Brands Tap into Nostalgia Marketing

By Beth Hurrle  | 

It’s not surprising that during a challenging time defined in part by a struggling economy, racial divisions and a once-in-a-century global pandemic, people may look through rose-tinted glasses at past decades that appear less complicated. Indeed, wistfulness for the years between 1950 and 1990, plus a nod to the 1920s, is currently influencing everything from entertainment offerings to brand campaigns. “Nostalgia is a big part of the marketing world right now partly because of how people are feeling about the pandemic and all of the uncertainty in life,” said Tim Calkins, professor of marketing at Northwestern University. Here’s how advertisers can successfully tap into the current trend and glorify the past while still remaining future-facing.

Classic Comfort, But Make It Modern
“On a psychological level, when people are in times of stress or uncertainty, they look for comfort,” said Todd Kaplan, Pepsi’s VP of marketing. “Indulgence is one way and nostalgia—simpler times—is another way. That’s where these trends have really bubbled to the top.” The soft drink giant recently debuted its limited-edition Pepsi-Cola Soda Shop Cream and Black Cherry flavors by drawing on images of soda shops from the 1950s and ‘60s, which many associate with the quiet pleasures of childhood. An accompanying spot, called “You’re the One I Want,” premiered prior to the MTV Video Music Awards as a reimagining of the hit 1978 film Grease—but with a modern spin. Rapper Doja Cat, whose songs first went viral on TikTok, steps into the role of Sandy Olsson, complete with scenes set in familiar locations like Rydell High and a Frosty Palace-style soda shop. But the choreography, costumes and messaging are refreshingly contemporary—rather than pining for a man, Doja Cat is chasing a drink. Influencer marketing is expected to create additional urgency for this product that aims to combine old and new elements of pop culture.

From pop to pies, Pizza Hut’s “Newstalgia” campaign heroes a spot that starts with the words, “Once upon a time,” cueing viewers to the fact that they’re about to be thrown back. Actor Craig Robinson, of The Office fame, sports a red-and-white track suit reminiscent of the brand’s iconic checkered tablecloths. Eighties fans may likewise fondly recognize the classic red cups and Tiffany lamps. As an added dollop of nostalgia, the brand released a limited-edition Pac-Man box featuring an AR game that rewards winning players with an old-school Pac-Man game console.  “Growing up in the 80s, [my special memory] was going into Pizza Hut and devouring those little PAC-MAN dots just like I did my pizza,” said Robinson. “Those arcade games in the restaurant—there was nothing better as a kid.”

Applicable to All
Nostalgia marketing runs the risk of falling on deaf ears if the intended audience fails to grasp its historical reference, so it’s important to avoid ultra-niche allusions that aren’t universally appealing. General Mills recently struck the right note by commemorating the 50th anniversary of its Monster Cereal brands via a campaign meant to appeal to the Gen X and millennial parents who grew up eating those breakfast products and may now buy them for their kids. Along with a remake of the 1962 song, “Monster Mash,” the foods manufacturer released a parody mockumentary about the making of this musical number, which harkens back to “Behind the Music” documentaries circa the late ‘90s that Gen X and millennial consumers will likewise vibe to. In it, beloved cereal mascots including Boo Berry, Count Chocula, Franken Berry, the Lucky Charms leprechaun and more, chat about coming together after decades to perform. “My therapist says there’s a monster in all of us, so it’s kind of a universal song,” says Trix, the silly rabbit.

In the same vein as family-friendly cereal brands, Lipton Tea just cast T-pain in “Have Some Tea with Cousin T,” a campaign meant to promote family unity. The rapper headlines a trio of spots that evoke nostalgia for sitcom-style television shows, complete with compulsory laugh track. Each “episode” highlights an activity that viewers may have missed during the pandemic’s lockdown days, including road trips and large family dinners. While the initiative references a format from TV history, its content is available on digital and streaming channels, which highlights how marketing parent PepsiCo (in conjunction with parent company Unilever) is rethinking its ad strategy to meet post-pandemic consumers where they live.

Employ Current Technology
Though old-time mentions may evoke warm feelings, today’s consumers simultaneously crave state-of-the-art advancements when it comes to technology. Enter Coca-Cola, debuting a multichannel campaign this March to promote its flavored sodas. In the brand’s “Unbelievable Double Take” spot, which coincided with the highly anticipated March Madness games that returned this year following 2020’s pandemic-related hiatus, Coke used breakthrough technology to digitally insert its product into the hands of sports’ stars, coaches and mascots. Footage of unforgettable basketball moments, including North Carolina’s nail-biting win over Houston in 1983, was altered to include images of new Coke cans.

Likewise White Castle, a family-owned business since 1921, recently created 100th-anniversary commemorative cups using web-based augmented reality (AR) technology. Select customers received cups designed by artist Bryan Moss, featuring comic book-style visuals representing three different eras from the fast-food chain’s history: 1920s to 1950s, 1960s to 1990s and 2000s to present. When scanned with smartphones and viewed through mobile cameras, some of the scenes appear to come to life while others play “White Castle Blues” by the Smithereens.

Nostalgia can evoke feelings of comfort and assurance in times of instability or uncertainty. But as is the case with every good thing, too much may backfire. Marketers would do well to use past references thoughtfully, while keeping audiences in mind and honoring modern technology. “You don’t want to present it as being stodgy or afraid of the future,” says Jamie Richardson, White Castle VP.

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