Who doesn’t love that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you’re reminded of something from the past that you loved fiercely, or that represents a better, or simpler, time?
Nostalgia isn’t just limited to our personal lives, though. As a culture, we’re prone to idealizing — and in some areas such as fashion and music, recreating — past decades, bringing back ’70s bellbottoms, ’80s synthpop and hair metal, and ’90s neon and bad internet.
This used to happen in waves, but in the new millennium and with the unlimited supply of inspiration the internet provides, nostalgia has since become much more non-linear. Multiple decades are now being simultaneously looked back on: Downton Abbey sparks interest in the 1910s and 1920s. Mad Men inspired 1960s nostalgia. Netflix series The Get Down is a modern throwback to New York’s late-’70s burgeoning hip-hop scene, and Stranger Things is an ode to 1980s film classics.
Brands have noticed out nostalgic tendencies and are capitalizing on them.
A study published by the Journal of Consumer Research found that people are more willing to part with their money if reminded of the past. That’s been especially true with millennials, writes Tanya Dua at DigiDay, who “have a stronger affinity to the sentiment than previous generations.”
Part of that reason is because people who were raised in the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s have easier access to those sentiments, thanks in large part to digital culture. That era was diligently catalogued and can be easily replayed, allowing us to watch and collectively reminisce whenever the mood strikes.
Bringing back the past can be a sentimental gold mine. Here are eight brands doing nostalgia marketing right.
Coca-Cola has always been a company that’s embraced its nostalgic past — for example, its continual production of iconic 1950s-era bottles and use of 1930s Santa Claus imagery — but recently it embraced a more contemporary era: the 1990s. And so when three fans of Coke’s discontinued citrus-flavored soda, SURGE, started a Facebook campaign petitioning Coke bring back the ’90s beverage, it did.
The company brought a limited supply of SURGE back into production and sold it exclusively on Amazon, before eventually rolling it out in convenience stores and other locations across the United States (it’s still available today, in case you were wondering).
What makes Coke’s SURGE revival especially effective nostalgia marketing is that it wasn’t forcing an old product on people, but instead generating goodwill (and capitalizing on an existing demand and demographic) by giving “the people” what they wanted — while earning free viral advertising in the process.
2. Old Navy
The clothes retailer’s offbeat ads have long drawn on recognizable contemporary stars like Amy Poehler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Elizabeth Banks. But Old Navy especially mastered nostalgia by highlighting or reuniting faces from the past, including Mr. T accompanied by The A-Team theme song and the Backstreet Boys set to their hit song, “Everybody (Rock Your Body”).
The company even reunited the Griswold clan from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and brought together former 90210 cast mates Jason Priestley, Luke Perry, and Jenny Garth — in a school setting, no less. It makes for a sound marketing strategy: the “Aw!” pangs of memory you get from the reunions, colliding with primary color kaleidoscope of Old Navy youth-oriented ads, makes for a consistently potent combination.
Considering how deeply music is tied to memory, it’s no surprise that music streaming service Spotify would be eager to go the nostalgia route. It did just that with an ad that reunited The Neverending Story‘s hero Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) and his fuzzy dragon, Falkor, as a way to tickle ’70s and ’80s kids’ nostalgia bone. The ad, which has more than four million views on YouTube, is effective because it uses nostalgia to illustrate the depth of Spotify’s catalogue by pointing out that even the soundtrack of a 30-year-old movie gets listened to every day.
Like its eternal nemesis Coca-Cola, Pepsi also uses nostalgia for its products, ad like its competitor, the company brought back a discontinued drink — Crystal Pepsi, a clear-colored soda from the ’90s — for a limited eight-week run this year. It promoted the soda with even more throwbacks by pairing its re-release up with a game called “The Crystal Pepsi Trail.” The game, of course, was a nostalgia mash-up: A tribute to ’70s computer game The Oregon Trail, updated with ’90s references like Furbies and Tamagotchis.
The soda company also created Pepsi Throwback, a version of the drink that uses cane sugar (the way the soda was made before Pepsi swapped it for high-fructose corn syrup in the ’80s) and that’s packaged in a vintage-looking Pepsi can.
This media company has played a big part in fueling the current wave of nostalgia marketing with Rewind, a section of the site that produces content that refers back to previous decades. The social-media-friendly content goes a long way towards making BuzzFeed a must-read site for those looking to indulge in memories of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Friends, and old Disney VHS tapes.
What BuzzFeed has done especially well is that its content reads like it’s been written by the same people it’s being marketed to, lending BuzzFeed Rewind an authenticity that fans have responded to.
For those who grew up in the 1990s, Nickelodeon was an institution — the channel you turned on the minute you got home from school. And Nickelodeon has shrewdly capitalized on how many look back fondly on what it aired from those days. The station set up a programming block called “The Splat,” on which it airs shows from the ’90s such as Rugrats, Ren & Stimpy, and Are You Afraid of the Dark.
But Nickelodeon also knows it’s become effective to bring the old back with something new. That’s why it’s bringing back some of their old shows in different ways. Double Dare was brought back for a one-time show during the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con, Legends of the Hidden Temple is being adapted into a TV movie, and Hey! Arnold is being revived as a two-hour film. For the TV station, it’s not entirely about getting grown-ups to reminisce about the TV shows of their youth, but rather share them with their own kids today. Appealing to two demographics at once has become an especially effective way to market nostalgia.
7. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
When Jimmy Fallon took over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno, the show sorely needed to enter the 21st century. Realizing the power of viral videos, Fallon began creating segments that would do well online and build the show’s brand. His YouTube channel now has 12 million subscribers, and that’s in good part because of his willingness to tap into nostalgia. He recreated The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air opening (10 million views), brought us back to Saved By the Bell (34 million views), and reunited the Good Burger crew (11 million views). Not unlike BuzzFeed, what elevates Fallon’s drawing on nostalgia is authenticity, as well as the host’s affection for the content. You can tell Fallon is enjoying making the videos as much as we like watching them. In that way, it illustrates another key point: Nostalgia is at its best when it’s contagious.
Few brands evoke our childhood days playing video games better than Nintendo. While in many ways, Mario himself is a perpetual source of nostalgia (that’s why they keep making games with him), Nintendo has recently hopped on the nostalgia train in a more obvious, and incredibly smart, way. In November, it’s releasing a mini-version of the NES that comes with 30 games.
Nintendo’s president encapsulated the drive toward nostalgia marketing when the game maker announced the new (0ld) NES.
“We wanted to give fans of all ages the opportunity to revisit Nintendo’s original system and rediscover why they fell in love with Nintendo in the first place,” explained president and COO Reggie Fils-Aime in a press release. “The Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition is ideal for anyone who remembers playing the NES, or who wants to pass on those nostalgic memories to the next generation of gamers.”
It’s that potential for broad cross-generational appeal that ultimately links all the examples of backward-looking marketing above.
What makes nostalgia marketing so effective isn’t that it’s only for those who were actually around for whatever pop culture artifact is being resurrected for a new ad or video, but that nostalgia has always been a transferable emotion.
It’s why when we see something that brings us back, we’re inclined to turn to someone we know and say, “Oh man, remember that?” And that shareability is, of course, valuable an age where social media sharing drives business.
Appeal to someone’s existing love for something, and they’re likely to share it — whether it’s with a post on Facebook, or introducing your kid to Saved By the Bell. That’s a powerful thing, and it’s exactly why nostalgia marketing works so well.