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13 Brands That Are Using “Nostalgia Marketing” and Why It’s Working Brilliantly.

When I heard about the re-release of the classic Nokia 3310 phone (in select markets), a wave of nostalgia engulfed me. I was reminded of simpler times when my face didn’t cringe at the prospect of an incoming phone call. A time when I took simple pleasure in a ravenous 2D Snake’s appetite instead of a 3D VR Pokémon catcher’s interactive roaming.

As I grow older, I find myself becoming more and more reflective of who I once was and of times past. I have lived long enough to utter the dreaded “but in my time, things were_” – well they were different.

As every generation grows older, they think back to times when they were younger. We tend to be remiss about our adolescence because we always categorize those times as “simpler” ones devoid of adult responsibilities. Thus, as foolish as it might seem to relaunch a non-smartphone in the era where “mobile is eating the world,” there might be more pulling power in nostalgia yet.

Marketing Detox

Nostalgia Marketing is a company’s effort to jog our memories and leverage an already established virtue of a brand or an idea and realign it with their own offering. We see this strategy being employed in various means today; in many ways, the Google Doodle artworks are meant to #throwback to a past time or to celebrate a deceased luminary. We see this same tactic being employed on Facebook with the “This Time x Years Ago” story that is created for us (by Facebook) individually. In the same breath, we celebrate “friend-versaries” on Facebook, and we already know why that it is under the social media giant’s best interests to keep us coming back to their site with a dosage of nostalgia.

Television shows and movies alike utilize this clever “nostalgia tactic.” How else do you explain the demand for show reboots such as Fuller House, Gilmore Girls, and Will & Grace. The idea is that if it worked once, then it will work again. I like to think of this tactic as a “refresher” button – one that resets anything new for something more familiar. Speaking of familiar, a reason why TV shows and movies based in previous periods (such as Stranger Things) works is because it gives the target audience a chance to look back fondly on their own formative years. It is like watching old family movies of their own childhoods.

Old is Gold: Why Nostalgia Works So Well

It can be understood why companies would want to use a tried-and-tested formula, but why do we, as human beings fall for the gimmick? In the age of innovation, why do we like things that are retro?

The explanation might be two-fold. First, we tend to romanticize our past because we have no control of our present and most of all our future. However, the past is something we already know about. The past is an epoch that we can look back on and know for certainty what the outcomes were. We can pick and choose what we want to remember, and that is the control we have and crave, since it is control over our destinies that we really seek. Our views of the past are distorted to our own liking, and we can mold it to our own biased outlooks to suit us. Any revisiting of the past usually takes us back to the joyous memories we hold it in esteem, and who doesn’t want a warm fuzzy feeling?

Secondly, we all have a “grass is greener” outlook, which is why we think back to lower bus fares and lower movie ticket prices, and reminisce about past times when juxtaposed with the present. We always regard a past decade or era as something that is novel or serene – we imagine times were simpler then because technology wasn’t as revolutionary or integral. A lot of us even want to think of those past eras to reconnect with their ancestors. On the episode of the philosophical chef, Jeong Kwan of the brilliant chef docu-series, Chef’s Table on Netflix, she says that every time she cooks, she reconnects with her ancestors. She uses old recipes and cooking techniques to prepare food that was once eaten by them and cooked by them. Who wouldn’t want this ephemeral connection?

The List

That’s all the philosophical jargon I can think of to explain why nostalgia works for us, so now to discuss the brands that brilliantly employed nostalgia in their favor. Here are the 13 best nostalgia marketing techniques employed in the past few years:

13. Bacardi

The Bacardi brand has always been about raucous parties; in fact, the current digital ad with the slick Major Lazer track and zany dance moves is a great initiation for the current generation. In terms of the use of nostalgia in their marketing, their 150th anniversary ad from 2012 showed a rollicking party from an older era to remind us that Bacardi has been at the heart of most parties for over a century.



