Past masters: the power of nostalgic marketing

The past will always have more emotional appeal than the present. Rob Grant on nostalgic marketing.

This article originally appeared in The Generation Issue, our June/July issue of Marketing mag.

Does anyone know what year it is? Nokia 3310 mobiles are in the shops. Star Wars films fill the screens. Vinyl record stores overflow with hipsters. Pauline Hanson is in Parliament. Actually, let’s not bring politics into this.

Marketing always leans on the warm memories of generations long past, with brand equity often built on historic credentials. Now, in our uncertain times, nostalgia- fuelled marketing is more popular than ever. But before setting your next campaign in 1930, or raising a dud product from the dead, it helps to understand what drives this nostalgic renaissance. Based on this knowledge, there are numerous strategies to employ and a few pitfalls to watch out for.

Tried and trusted is great. Dated and out-of-touch? Not so much.

Rose-tinted spectacles

MK0617 cover generationNostalgic marketing taps into two consumer needs that overlap but are subtly different: a yearning for a time past and the fondness attached to personal childhood memories.

Our current political, social and economic landscape creates a perfect storm to whip up nostalgic fervour. Fears over terrorism, global warming and financial collapse, plus nuclear war once again, don’t exactly encourage people to look forward to the future. Instead, they retreat to the past.

Brands that tap into this successfully can earn an emotional connection that is priceless. Or at least it helps raise brands from a downward spiral of discounts and deals.

Life was much better as a kid, right? No responsibilities. No troublesome bosses. No worries about paying the rent. It makes sense people want to revisit this nirvana. And, ironically, it’s the shiny, new(ish) internet that makes it easy to live in the past.

Facebook connects childhood friends. Ebay sells retro memorabilia by the bucket load. YouTube hosts millions of hours of classic TV shows, music videos and adverts. No wonder people struggle to live in the now; but it is all rich fodder for brands.

It’s worth pointing out in both scenarios people only cherry pick the good stuff to remember and cherish. Childhood can be fraught with difficult experiences and previous generations were troubled with wars, poverty, terrorism, inequality and working conditions that make 2017 look heavenly. Marketers play to this and do what they always do: joyously focus on the positives and quietly downplay the negatives.

Raid the closet

Use of nostalgic marketing operates on a number of levels and careful thought is required by marketers to understand how deep they want to go.

At the simplest level, brands cue the desired values of yesterday, such as trust, quality or care, by including cultural references from the past in their communications. Use of vintage music is an obvious way, but much more subtle signals may include clothing, colours or even typefaces. None of this is likely to be central to the message, the call to action, but subconsciously it contributes positive impressions to the character of the brand.

A few years ago rum brand Bacardi – facing declining relevance and sales – undertook a major pack refresh. How did it modernise its fading, somewhat 80s, packaging? It took it further back into its past, replete with Art Deco styling, historic motifs and vintage lettering (see below).

Going a step deeper, and making it more obvious to the consumer, brands can celebrate their own past to show the authenticity of their values. Celebration of anniversaries is a classic example of this approach and most brands factor key historic dates into their marketing plans. Another angle is to hero poignant founder stories. This can also serve to explain the higher purpose of a brand – not a bad move in our fickle times.

Arnott’s did all this and more in 2015, the year of its 150th anniversary. A major PR and experiential campaign was combined with special edition new products, to remind people why it is Australia’s number one biscuit company.

The most blatant move in the nostalgic toolbox is to dig up the old and make it new again.

Products, flavours, packaging, adverts or even just taglines that have long been discarded can be brought back from the dead to great effect. In 2016, Aussie Home Loans brought back its classic tagline, ‘We’ll save you’, as part of a major campaign. Audi went one step further and created an ad from archive footage that showed its commitment to innovation throughout the ages (see below).

Not only was this great education about the brand’s esteemed history, it also came with low production costs, as everything was recycled. Usage of brand assets from yesteryear can trigger fond memories in consumers of a certain age or simply reinforce an enduring proposition for the young.

Stay in touch

Marketers using nostalgia walk a tricky tightrope. Go too far and you lose relevance with consumers who crave the new and future-focused. Dwell too much on the past and relevance for people living in 2017 is lost. At the extreme, brands can look tired and lazy, their communications lacking the originality required to cut through.

Conventional wisdom would suggest only brands with long histories can leverage nostalgia. But this is a fallacy, as stores are full of fairly new brands that trade on a heritage they don’t have. Thomas Chipman chips, Bulleit Bourbon and Cadbury Coco chocolate bars were all created in recent decades, despite ‘olde worlde’ packaging that cues authenticity.

Similarly, it’s not just a game for family favourite and kid-friendly brands, such as Disney, McDonald’s and Cadbury. In a bid to add a human touch to all those bits and bytes, technology companies are keen to build historic references into their service o erings, either directly or through partnerships. In the face of ever more sophisticated camera apps, Hipstamatic gained fame by making photos actually look older and, in the process, warmer and more precious.

Ultimately, the use of nostalgia relies on credibility. Do you have the credentials to back up the historic references so eagerly sought? Or can you be first and best at faking it? Alternatively, can you find a partner with the retro kudos you need, who can’t connect with the generations you can?

Past master: Bacardi

Facing declining relevance and sales, Bacardi undertook a major pack refresh, taking it further into its past with Art Deco styling, historic motifs and vintage lettering.

Agency: Here design, London.

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Past master: Coca-Cola

Agency: Santo, Buenos Aires

With a rich past to source from, but a young target audience seeking the latest thing, use of nostalgia requires a delicate balance for Coca-Cola. In its ‘Pool Boy’ commercial it strikes it beautifully. Vintage styling and a 1950s soundtrack tug at memories of simpler days, when a refreshing Coke was all the day needed. Yet, from the outset, the attention of the hunk cleaning the pool is sought by the daughter of the house and the son. It’s a subtle acknowledgement of sexuality that puts the ad firmly in 2017 and connects with younger generations.

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Past master: Audi

Agency: 303 MullenLowe

Last year Audi Australia launched a locally produced brand campaign using archival footage to show the company’s pioneering achievements. As the youngest premium German brand in Australia, reinforcing the brand’s rich and successful legacy in Europe was a message worthy of telling.

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Past master: Bonds

Agency: Leo Burnett Melbourne

Bonds’ celebration of its 100-year anniversary in 2015 was a master class in using nostalgia with a delightful, delicate touch. The TV advert announced the landmark, using people of all ages whose ages added to 100. It featured the reassurance of a 99-year-old man and 75-year old woman, but balanced this with talent as young as six months, plus almost every age in between. Tonally, the footage was fresh, colourful and lively – a perfect reflection of the brand’s unique look – to root the brand in the present. An extra dash of historic and Australian credibility came from the INXS track ‘What you need.’ Timeless.

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Image copyright: rawpixel / 123RF Stock Photo

BY Rob Grant ON 21 June 2017