Why Does Nostalgia Sell?
The joy of nostalgia can be a secret weapon for any brand - but is nostalgic marketing more misunderstood than we think?
This week, I had a particularly fun surprise waiting in my inbox.
It wasn’t a note from a friend, a note from my job, or any special discount.
It was an invitation to try out a new Neopets mobile app!
Started by British student Adam Powell in 1997, Neopets is a virtual pet website that became a staple of young gamers in the early 2000s. Exploding in popularity around the revolution of the internet itself Neopets became one of the stickiest sites on the net. One report even claimed in December 2003 that Neopets users spent close to 5 hours on the site per month.
(Keep in mind, this was before Twitter and Facebook, where spending five hours per month was actually kind of a WTF moment.)
Seeing that email brought me back to a series of memories from my childhood.
Me and one of my best friends used to have regular sleepovers where we would use a whiteboard in his room to map out which rewards came from which Neopets games.
One of my first ever internships was in an office where I didn’t have all that much actual work - I used that time on the clock to explore which games I could hack on Neopets.
Most of all, as someone who grew up without an actual pet, Neopets seemed like a fair compromise. A reprieve of sorts. I could have a pet to feed, take care of, and nurture. While it wouldn’t match the physical aspects of having and training a real pet, it was a similar dopamine driven by ownership. Something I could call mine.
I spent thirty minutes after getting that email not doing anything particularly special - just reminiscing on those same memories. It was bittersweet. Remembering when I had that much time. No real job. No other daily demands. I was trapped by a feeling most of us know well, the feeling of nostalgia.
Put simply, nostalgia is a yearning for the past. But, not the whole past - according to neurologist Alan Hirsch, it’s a yearning for an idealized past.
Nostalgia, unlike screen memory, does not relate to a specific memory, but rather to an emotional state. This idealized emotional state is framed within a past era, and the yearning for the idealized emotional state manifests as an attempt to recreate that past era by reproducing activities performed then and by using symbolic representations of the past.
Idealized is the operative world here because, as it turns out, we don’t have too much nostalgia for the awkward, odd and sad moments.
Even as I thought of my old job where I played an incessant amount of Neopets, I remember only the happy moments. Winning at the Meerca Chase and getting juicy virtual steak to feed my pets. I don’t immediately remember the hours I spent agonizing over how to do one Vlookup function at the same internship function.
Similarly, you might not remember that time you and your friend had a fight over the popcorn at a Backstreet Boys concert - but you sure remember “The Call” and how great Nick looked at the time.
The Neopets isn’t the only example recently of nostalgia working its magic. One of my favorite new apps Dispo has gotten a recent spark from its resurrection of retro style photos from disposable cameras. An ode to a time when life was slower and the need for digital gratification was less immediate.
But, as a marketer, it got me curious - is nostalgia an automatic win for anyone doing marketing?
Can I just make Yoyo, Backstreet Boys and Tamagochi related content and call it a day?
How do we even interact with this emotion that seems to come out of nowhere?
First, we might want to understand it a bit more.
Where Does Nostalgia Come From?
While we typically associate nostalgia with positive feelings, history isn’t so kind.
Back in the day, nostalgia suggested depression. It was a mental disorder.
Coined in 1688 by University of Basel by scholar Johannes Hofer, it attributed mental and physical maladies to homesickness. Nostos (Greek for homecoming) + Algos (Greek for pain and distress). For a number of years, it described any intense homesickness. During the Civil War, it was a military medical diagnosis principally and was considered a serious medical problem in the North.
The definition changed around the late 1920s - the idea that nostalgia was to mean a wistful yearning for the past was likely born out of a postwar optimism. Today, we see it as a generally beneficial, if not largely safe, phenomenon.
So, what triggers it in the first place?
The neuroscience behind nostalgia is partly linked to how memory and emotions are stored in the brain but with a twist - when a memory is stored at a time of emotional arousal (i.e. watching the moon landing), the stamp on the brain is much more powerful. Psychologists use the term “Flashbulb Memory” to denote these types of memories.
