‘ET’ 80s immersive experience offers us a window into the wonder of that decade (minus demons and underworlds).

Nostalgia, it seems, is on the rise. Why are so many brands leveraging nostalgia? And why is the emotion it provokes so powerful?

The answer is fairly obvious. In a world more uncertain, complex and worrying than ever before, nostalgia offers us certainty and comfort and, therefore, nostalgia builds brand love and sells. It makes the British public feel that life as we know and brands we grew up loving, like all of us, are strong enough to keep going even through tough times. And there’s nothing more powerful than that. Going back to the GEC in 2008, “It has to be Heinz” brought double digit sales growth to Heinz beans and Hovis heritage-led wonder ‘As good today as it has always been’ won an IPA Effectiveness Grand Prix and voted ‘Campaign of the decade’ by the British public. Fast forwarding to 2020, in a post pandemic world, M&S Food brought back “This is not just food” with resounding commercial and brand building success. So, the short-term commercial effects of nostalgia are indeed irrefutable.

But here’s a different view on nostalgia…

For all the power nostalgia brings, and it has enormous popularity in times of crisis, most won’t mention its potential pitfalls. Nostalgia is a powerful force that draws you in but its effects evaporate fairly quickly. Retro video games reveal their clunky & broken game design. The novelty of nostalgic breakfast cereal wears off very quickly. Stranger Things is over in 7 episodes. The truth is the reality of this living-in-the-past experience is a good short-term hook, but rarely helps to build long-term effects.

Overall, whilst living in the past feels good, it isn’t a healthy place to stay. Scientists believe that dwelling in the past can induce a depressing state. A state where we feel sad for an idealised past which can never be recreated (because it never really existed as we imagine it). Further, in a world where humanity is facing some of the biggest crises it has ever known, we all, brands included, need to be living in the present and dealing with climate change, societal division, wars, credit crunch and the rise of political extremism to make the world a better place.

Sorry if I have burst your nostalgia bubble. Or removed the comforting blanket of the past. But I think in such unprecedented times, brands should help the world live in the present and stop escaping to the past.

Tom Drew, executive creative director, Wunderman Thompson

We know that advertising which evokes an emotional response works the hardest. And we’ve felt our heartstrings tugged by many brands since John Lewis raised that particular bar. Making people feel nostalgic has the potential to be even more manipulative; creating a deeper feeling of longing for a time that was “better”.

Politicians know that all too well. Cummings hoodwinked the 52 per cent with a promise of Taking Back Control. Trump vowed to Make America Great Again. The yearning for yesteryear is a weapon. And if it can shift the global political landscape, it can flog a few tubes of Pringles.

“I had that toy/album/hair disaster”. Using nostalgia is really easy way to make people feel like the brand knows and understands them. And we know how persuasive that can be.

I don’t think there will ever be a time when we’ll be nostalgic for nostalgia in advertising – it will always be around.

Matt Holt, chief strategy officer, Digitas UK

Although human beings do tend to reach more for nostalgia in times of turbulence or crisis, the feeling of nostalgia isn’t isolated to one type of person or to one type of context. If you delve into the research, nostalgia is actually a universal human superpower. It’s been proven to reduce negative emotions such as loneliness and anxiety, whilst increasing positive ones such as generosity and tolerance.

The thing is nostalgia is constant. We all experience it on a regular basis – it’s part of who we are – so using it, harnessing it, being famous for it is an as yet untapped opportunity for brands. If nostalgia makes you feel good, why shouldn’t brands adopt a brand experience strategy that actually delivers nostalgia for its customers on a daily, weekly or monthly basis? Not only is the feeling of nostalgia universally applicable but used in the right way it can engage people and motivate purchase, as our work with Oreo testifies.


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