Blogs & Comment

Nostalgia can be a powerful force in marketing—but only if you use it right

Just because something reminds us of the past doesn’t mean it will resonate today. Nostalgia draws on our memory, but it’s always about the present

Kodak Super 8

Kodak’s revived Super 8 film camera. (Kodak)

A train rolls past. A pub door swings shut. Two old friends regard each other across a pool table. “Hello, Mark,” says Sick Boy. “What have you been doing…for 19 years?” The characters, played by Jonny Lee Miller and Ewan McGregor, hang for one more second on the screen before Underworld’s “Born Slippy” takes over the soundtrack—and we’re off. I had no desire for a sequel to 1996’s Trainspotting until the do-over’s trailer appeared in early November. But the two-minute advertisement instantly brought back the joy of the original movie, along with a vivid memory of seeing it in an overflowing theatre. I don’t revisit the goofy sitcoms of my childhood and I don’t go see the bands I loved as a teenager, but nostalgia can still exert an inescapable pull.

Hollywood frequently targets our fondness for yesteryear, making or losing millions in the process. Among the top five films of 2016 was The Jungle Book, a remake of a 49-year-old movie. Conversely, the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles opus flopped, as did Independence Day: Resurgence, a sequel to a flick released the same year as Trainspotting.

But nostalgia is not a tool reserved only for the entertainment industry; plenty of businesses are finding ways to reconnect with consumers by mining shared memories. In a bid to move past its falsified-emissions scandal, Volkswagen this fall launched an advertising campaign built around customers’ cherished recollections of their Beetles. Kodak brought back the Super 8 camera and revived its original logo this year. Nintendo launched a mini-version of its ’80s-era hit gaming console, which sold out in minutes. There’s a theory emerging within the marketing community that millennials are particularly susceptible to the lure of nostalgia. “There is such an information overload that it has compressed their sense of time,” marketer Jamie Gutfreund told Digiday. “Initially #tbt [‘throwback Thursday’] started off as a throwback to your childhood, but now it’s a throwback to last week.”

Much of the discussion of nostalgia, however, misunderstands why it works. It isn’t simply about invoking warm and fuzzy memories. People with a strong sense of sentimentality are less vulnerable to feelings of loneliness or lingering thoughts about death, according to a series of papers published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Researchers concluded that nostalgia serves as a “meaning-providing resource” by rooting individuals in a wider community and cultural context. It doesn’t just make us feel happy about the past; nostalgia actually makes us less fearful about the future.

This is why so many nostalgia-driven projects are flops, despite the power of the feeling itself. Companies feed this emotional need with the equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup, when what consumers need are real nutrients. I’m excited for the new Trainspotting because it appears to tackle listless middle age with the same ferocity as it did aimless youth. If you want to use the past to connect with consumers, your message better still matter today.