Why Nostalgia Marketing Works

Why Nostalgia Marketing Works


Psychology has always played a crucial part in marketing. If you want your ad to work, you need to know how to get an emotional response from potential clients and establish a natural connection with your brand. Obviously, you have a range of emotions to choose from and one of the most popular choices for expert marketers all over the world is nostalgia.

Over the years, this complex emotion has proven to be quite effective in reaching out to users worldwide. It seems to work both on a global and individual level but how and why?

In this article, we will try to define this often elusive emotion called nostalgia, see how and why it forms in our minds and, most importantly, find out why it’s such a powerful marketing strategy.

The results might help you create your own fireproof marketing plan or, at least, give you a better understanding of the ads you see on a daily basis. Let’s begin.

History Of Nostalgia

Before we get into nostalgic marketing, we need to find out exactly what nostalgia is. Although it sounds a bit strange, nostalgia was once considered a disease. A Swiss physician by the name of Johannes Hofer first came up with the term in his medical dissertation back in 1668. According to Online Etymology Dictionary, the word consists of two Greek words - nostos (which means homecoming), and algos (meaning pain or grief). Sounds about right?

However, it seems that back in the days, nostalgia was a much more serious condition than it is today. People were not only longing for their homeland and their families, they also had hallucinations, fevers, and other weird symptoms. The Atlantic describes just one of the silly methods they used to treat it in the post-Civil War America.

American military doctor Theodore Calhoun thought nostalgia was something to be ashamed of, that those who suffered from it were unmanly, idle and weak-willed. He proposed curing it with a healthy dose of public ridicule and bullying. Maybe this is why most people don't feel nostalgic about middle school.

Thankfully, the modern definition of nostalgia is a lot more forgiving and doesn’t consider it a disease. Dictionary.com describes nostalgia as:

A wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one's life, to one's home or homeland, or to one's family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.

Now, there are two main problems with this definition. First of all, it fails to note that you can also be nostalgic about things you haven’t actually experienced yourself. Secondly, it doesn’t say anything about the nostalgic triggers, which are essential for nostalgic marketing practices, for example. So, let’s try to improve on this definition a little bit.

A Life Never Lived

In her article for Psychology Today, Robin Marantz Henig says that nostalgia isn’t limited by a person’s own experiences. A recent study of music revealed something called a cascading reminiscence bump. As Henig puts it:

The music that was popular in your youth seems to be the music you recall most vividly - and most nostalgically - for the rest of your life. But so is the music that was popular in your parents' youth. In other words, you're nostalgic for music that was being played before you were born - nostalgic for a time you didn't even live through.

Many young people today, for example, dream about going back to the ‘70s or ‘80s despite the fact that they weren’t even alive during those years. This is explained through the so-called vicarious experience. Basically, anything we read about a certain era or hear in other people’s stories creates our perception of that period in our mind. Once it gets there, it is as susceptible to nostalgia as any other “real” memory we have.

Nostalgic Triggers

Now, what are those triggers in our everyday life that cause the feeling of nostalgia? This is a million dollar question for all the marketers out there, but unfortunately, the answer isn’t as straightforward as they wish it would be. Neel Burton from Psychology Today says:

Bouts of nostalgia are often prompted by feelings of loneliness, disconnectedness, or meaninglessness; thoughts about the past; particular places and objects; and smell, touch, music, and weather.

So, there are a lot of things that can induce the feeling of nostalgia and the factors seem to be somewhat individual. What works for one person might not trigger any emotions for another.

But how does nostalgic marketing work then?

Nostalgic Marketing

Let’s look at some of the ways nostalgia infiltrates the marketing world and affects the minds of consumers. Using all of the different parts of definitions, we can recognize various nostalgia types and observe its effects.

A study called Involvement Explanation for Nostalgia Advertising Effects hypothesized that the ads that involve personal memories (something we’ve personally experienced) have the strongest effect on the consumer and promote the greatest ad involvement. On the other hand, the historical nostalgic ads (that include yearning for a distant past, never experienced) have a somewhat weaker effect. Both of these types are used in today’s nostalgic marketing.

