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Not just a throwback of throwbacks—the evolving face of nostalgia marketing

Nostalgia marketing helps create an instant emotional connect to brands. This connect has been found to increase both the "intention to purchase" and the "propensity to recommend"

Published: Aug 18, 2021 10:37:44 AM IST
Updated: Aug 18, 2021 04:31:14 PM IST

Not just a throwback of throwbacks—the evolving face of nostalgia marketingCarvaan, the music device with pre-loaded music that resembles a transistor radio of the 1950s and 60s sold over 2 million units in India since its launch in mid-2017
Image:  S N J Sharma / Wikipedia

The ongoing pandemic and lockdowns have kept people indoors, with limited social contact, for over a year now. Home-bound consumers have watched old movies, and TV serials, listened to music from their days in college, and browsed through travel photographs over the last year.

It has been a year of throwbacks and presents a unique opportunity for companies to incorporate nostalgia into their marketing and communications. Uber Eats bringing back characters from the SNL sketch Wayne’s World and Squarespace partnering with Dolly Parton to remake her classic song “9 to 5” as “5 to 9” are two examples of companies leveraging nostalgia during the pandemic.

Nostalgia marketing or the use of an individual’s longing for the past in marketing is not new. In consumer marketing, there are several examples of both products and communication that are hinged on nostalgia. The relaunch of the iconic flip phone Moto Razr is a good example of the former, while brands like Gucci have often used “retro” communication to market their products.

There are several benefits for brands to leverage nostalgia in their product design and communications. Nostalgia marketing helps create an instant emotional connect to brands. This connect has been found to increase both the “intention to purchase” and the “propensity to recommend”, both of which are critical measures of success of any communication or promotion.

However, nostalgia itself is transforming. It is no longer only about linking brands and communication to memories of the years-long gone by. Digital technologies and the pandemic have brought fundamental changes to the nature of nostalgia marketing.

Shorter Timeframes: 
The pandemic has changed the definition of "the past." Something that was done as recently as two or three years ago, pre-pandemic, now evokes nostalgia. Traveling, dining out, or just a backyard barbeque with friends has all moved into the category of nostalgia. This in in contrast to nostalgia relating to one’s childhood or youth that most brands traditionally focused on.

Expanding Audience:
The shrinking timelines have also had an impact on the target segment for nostalgia-based marketing. In addition to baby boomers and GenXs, GenZs can now also be targeted through such products and campaigns. Social media has made this generation very aware of products from prior generations. For example, Pokémon Go, among the fastest-selling games in recent times, combined the nostalgia associated with a twenty-five-year-old Pokémon franchise and augmented reality technology.

Digital Products:
One of the most significant changes in nostalgia marketing is the integration of digital technologies into reborn products. The Moto Razr is not a remake of the original product. It is a flip phone that shares the same name but supports some of the latest technologies, such as 5G. Carvaan, the music device with pre-loaded music that resembles a transistor radio of the 1950s and 60s sold, over 2 million units in India since its launch in mid-2017. While the product has many retro features like dials and physical buttons, it is Wi-Fi enabled, can be connected through Bluetooth to a mobile app, and has many other features that make it relatable to a digitally savvy audience.

Digital Communication:
One noticeable change in nostalgia marketing is the use of digital media as against traditional print, television, and radio advertisements. In addition, companies have used innovative ways to bring back highly successful promotions from the past. The Coca-Cola "Hilltop" campaign from 1971 with the lyrics "I want to buy the world a Coke" was reimagined in 2012. In the digital version, using a combination of mobile apps and custom-built interactive vending machines, customers could send coke cans and special messages to random people around the world. The new version of the ad was highly successful as it combined nostalgia with contemporary digital technologies.

Global Reach: Triggers from nostalgia are associated with sensory functions such as taste (food like mom’s cooking), sound (“music I danced to at my prom”), sight (design of a vintage car), or smell (“just like home”). These sensory perceptions have been very local and personal. For example, the nostalgia-based advertising of Hostess Brands for its iconic product Twinkies may not resonate with European or Asian audiences. However, in many product categories, this global and cultural divide no longer exists. Global mobility and digital media have made brands relatable globally, especially among millennials. From food and beverages to automobiles and beauty products, many products operate in global markets where they are highly standardized. A millennial in urban India has grown up enjoying a McDonald’s burger as much as one in any other part of the world. As experiences get standardized, so do the nostalgia associated with them.

Reduced Lifespan:
Digital technologies allow brands to accelerate product development, increasing the variety of products available in the marketplace. Product life cycles are shrinking, with customers having a limitless choice of products. In such a dynamic marketplace, nostalgia by itself is not a sustainable strategy. Nostalgia is found to appeal to customers in short-bursts and under certain circumstances. After the initial hype, customers will move one to the next product. Similarly, the sheer clutter of media does not allow for any communication to "trend" for long and nostalgia-based promotions get lost rapidly. Therefore, companies need to include nostalgia as part of their product and communication mix, but not as the only strategy.

Digital Triggers:
Consumption of nostalgia has traditionally been associated with psychological attributes such as moods, emotions, and feelings.   Digital platforms are now proactively stimulating nostalgia. Google Photos with its “Same time years ago," Facebook with its "Share a memory," or Amazon music with its 80's and 90's playlists are all adding to this longing for the past.

Implications for Marketeers

Each of changes discussed above have several implications for marketeers.

Not just a throwback of throwbacks—the evolving face of nostalgia marketing

In conclusion
All communications for financial services products end with the disclaimer that the “past performance is no guarantee of future results." However, nostalgia marketing is all about taking a bet on the past and making it work in the future. Clearly, a combination of the pandemic and the digital world has given a new lease of life to nostalgia and its role in marketing and communications. At the same time, brands need to take into cognizance the changing face of nostalgia as outlined in the article.

Reference: Youn, S., & Jin, S. V. (2017). Reconnecting with the past in social media: The moderating role of social influence in nostalgia marketing on Pinterest. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 16(6), 565-576.

Srinivas Pingali, Professor of Practice, IIM Udaipur and Kiran Pedada, Assistant Professor of Marketing and BAT Research Fellow, Indian School of Business

[This article has been reproduced with permission from the Indian School of Business, India]

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