12. Buzzfeed

Source: Buzzfeed.com


Two words: 90s listicles. It is not nice to deride Buzzfeed as a click-bait scrum of the Internet, because clicking through those numerous “You Know You’re a 90’s Kid When_” lists make me feel good inside sometimes. Also, old but mostly good!



11. Old Navy

Source: Youtube.com

The Backstreet Boys were back for this ad appearing out of a giant boom-box to perform their hit “Everybody” and celebrate skinny jeans for everyone! This 2009 ad reunited the once-popular boyband, and sent many twenty-something girls to swoon over their teen crushes.

10. McDonald’s

Having grown up in one of the few countries that did not have a McDonald’s restaurant, I always looked forward to visiting a McDonald’s chain during my travels as a kid. My parents didn’t seem to hesitate about taking me to the fast-food chain, because at the time my parents weren’t concerned about keeping organic or healthy. Many other parents, in fact, thought just like my parents, and kids’ staples back then would consist of Chicken McNuggets.

Thus, to bring present-day conscientious parents back into the fray, McDonald’s launched an campaign with a sweet little spot playing the 80’s smash hit song, Time after Time. Juxtaposing a kid from the 80’s and a kid in the present, it showed that kids from both generations are similar: playing video games (albeit with different consoles), having pets, and eating McDonald’s. The company wanted to introduce their new Chicken McNuggets made with fresh white meat as well – also reinforcing a slight difference from the 80s.

9. Coca-Cola

The most iconic brand of all time, I have a weakness for everything that is Coca-Cola. Having read countless books about the power of its brand as well as its former CEOs’ memoirs, this brand knows very well that the whole world is obsessed with it. Everyone has a memory of drinking coke – no matter if you hail from Fiji’s jungles or from New York’s boroughs – we all have memories of an extremely hot summer’s day and coke’s thirst-quenching miracle work.

Because of its long, long, long history, Coke invokes nostalgia marketing every few years – especially when it celebrates one of its many iconic birthdays. Vintage Coca-Cola print ads and posters are currently at the heart of the retro and mid-century theme enthusiast’s lists, and Coke’s decision to re-introduce its iconic glass bottles is one example of its nostalgia marketing savvy. Recently Coke came into the headlines for bringing back a discontinued flavor from the 90s known as Splurge after a Facebook petition urging it do so. So, yes, Coke is constantly tapping into its long history and re-introducing elements of its powerful brand power into our everyday.

A brilliant yet subdued form of nostalgic marketing can be gleaned from the television show AMC’s Mad Men’s series finale. The momentous show ended its brilliant run with the iconic 1970 Coca-Cola ad, and it was pure marketing genius. It is no secret that Coca Cola has a large portfolio of product placements in movie and television, so the aligning with Mad Men was a coup like no other. This ad in question is part of marketing lore; seen as a revolutionary ad at that time, it was meant to unite people of every color and raise a voice against war (the Vietnam War at that time).

8. Nickelodeon

As I curate this list and arrive on “Nickelodeon’s” nostalgia marketing efforts, I am extremely tempted to YouTube an episode of the Rugrats! As millennials are starting to have their own kids, they are going back to watching kid’s channels again, and cleverly Nickelodeon decided to bring back some favorite 90’s shows into their channel. This tactic to lure in new parents is not unheard of, because animated movies are starting to infuse adult jokes and adult-relatable storylines to keep the parents entertained along with the kids.

Thus, began the 90s Fest – an annual throwback festival of sorts wherein millennials attend dressed in their favorite 90s outfits. The festival is replete with musicians from that era, where movie and TV stars of dwindling fame make an appearance (such as Pauly Shore) and where a large Splash! obstacle course is set up to remind visitors of that silly gameshow of the same name. This festival began in 2015, and has had a similar edition in the following year, with a touring festival launched this year.

The festival was used to create hype about Nickelodeon bringing back the 90’s shows into their TV schedule, which they did with two fan favorites: Hey Arnold! and Legends of the Hidden Temple. Not only that, Nickelodeon is even in works to release a live-action movie based on the latter show; meanwhile the former will also be involved in some movie productions as well.

