The Nostalgia Paradox

Human beings can’t help but pine for the past. We yearn for parts of yesterday that shape our today––whether it’s shoes all the cool kids wore at school, or the sitcom we watched every night or the green light at the end of a dock.

Human beings can’t help but pine for the past. We yearn for parts of yesterday that shape our today––whether it’s shoes all the cool kids wore at school, or the sitcom we watched every night or the green light at the end of a dock.

We live in an age of nostalgic escapism

When we remember, we experience an emotion that blurs the line between happy and sad. It’s a familiar feeling, but it’s something that many of us struggle to put into words.

It’s a longing for our past, an idealized time or an era we’ve never actually lived in. It’s a longing for the innocence of our youth; for the security of foregone times; or for a hope we held for the future because life was simpler. This is nostalgia––a bittersweet sentiment. It’s sweet because we relive the happy times; it’s bitter because the past is irrevocable. The complexity of the emotion makes it highly persuasive and very effective in marketing.

Good brands know the power of nostalgia. They harness it to persuade consumers, who are at their most vulnerable, to buy products. On social media, the tactic is the driving force behind the #ThrowbackThursday and #FlashbackFriday hashtags. In fashion, the desire to return to the 1990s triggered the renaissance of retro brands such as Fila and Champion. In tech and entertainment, nostalgia marketing is why E.T. stars in Comcast’s 2019 holiday commercial.

Once upon a time, nostalgia was one device out of many that marketers used. Now, it’s the tool of choice. What exactly prompts brands to rely heavily on this particular emotion?

Nostalgia has reached a fever pitch. Reboots and remakes, prequels and sequels dominate entertainment. Even original content pays homage to elements of life gone by.

The past is profitable

The entertainment industry is where brands’ use of nostalgia is most shameless. Movies and television shows that exploit our wistfulness are reliable money makers.

Most of the recent top grossing movies are sequels, remakes or adaptations of beloved novels and comic books. The content we’re presented with is less original than ever. In fact, cinemagoers in 2020 should prepare for a massive dose of nostalgia with the planned release of films like Legally Blonde 3, Top Gun: Maverick, Bad Boys for Life and Mulan. The statistics aren’t much different for television. The premiere of the Beverly Hills 90210 reboot attracted 6.1 million viewers, setting the record for the highest-rated summer series debut in more than two years.

The trend has overflowed into fashion. Once-dormant companies are using the power of nostalgia to revive their popularity. Take Fila. The activewear company recently reintroduced its iconic Disrupter II sneaker. The shoe first entered the market in 1996, but it took 22 years for it to reach peak marketability. The company made only minor tweaks to the original design. The relaunch was extremely successful, increasing the brand’s sales by 205 percent between 2016 and 2018.

Champion is another century-old business that made an impressive comeback by riding the nostalgia wave. The sports apparel company, which peaked at the start of the millennium, made nearly 1.4 billion dollars in global sales in 2018. This success prompted the company to open its first-ever U.S. store in Los Angeles. Like Fila, Champion leaned on its long-standing heritage to create products that encapsulate nostalgia while appealing to modern tastes.  Food and beverage companies like Coca-Cola also capitalize on our desire to return to a time when life seemed uncomplicated. The beverage giant re-released its New Coke line to promote the third season of Stranger Things, which is set in the 1980s. The original formula for the drink made its debut in 1985 but was considered a marketing flop. This time around, Coca-Cola hung its hat on a major pop culture event. The company bet that people’s ability to find comfort in a past viewed through rose-tinted glasses would lead to success. It worked.

Revelling in the past is a coping mechanism we employ to deal with a chaotic present and the prospect of a bleak future. The massive archive of cultural memory available online facilitates our collective recollections.

Progress as regress

We’ve entered a new epoch of progress in which growth and advancement ironically leads to regression. Many people, especially those from younger generations, believe that the world has peaked.

Extremism is threatening democracies, climate change is destroying the earth and the time-honoured morals that once upheld societies are eroding. Everything all the time is overwhelming. We can discern this instability in the increase in anxiety and depression. Recent studies confirm what we already know. Research shows that a median of 46 percent of people believe life today is worse than five decades ago. The individual and collective pessimism paired with a sense that progress has plateaued fuels the emphasis brands have on nostalgia. Whether we’re wearing a brand from our heydays or drinking New Coke, we develop a strong emotional response because we’re transported to idyllic times. Nostalgia’s universality makes it easier for brands to turn memories into profit. Romanticizing the past is especially popular among millennials––people who were born between 1981 and 1996. For marketers, understanding the psychological impact of nostalgia on Canada’s largest generation is key to success.

Nostalgia now

Marketers are getting increasingly sophisticated in taking advantage of people’s obsession with looking back.

The associational memories triggered by nostalgia marketing creates a sense of trust and comfort for consumers. When brands bring ideals of the past to the present, they show that they understand how experiences customers have lived through shape identity.

The paradox of nostalgia-centred marketing is that its success depends on how well it can bring references of the past into the present. If brands fail to do so, they risk being perceived as insipid. Fila and Champion found success again because they understand how their target audience’s shared memories of the past fit into modern contexts. This tactic allows their products to transcend generations and appeal to everyone––from Baby Boomers to Generation Z.

At the end of the day, we may find solace in the temporary refuge of nostalgia, but we can’t live in the past. So we beat on, boats against the current. As communications and marketing professionals, we can successfully incorporate nostalgia only if we understand how each generation views the past.  For the important­­ but misunderstood millennial audience, nostalgic experiences provide an escape from the struggles of today. When we incorporate nostalgia in campaigns, we show millennials that their need to get away from the present is relatable. In this way, nostalgia is an element of empathy and authenticity-based marketing. Above all else, recognize it for what it is, know how powerful it can be and use it to your advantage.