Those memories tend to last much longer than traditional ones - it’s why we remember advice from our parents, shows from our childhood, and our favorite meaningful songs more than twenty years from the original date. The stronger the association, the more powerful the memory has on our psyche, and the higher likelihood that the association will trigger nostalgia.
A finding from psychologist David Newman suggests retrieval cues are a big factor in nostalgia. Retrieval cues are simple: prompts that help us remember. Being around family and friends triggers nostalgia. Seeing videos reminds us when we’re in similar associative states.
Like many other emotions, nostalgia can be induced rather subconsciously - even as I’m writing this, I’m listening to a Spotify Shuffle playlist where The Macarena just started and now I have to take a break to reminisce about my sixth birthday party where I absolutely crushed that dance.
(Side note, did anyone else know the Macarena is about infidelity? Sorry if you didn’t, but it ruined my week so it’s only fair that it ruins yours.)
Some might suggest that living and yearning for the past is counterproductive - but psychologists who research nostalgia have found quite the opposite.
“Nostalgia is an emotional experience that unifies… It helps to unite our sense of who we are, our self, our identity over time. Over time, we change constantly and we change in incredible ways. We're not anywhere near the same as we were when we were three years old, for example. Nostalgia by motivating us to remember the past in our own life helps to unite us to that authentic self and remind us of who we have been and then compare that to who we feel we are today.”
By extension, Batcho says this gives us a bit more control of our lives. Most evidently during COVID, Batcho shares that nostalgia is even more helpful. In a piece for WellandGood, Batcho talks about how nostalgic memories remind us of those we love and crises we survived - giving us a sense that we’re not alone and that we have agency.
She closes with a note that it’s rather soothing to think about how much we’ve experienced. Nostalgia gives us perspective.
“[Nostalgic memories] remind us of what and who are most important to us and help us understand the meaning and purpose in our lives.”
Outside of personal comfort, Batcho also talks about the social nature of nostalgia.
It connects us to other people. Batcho even goes as far as to call it a “social connectedness” phenomenon.
When I wrote about jingles a few months ago, I got a lot of random friends and strangers on Twitter reaching out with a common theme: The jingle brought them back. We were all able to bond over something as simple as a jingle from a past time period.
On the surface, a lot this isn’t new. So how does this work when it comes to our purchasing decisions?
Why Does Nostalgia Sell?
There’s a precursor to all good nostalgic marketing: the memory has to be positive.
In 2013, Internet Explorer put out a fun ad - the Child of the 90s.
It was a gift basket of nostalgia. Floppy disks, fanny packs, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Tamagochis, Trolls, and so many more tributes to the 90s.
It ended with the powerful words: You grew up. So did we.
In addition to just being a wonderful ad though - it was an act of desperation.
Microsoft was struggling. A browser that once had close to 65% share of global desktop use in 2009 was slowly beginning to lose a race between Mozilla Firefox and a new browser released in late 2008: Google Chrome. By January 2013 (when this ad released), Chrome had just overtaken explorer. Today, Internet Explorer holds a meager 4.45% share of use - well behind Chrome (70%) and Firefox (10%).
The ad got rave reviews, but the reaction was expected. It didn’t convince anyone to move to Internet Explorer. One user even joked that it was fun to see a commercial about the 90s for Internet Explorer - the last time he had used it was in 1999.
Why did some parts of the ad work while others didn’t?
I spoke to my friend and fellow marketer Brianne Fleming, who loves to think through how pop culture can be integrated into marketing, and is a regular nostalgic in my twitter feed.
First, we chatted about the 90s, depicted above in the Microsoft ad and a big favorite of Brianne’s.
A self-processed 90s music fan, Brianne shared her thoughts on why groups like the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears are so durable: The 90s brought new bubblegum pop, extensions of music videos, and new trends with award shows, magazines, merchandise, and high-falutin tours at scale.