7. Microsoft

Sticking with my theme of nostalgia marketing geared especially for 90s kids, this next entry was tailor-made for one. In 2013, Microsoft decided to revamp its increasingly redundant Internet web browser, Internet Explorer (IE). The story of Microsoft is the story of a 90s kid when you come to think of it. I remember growing up with a Microsoft computer at every juncture of my childhood; as I grew, Microsoft grew. As I celebrated my birthdays, I remember getting the latest Windows version as well – ’95, ’98, ’00, and so on.

Thus, their ad titled “Child of the 90s” is a metaphorical reminder that Internet Explorer is just like us. He/she too, like us, is going through a self-discovery phase in his/her mid-to-late twenties and he/she is about to make a triumphant return as a revamped tablet-friendly browser.

This ad is littered with practically every 90s-insignia possible – especially kids’ insignia (the Hungry Hippo, the Walkman, etc.), and it was a revolution at the time, winning multiple awards and charming audiences by going viral. But did it work? Well, no, because IE is currently being phased out by Microsoft, but at least Microsoft gave us a beautiful video about feelings though!

6. Nintendo

Like Nokia, Nintendo decided to recycle an old favorite: the NES Classic Mini Console. The 80s-style graphics, the synth-pop music, and the 30-most popular games feature on the console makes this ad one of the best nostalgic marketing of late.

The NES Classic became the most coveted gift item of the 2016 holiday season with the game console becoming almost impossible to find online and in stores.  The success of the NES Classic Mini Console led Nintendo to set a release date for another item throwback product, a Super NES Classic Edition.

5. Sony PlayStation

Prior to the launch of the PS4, Sony launched a series of ads that were aimed at its ripe target audience – kids who had grown up with the console. A tactic used by Microsoft as well, it wanted to show how kids who had played the console from its first incarnation and grown up playing games had changed over the years as well as the console itself.

The ad “4 The Players” which ran in the EU was one such advertisement that showcased a changing teenage boy and his room. Meanwhile, the North American market witnessed the “Perfect Day” ad where men were living out live-action scenes from fan-favorite PlayStation games of past years and singing about the perfect day spent playing games with their Sony games consoles.

4. Adidas

Source: Kicksonfire.com

The rise of athleisure can be attributed to the rise in popularity of the Stan Smith shoe craze. Naturally, Adidas was pleasantly surprised that an older shoe of theirs had gained a cult status, so they decided to try and bring back another classic – the Gazelles. They wanted to pull on the nostalgia strings while giving it a fresh new appeal. The result was a chic ad made in collaboration with controversial media collage artist – Doug Abraham (of the now deleted @bessnyc Instagram account), who took images from the iconic Kate Moss ad and refurbished it. It was advertising gold as Gazelle sales shot up.

3. Pepsi

Pepsi is a repeat offender of nostalgia marketing tactics. Pepsi not only invokes nostalgia from its long brand history (like Coke), but it also pays homage to its many iconoclastic ads. It has even “thrown-back” to its celebrity endorsers’ careers such as Beyoncé in that 2013 Pepsi commercial wherein present-day Beyoncé dances-off against older iconic Beyoncé caricatures.

In particularly good taste were the Britney Spears ads that began with the 2001 ad with the catchy tune, followed by 2005’s ad paying homage to that very ad, as it was watched by people of all walks of life on their TV sets. The third entry was with Britney, a reimagining of Britney in all previous iconic Pepsi advertisements throughout the decades from the 50s onwards.

What didn’t work, however, was the emoji-fication of the classic 1992 Cindy Crawford ad.

2. Calvin Klein

In 2014, Calvin Klein decided to invoke some major 90s nostalgia into their ad campaigns – bad dad jeans and all. The original ads featured Marky Mark (Mark Wahlberg) and Kate Moss, while the new ads featured Kate Moss’s sister, Lottie Moss, and were photographed by the original ads’ photographer’s grandson. Talk about meticulous detail!

