Vinyl records. Film photography. Vintage fashion. There’s no doubting it – the past has never been more alluring to young consumers. But in a digital world, there’s more to good marketing than throwing back to times past. Stephen Kelly explores the benefits – and pitfalls – of nostalgia.

If the past is indeed a foreign country, then its tourism industry is booming. Sales of vinyl are at a record high; Hollywood can’t stop rebooting long-gone franchises; filmmakers such as Greta Gerwig and Jonah Hill are revisiting their childhoods in films like Lady Bird and the forthcoming Mid90s; the success of Netflix’s ’80s hit Stranger Things; the success of Pokemon Go; the re-release last year of the Nintendo SNES as the Nintendo Classic Mini.

“Analog in general has seen a massive resurgence in recent years,” says Joanna Della-Ragione, creative producer at Kodak, “and there’s something very zeitgeist-y about that. Aesthetically, there’s a romanticism with the Super 8 format too – it’s very nostalgic and it harks back to a simpler time in a way. Traditionally that’s what home videos were shot in. So, everyone kind of sees this picture – and even if they don’t know exactly what it is, or even if they’re not familiar with different film stock or don’t themselves shoot film – people see Super 8 and immediately have this emotional affection, this connection to it.”  


Nostalgia is powerful. In terms of psychology, it has gone from being seen as a 17th century disorder – blamed by medical student Johannes Hofer for driving soldiers mad with longing – to a state understood by contemporary psychologist Constantine Sedikides to “elevate meaningfulness, connectedness and continuity in the past.” In terms of marketing, this means the potential to resonate with the consumer on a personal level, to connect in a way other forms of marketing can’t. Not to mention that nostalgic products tend to retail for premium prices – and that nostalgia has been shown to “weaken desire for money”, meaning that people are more likely to make wilful purchases. 

Living in the past

Nostalgia works because it plays on aesthetic, emotions and memories. This can apply at even the most basic level. For example, the merits of Halifax’s recent ad campaign – where a member of staff is spliced with classics such as Top Cat, The Wizard of Oz and Ghostbusters – is debatable, but there’s no denying that it inspires a reaction. See also price comparison website, which played upon nostalgia with their He-Man vs Skeletor ’80s dance-off ad last year.

But where it gets more complex, and potentially even more resonant, is when the brand not only deploys nostalgia, but is nostalgic within itself – usually by means of context, cultural importance or longevity.

For some, it’s the romanticism of Hovis’s boy on a bike advert. For Chris Marr, who runs the Content Marketing Academy, a school that teaches companies how to improve their marketing, it’s Scott’s Porridge Oats. “Every time I see that packaging, I think of my grandparents,” he says. “They used to make me porridge for breakfast when I was a kid. I even remember how they made it, and that’s exactly how I make porridge today as well. But the thing about that product, it’s not like their marketing is about nostalgia. It’s nostalgic, because it’s been around for generations. They haven’t had to go out of their way to trigger nostalgic memories for me, it’s just that they’re a timeless product, placed on every shelf. 

“Context is really important. I think about happy memories my gran and I had, and a product, brand or experience can trigger that emotion. It’s really powerful.”

Chris Marr, Content Marketing Academy

“I think context is really important,” he continues. “For somebody else, Scott’s Porridge Oats could be nothing, but for me, it was a time in my life that I enjoyed as a kid. My gran isn’t around anymore, but I don’t think about her not being here and feel sad. I think about the happy memories that we had, and a product or a brand or an experience can trigger that emotion. It’s really powerful.”

For brands with a long history, however, balancing this kind of heritage with the need to be fresh and relevant can be tricky.

Kodak, for instance, once found itself overwhelmed by the future – in 2012, it filed for bankruptcy, having been overtaken by rivals like Apple and Google, who focused on smartphones; and Canon and Nikon, who abandoned film in favor of digital. But it has since rebranded with a stronger emphasis on authenticity, creativity and inspiration; going back to the roots of what made the 128-year-old company a huge deal in the first place, and using that to explore the future. 

“We don’t want to just look to the past. It’s about utilizing these past achievements and aesthetics, bringing them up to date by aligning with things that are progressive and moving forward – making them relevant to a contemporary audience.””