Individual Memories

A couple of years ago, the computer giant, Microsoft, released a commercial for a new version of their classic Internet Explorer. Considering how the commercial was targeted at millennials, it played heavily on the nostalgia card, mentioning various products from the ‘90s. The idea was to make the audience remember their childhood when they used toys like a yo-yo, digital pets, water guns, and numerous other products and then add Internet Explorer to the mix.

Although the browser itself was often ridiculed for its incompetence, it still evokes pleasant, nostalgic feelings, which might make millennials use it once again.

Historical Nostalgia

We’ve already mentioned the idea of yearning for a period we’ve never really experienced but how does that work in the advertising world?

Well, retro design is currently one of the most popular trends in the world. Some of the best print designs nowadays try to emulate an older period mainly because it establishes traditional authority for the brand. According to Ma​​​​rketing Charts, 8 out of 10 people say that they’re more likely to trust a brand if it has been around for a long time.

A retro design can, therefore, work in two ways. It can either remind the audience that the company indeed has a rich heritage that promotes quality, or it can make them think that it’s a lot older and more traditional than it really is. The latter seems deceptive but relies heavily on people’s flawed perception.

Source: marketingcharts.com

One of the often neglected effects of nostalgia is the social dimension. Numerous studies suggest that nostalgia can help fight loneliness and improve social acceptance. The results of a study by psychologists Xinyue Zhou and Ding-Guo Gao seem to suggest that nostalgia actually promotes social support.

Whereas loneliness directly decreased perceived social support, it indirectly increased perceived social support via nostalgia. Nostalgia magnifies perceptions of social support, and, in so doing, thwarts the effect of loneliness. Nostalgia restores an individual’s social connectedness.

What can we conclude from this? How does it relate to marketing

Well, it seems that nostalgic ads can not only inspire nostalgic feelings in an individual but also help him establish a connection with others who share his point of view. It works the other way around, too. In order to be accepted by the society and peers, a person might be more inclined to like a nostalgic ad.

Nostalgic Marketing Tips

Now that you’ve seen exactly how nostalgia marketing works, you probably want to apply what you’ve learned to your business, as well. However, before you dive into the nostalgic waters, take a look at this list of good practices and common mistakes to avoid if you want to achieve the optimal results with your campaigns.

Utilize Social Media

We’ve already mentioned the beneficial effects nostalgia has on social acceptance and support. So, if you’re going to use nostalgic advertising, it’s only logical that you would focus on the social media to deliver your message.

Create Videos

One of the most effective ways of advertising nowadays is creating videos. It is said that only 20% of visitors actually read the content on your webpage. Most people prefer videos and they are the most effective mediums for establishing nostalgia.

Know Your Audience

The most important part of every business plan includes researching the target audience. You need to know who you’re addressing if you want to present your business the right way. Choose the right nostalgic approach based on your audience.

For example, if you’re targeting older people, you can use personal nostalgia that relies on something they’ve most likely experienced in their youth.

Related: How to create a buyer persona for your business

Avoid False Heritage

So many new companies nowadays embrace the nostalgic, retro design in the hopes that they’ll make the consumers think they’re older and more experienced than they are. While this may seem like a good initial boost, it doesn’t pay off in the long run.

In the end, we can conclude that nostalgia marketing can be beneficial both for businesses and for the audience. Nostalgia helps marketers establish a connection between the brand and consumers but it also promotes social support.

So, if you plan on utilizing this marketing strategy, keep in mind that you also have a responsibility towards your audience and mustn’t play with their emotions, or it might prove to be harmful in the long run.

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(Last Updated On: June 2, 2018)

About the Author Natasha Lane

Natasha here - web designer, lady of a keyboard and one hell of a tech geek. :) My expertise could be summed up in IT, digital marketing and business related topics. My interests are, on the other hand, wide and ever-evolving.

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