But Brianne brought up an interesting point in the context of nostalgia:
“It was a boom of new music, and as a millennial, it felt like ours.“
Ownership. Psychological ownership is a big driver towards both nostalgia in marketing simply because growing up in an era makes you feel indebted towards that era. You have discretionary desire to consume content about that era, bring back music about that era and lust over products from that era. Ownership is what drives us to love ads about the 90s - we almost feel an obligation to.
The idea of Dispo, a disposable camera app, enamors us because it brings us back to a time when we had less to worry about.
We want a new generation to see all the gratification that comes with owning a disposable camera. There’s a piece by my friend Janine Sickmeyer about Dispo with a line I love:
Dispo brings us back to the days of taking photos for fun and dismantling all of the negativity brought on by the socially-motivated perfectionist culture from the last decade.
A dedicated reverie to a past social culture.
So we know IE nails this part - but there’s an added element that separates IE from the others and appears to be a bit more abstract: Purpose.
In her piece about the Spice Girls, Brianne mentions that the Spice Girls popularized the mantra “Girl Power”, which had an ethos beyond just music.
The fact that the Spice Girls became rooted in a purpose beyond music brings up a whole new meta layer around why reminiscing about the Spice Girls matters.
When you think of the Spice Girls, you remember feeling empowered. You hear Wannabe and you want to just punch your arm into a wall and tell your friend’s boyfriend to take a hike. It all bleeds through - and it makes the Spice Girls a particularly evocative lever for nostalgia. (Fun Fact I learned from Brianne: The Spice Girls dolls are the best-selling celebrity dolls of all time!)
Similarly, Apple’s Think Different commercial also takes advantage of the art of purpose to make nostalgia effective: Bringing out images of John Lennon, Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jim Henson, Pablo Picasso across a bold narrative, Apple ends the ad with: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
The ad didn’t even mention Apple.
But it tied Apple to a purpose it had been known for in the past: rebelling against the status quo.
If you look back at the Microsoft ad, there was no clear purpose to it. It communicated that there was a new product, but there wasn’t a particularly different brand positioning or association from what it showed in the commercial. The browser was still the browser.
Thinking back through everything mentioned here - Dispo, Apple, and even Neopets - there’s another reason that all of these places seem to be headed where Internet Explorer isn’t: Channel Evolution.
While Dispo raises all the emotional arousal of a bygone time, it’s a digital app with an embedded social network. It invokes the nostalgia of the past without just pushing forward the same old product. Neopets moved from a standard flash website to a 3D mobile app on TestFlight. Apple’s commercial sparked the start of an ad campaign, re--established their counter-culture aura and ultimately led to the massive success for both the iMac and the Mac OS X.
In all its glory of parading around the past, Internet Explorer didn’t adapt to the present nearly enough.
When I asked Brianne one of her favorite examples of nostalgia, she pointed to a brilliant marketing campaign by KFC in 2017 - where they followed all the Spice Girls and six people named Herb. It was another type of evolution - a tool that thousands of its customers were using (Twitter), something that didn’t cost them a penny (a viral tweet gave them all the earned media) and a light use of the Spice Girls beyond the excess of merchandise and influencer content already widely used.
As we explore the above, we can begin to paint a picture of when nostalgia works: To be fully functional in marketing, nostalgia needs to connect with a positive memory, a clear purpose from the brand, and a product that has adapted to its present.
If it has one without the others, there is not much to be gained from the nostalgia alone.
Nostalgia is powerful.
It evokes a sense of social belonging, comfort, and collective duty to the past. It reminds us of past happy states, past life purposes, and past friendships alike.
Still, it’s not easy to get right.
I don’t know how any of the above products will fare. Dispo and Neopets could go in completely different directions.
Maybe other brands will come in with seemingly evocative products.
Maybe the Backstreet Boys will go back on tour and make us stop worrying about marketing altogether.
But if there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that nostalgia can’t be ignored.