Joanna Della-Ragione, creative producer, Kodak

“With a brand like Kodak – which is an amazing heritage brand with over a century of incredibly rich, diverse history providing creative people with the tools enabling them to do whatever they need to do – leveraging that nostalgic element is important,” says Della-Ragione. “But we don’t want to just look to the past. It’s about using nostalgic elements and bringing them up to date, utilizing these past achievements and aesthetics and aligning with things that are progressive and moving forward, making them relevant to a contemporary audience.

“For instance, we’ve been doing a lot in the lifestyle and apparel sector,” she continues. “We did a partnership with model Suki Waterhouse’s accessories brand Pop & Suki last year, which included a short film [Girls on Film] filmed on our different film stocks, and that’s not something you’d usually connect with Kodak – that partnership is slightly unconventional. But in actual fact, Suki is a keen photographer – her accessories brand’s central product is a camera-style bag – so it made sense on many levels to partner with them and bring [Kodak] into the millennial space.”

Digital world, analog allure

Millennials are where nostalgia gets really interesting –with the millennial generation not only proving particularly susceptible to nostalgia, but often harboring nostalgia for times either before they were born, or were too young to remember. Just take the fascination with Instagram filters, the resurgence of Polaroids and cassette tapes, vintage fashion, the culture of Throwback Thursdays. Recent Netflix romcom sensation To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before even features a 16-year-old who’s a huge fan of ’80s classics such as the John Hughes film Sixteen Candles, and sitcom The Golden Girls.

“I think the passion behind analog is a reaction to the uncertain times we’re living in. Real film encompasses a return to the authentic and the tangible, where in an age of uncertainty, it’s a trusted format that talks to skill and craftsmanship.”

— Joanna Della-Ragione, creative producer, Kodak

“I think a big part of it has got to be the parents’ influence,” argues Marr. “The music I listened to growing up was the music that my parents played. Why do kids wear band t-shirts from 20, 30 years ago? Is it because they want to appear like they’ve explored some different avenues or they’re different than everybody else? Taking something from your parents that maybe no one else has heard of can be pretty cool. You can be a little different, so you can stand out in a crowd.”

“I’m always surprised,” says Della-Ragione, “by the young talent I work with, people in their early 20s, who did not know life before the digital age, but who are passionate about real film and analog. I think it’s a reaction to the uncertain times we’re living in – we talk about this idea of the ‘digital landfill’, an excess of imagery that’s not thought through. Real film encompasses a return to the authentic and the tangible, where in an age of uncertainty, it’s a trusted format that talks to skill and craftsmanship. And of course aesthetically it looks beautiful too, it looks real.”

It’s no wonder then, that up-and-coming filmmakers like Chuck Grant (Lana Del Rey’s younger sister) and Renell Medrano have recently shot campaign films for Gucci and Chanel respectively – on Super 8 film.

Whatever the reason, the internet undeniably plays a part – allowing millennials to not only crystallize their own past (Facebook photos, old tweets and so on) for revisitation, but also giving them greater access to a past beyond their own. It’s never been easier, for example, to discover old bands, or to watch classic films; which gives marketers a greater range of reference to play with.

The future of nostalgia

But what of the future? Nostalgia is already changing, the hyper-accelerated pace of online-making memes that felt relevant three months ago seem as distant now as the cannons on the Somme. For a good example, just look at Lynx’s recent ad campaign for its Gold body spray. It targeted the digital native but riffed on memes – such as Supa Hot Fire, which is seven years old – which are now practically nostalgic.

Will nostalgia be the same for the generation beyond millennials, the so-called Generation Z raised entirely online? “Nostalgia is always going to be there,” says Marr. “But another thing to consider is that we do live in a very disposable society now, where we are really quite fleeting with the products we use and there isn’t as much tradition. My grandparents, they were very traditional. They would only use one thing – one washing powder – and it was always the same every single time. Whereas now I don’t know if we’re as loyal, so maybe the nostalgia that we have for brands and products will change.

“Perhaps the brand experience will be lost in some ways because there is no appetite for ads,” he continues. “My kids, they’re not seeing adverts at all in the house. We listen to Spotify, we watch Netflix and Amazon. In terms of exposure to brands, their experiences are entirely different to what I was having when I was a kid.”

Perhaps the past doesn’t have a future, after all – but it certainly has a presence.

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