Blog Home Business Marketing The Case for Using Nostalgia to Market Technology

After every technological advancement comes a wave of nostalgia. Here’s how to use that cycle to your advantage in marketing.

I grew up in a time when personal computers were relatively new. I remember moving houses as a kid, and when I opened the boot of the car to add something to my pile of belongings, a friend who lived up the street spotted my PC and said, “Oh my god, I thought you were making it up.”

Fast-forward twenty-five years and the idea of owning a laptop, tablet, smartphone, and smartwatch—let alone just one computer—is totally conceivable.

All of these modern trappings have come to exist in my lifetime. So have the internet and social media.

Old Computer
Hard to believe, but this was once all the rage. Image via Elena Schweitzer.

Perhaps it’s because of the technological revolution—because things evolve at such breakneck speed—that periods from our past can feel both like yesterday and a century ago.

I’m not even forty, yet my teen years seem like they unfolded in the 1800s, given how comically different we live today. Most of our devices don’t even have physical buttons anymore.

Despite all the advancements—and boy do they come quicker every year—we’ve rarely, as a culture, harkened back more than we do today. Nostalgia, or the sentimental longing for a period in the past, is a powerful force.

For many, childhood was a simpler time. Responsibility was a thing adults had to contend with. Making money, staying alive, avoiding conflict—all those troubles were the preoccupation of others.

So, it’s no wonder that it’s both comforting and heartwarming to look back on the good old days, irrespective of whether those days were truly good for everyone or not.

Tech companies aren’t blind to how we think about the past, especially in an age plagued by a pandemic, a climate crisis, and other catastrophic events.

In a recent ad from Apple, for instance, the company features “hello”—a nostalgic callback to the original Mac—on one of the computer screens, and caps the ad with the old, striped Apple logo.

But why? Surely technology is all about looking to the future, isn’t it?

Well, the company has a history of incorporating throwbacks into their campaigns when big changes to their products happen—it’s nostalgia grounding people as technology evolves.

There’s no arguing that nostalgia is a helluva marketing tool.

Research shows that nostalgia works particularly well when marketing to millennials, and it isn’t difficult to see why. Technology and millennials came of age in parallel. Tech went from a possibility people talked about in their journals to a set of tangible objects they used in their homes—a thing that made significant and profound changes to the way they lived.

Vaporwave Landscape
With nostalgia accompanies romantic images of simpler times, true or otherwise. Image via Swill Klitch.

Older millennials, myself included, make up the last generation to remember a world before the internet—the Before Times. And, so, the notion of a simpler time is perhaps stronger in our minds than it is in those who came after us.

Is it any wonder, then, that Apple has also turned to Cookie Monster to advertise Siri? Or, that Minecraft purposefully employs graphics from the ’90s, despite our machines being capable of ultra-realistic gameplay? Or that Kodak cameras are back . . . for the fourth time?

Operating systems, the software that runs computers, are perhaps some of the most complex examples of modern technology. Millions of copies of these systems underpin almost everything we do, from writing emails to sending rockets to the moon.

Yet, to ease people into the experience, key functionalities such as “Save, Search, and File” are still represented by icons from the past—floppy discs, magnifying glasses, and cardboard folders, respectively.

Whether we like it or not, everything we’ve ever done—at least so far—is in the past. As we get older, the number of experiences grows larger, and with it, the power of nostalgia increases.

It’s no wonder that marketing our memories back at us has become such a key tenet of technology companies looking to sell us the latest and greatest shiny object.

Mobile Phone Evolution
Admit it. The flip phone was the coolest. Image via Babich Alexander.

And, in the ultimate act of the snake eating its tail, our technological masters have decided that serendipitous nostalgia isn’t enough.

With technologies such as Timehop, The Nostalgia Machine, and the Memories function in Photos, our technology now serves up nostalgia in the same way it serves up fast food, TV programs, and fun things to do in, say, Detroit. Nostalgia is now on demand.

Interestingly, the more advanced technology becomes, the more accessible it makes our capacity to indulge in nostalgia. Even technology, it would seem, isn’t without a sense of irony.

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Cover image via Martin Bergsma.