The company also simultaneously launched a #mycalvins hashtag asking 100 celebrity influencers from Iggy Azalea to Harry Styles to pose with their CK underwear showing over their jeans like Marky Mark had made popular in 1992. Recently “90s logo-based brands” have seen an insurgence in popularity coinciding with the rise of normcore and an aging millennial population who had grown up idolizing those styles.

These efforts were part of the project titled, “The Re-Issue Project” as they “reissued” classic sportswear pieces such as the Obsession sweatshirt as part of the nostalgia campaign as well. 90s nostalgia seems to work like a charm nowadays, and it certainly also reinvigorated a dying brand, Urban Outfitters, because of nostalgia campaign collaborations with CK and Adidas.

1. Target & Star Wars

Prior to the release of Star Wars’ last feature film, 2016’s Rogue One, Target decided to get audiences excited for the return of the Star Wars saga (and their new line of Star Wars merchandise) by creating a maelstrom of nostalgia.

The brilliant ad, titled There’s a Rebel in All of Us, showcases people from the generation who watched the first three movies as a kid and how they have grown up since then. They featured an English Literature teacher who uses Star Wars to explain Shakespeare to kids. The ad also features a Star Wars crazed bride who had stormtroopers walk her down the line.

What this ad does so wonderfully is that it celebrates the generation of Star Wars fans who were introduced to it from the first movies’ release. At the same time, the ad also ushers in a new era of the movies, inviting newer fans to join the Star Wars phenomenon. The year prior to that, Target leveraged Star Wars fan-mania once again to coincide with the release of Episode 7. It featured home videos of real-life fans in their best Star Wars moments – either dressed as a young Han Solo or playing the Star Wars theme song on a piano, etc.

Using Star Wars is not a novel idea used only by Target, as many other brands have gone down that path, releasing merchandise and ad materials alike to celebrate the movies, but Target certainly did it valiantly and craftily, hence the top spot.

Honorable Mentions:

I don’t know if you can call Nike’s Re2pect ad bidding farewell to the New York Yankees legend, Derek Jeter, from professional sports a form of nostalgic marketing or not. It is an ad that doesn’t use older footage of Jeter or Yankees glory, but it does draw on the heartstrings a bit to show what an astounding service Jeter had provided to the Big Apple over the years. NYC luminaries such as Jay-Z and Bill Murray are seen “tipping their Yankee hats” to the great player along with everyone in the city from all walks of life. In a way, we are forced to reflect on a spectacular career, as the city and even rival teams alike celebrate the man’s achievements. Similarly, Budweiser’s “This Bud’s for 2” was also a similar ad showing how the whole city would be retiring the iconic #2 worn by Jeter.

Speaking of Budweiser, its somewhat controversial 2017 Superbowl ad also has some elements of nostalgia involved. It showcased how a German immigrant set out for America and through hard work and determination founded the Budweiser company. Coinciding with President Trump’s election and his stance on immigrants, it was meant to be a defiant statement against the President, but it did showcase the beer company’s long history.

Similarly, the luxury brand, Burberry also decided to indulge in a storytelling spree about its lengthy history. Roping in a slew of celebrities from Domhnall Gleeson to Lily James and Dominic West to portray some iconic moments in its history and the history of fashion itself, the Burberry Heritage series was well received with the right dose of nostalgia.

Does It Work?

So, the question arises: does nostalgia marketing work? The answer is that yes, it does! Why? Because it brings a smile on our faces, creates a warm fuzziness inside of us, and we form a positive association with the marketing campaign and the brand alike. Good moods generally spike up sales. Cha-ching!

Sadia Sarwar on Twitter
Sadia Sarwar
Staff Writer: Sadia Sarwar is a writer and upcoming novelist who enjoys speculating about business trends and voicing her opinions on current affairs. Follow her on Twitter @sadiamhsarwar

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Staff Writer: Sadia Sarwar is a writer and upcoming novelist who enjoys speculating about business trends and voicing her opinions on current affairs. Follow her on Twitter @sadiamhsarwar

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