Blog Home Business Marketing Nostalgia Marketing: Why Brands Choose to Resurrect Retired Products, Mascots, and Ad Campaigns

When the Ghostbusters remake hit theaters this past summer, those of us who grew up in the ’80s had a collective flashback to the proton packs and ectoplasm that captured our imaginations when we were kids.

That’s exactly what Coca-Cola Company was counting on. To celebrate the movie’s arrival, it brought back Hi-C Ecto Cooler, a product borne of a promotional tie-in with the original Ghostbusters franchise some 30 years ago.

Welcome to the world of nostalgia marketing. Defined as a sentimental longing to once again experience the people, places, and things we loved in the past, nostalgia has become a keystone of business and promotional strategy.

Why? By tapping into consumer nostalgia for days gone by, brands can connect with people on an emotional level. If they’re lucky, they might even galvanize old users into becoming the foundation for a whole new customer base.

Everything Old is New Again

That phenomenon has certainly been the case with Pokémon Go. Based on the video games, trading cards, and TV shows/movies of the same name that were ubiquitous in the ’90s, the more recent augmented-reality mobile game drew 25 million users at the height of its popularity in July. The New York Times called it millennials’ “first mass-consumption nostalgia product.” Not only did the game attract old fans of the cards, but it also resonated with people who were indirectly familiar with the characters. “Pokémon is a cultural touchstone of my youth, something that stoked a sense of nostalgia,” one Times reporter wrote, “and something I suddenly became invested in.”

Ghostbusters and Pokémon Go notwithstanding, nostalgia marketing isn’t just about bringing back products from the past. For Tractor Soda Company, which makes organic, hand-crafted sodas, a hankering for yesteryear is the basis for an entire brand.

The startup launched last year with the intention of making a healthier kind of soda that harkens back to the days of old. “In telling our story, we often have to re-educate people about a time before sodas were made from chemicals and artificial ingredients,” explains Justin Herber, creative director for Tractor Soda Co. “In doing so, our message often feels nostalgic.”

Some of this nostalgia, however, is entirely by design. Take Tractor Soda Co.’s “Back to the Roots” marketing campaign. It’s anchored by a short brand film about a little boy whose mother brings him to the farm where she grew up.

Along with the video, Tractor Soda Co. used email, Facebook, and Instagram to promote the campaign.

“Whether it is Netflix’s Stranger Things or Miller Lite reissuing vintage cans, there are memories and emotions connected to experiences that feel true and familiar,” Herber says. “Nostalgia marketing can unite people around a brand, product, or idea and become a cultural phenomenon.”

What’s more, he says, “It can help create a deeper brand affinity by reminding people of a time, place, memory, or feeling.”

When Brand Storytelling Extends to History

Familiarity aside, there’s another advantage to using nostalgia marketing, and that’s its ability to remind consumers of a brand’s history in order to build loyalty and trust.

This past summer, for example, Chili’s promoted its grass-fed burgers with “Hamburger Hippies,” a commercial referencing the restaurant chain’s 1970s start. Chili’s also features a flashback to those days on its website in the form of sentimental old photographs.

Similarly, KFC brought back long-time mascot Colonel Sanders last year after a 14-year hiatus, reminding consumers of both the brand’s authentic Southern roots and its “secret recipe.” The character is currently being played by actor George Hamilton, who inspires his own breed of nostalgia among the baby-boomer set.

Referencing brands’ origin stories is becoming a go-to marketing device for businesses of all kinds. Companies often use what’s known as “heritage content” to shape their narrative. This is also the case with Tractor Soda Co.’s “Back to the Roots” campaign, which use images of farmland and homemade soda bubbling on the stovetop to evoke the brand’s history. “Tractor’s founder grew up farming and ranching and makes homemade sodas at our company retreats,” Herber says. “We wanted our campaign to reflect our own personal truth.” To further emphasize the founder’s history and the company’s nostalgic outlook, Tractor Soda uses its social channels to encourage conversations about “simplicity, reflection, and purity.”

But Does it Really Work?

Nostalgia marketing is becoming increasingly popular as companies seek to differentiate themselves and engage their target customers in a brand-cluttered world. But aren’t today’s consumers supposed to be more cynical than before? Do they really go in for the “remember the good old days” approach when the invitation to reminisce comes from a brand?

To gauge nostalgia’s true marketing worth, we turned to Sticky, a company that helps brands measure the impact of their ads on consumers. In its studies, consumers view ads while Sticky tracks where they focus their attention, analyzing their facial expressions to determine how they’re influenced by what they watch. The idea is to filter out all marketing messages to find out what really resonates with viewers, so that companies can create more relevant and effective content.

At the start of the back-to-school season, Sticky ran two commercials — an Old Navy ad featuring Amy Schumer and a Walmart spot that included a 1980s Whitesnake hit song — through its platform to find out which one generated the biggest emotional response. The results showed that Schumer’s comedy beat out the nostalgia of the ’80s tune. Walmart’s ad was built on the foundation of a beloved rock classic, yet it couldn’t make viewers smile.

According to Sticky CEO Hans Lee, that doesn’t mean nostalgia marketing doesn’t work. It does, however, remind us that nostalgia isn’t a cure-all for campaigns. If brands want to connect with consumers, they need to put storytelling and a strong narrative first.

vintage-car-by-the-beach
Nostalgia-type advertising can work when it evokes the emotion you felt before in a relevant way. It’s not the song, product, or brand we recall with fondness, but the fact that these things once made us feel happy. Image by jakkapan

“With nostalgia, it’s really the golden glow of the past that you’re trying to capture,” Lee says. He adds that he’s seeing an increase in the amount of nostalgic references brands are making in their marketing campaigns, some more effective than others.

“Nostalgia-type advertising can really work when it evokes the emotion you felt before in a relevant way,” he continues. “You don’t remember walking to the store, but you remember getting ice cream with grandpa, and that he loved you.”

In other words, it’s not the song, product, or brand we recall with fondness, but the fact that these things once made us feel happy.

“A lot of brands are going for, ‘we’re part of your life, we’re part of the good stuff,'” he says. “If you can find a way to be relevant and evoke positive emotions, (nostalgia) is probably one of the strongest tools a brand can use.”

You can bet that brands will remember that.