In With The Old: How To Use Nostalgia To Improve Your Marketing

When used well, nostalgia can reach deep inside your audience, connecting with them on a more fundamental level.

Ah, those were the days…

Looking Backwards

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past few years, you’ll have noticed something peculiar.

Everything and everyone seems to be looking back to the past and embracing it.

Hit shows like Stranger Things are a homage to 80’s movies. Hollywood have remade so many films that it’s rarer to find a film that hasn’t undergone their treatment. Chart music currently sounds like the 80’s, just with some updated production and arguably better hair.

Even social media gets in on the act. Facebook prompt us to share our “memories” of yesteryear. Instagram and Twitter are awash with #ThrowbackThursday posts, offering glimpses into our past lives.

This sense of nostalgia stretches further into marketing and advertising.

The UK chocolate manufacturer, Cadbury’s, recently brought back their iconic Milk Tray television ad.

It’s a direct approach to instill the sense that the past was better, so let’s bring it back around again.

Politicians have also embraced this technique. Trump promised to “make America great again”, effectively implying a return to how things used to be. In the UK, the Brexit campaigners touted a way back to how the country was before the European Union ever existed.

In both those cases, the public lapped it up. It seems that everyone is looking backwards and wishing things were the way they used to be.

And when it comes to marketing, that offers up a ripe opportunity.

That’s because nostalgia provides a direct link to your audience’s emotions.

The Power Of Emotion

Any marketer worth their salt is well aware of how powerful an effect emotion can have on a campaign.

Make your audience happy, or make them sad. Pull on their heartstrings, or scare them to death. It doesn’t matter what they feel, only that they do.

Neuro-imaging studies have found that when consumers evaluate a brand, they rely more on emotion than on information.

As much as we like to think we’re rational machines, the truth is that we’re wildly irrational when it comes to making decisions. That includes purchase decisions.

This means that rather than consider the facts, we focus more on how the product makes us feel.

Facts play a part, and you need to ensure you inform your audience. If you want to seal the deal, however, you need to engage them on an emotional level.

Why is this?

Well, it all goes back to the times of our prehistoric ancestors. The world was a scarier place back then, with predators always around the corner waiting to strike.

When our ancestors came face to face with, say, a sabretooth tiger, they had two options: fight or flight.

But it was that intense fear they felt that actually prompted them to act.

An intense emotion can bypass the umm-ing and ahh-ing and make your decision for you.

Back then, it meant you didn’t delay in running away and that you’d live to fight another day. (I should be a poet.)

Now, it means that you simply must buy that new iPhone because otherwise you’re missing out.

If you want your audience to make a decision, you need to speak to them on an emotional level.

And it just so happens that nostalgia is an extremely powerful way of doing exactly that.

The Power Of Nostalgia

Remember when you were a child?

Everything was new. Each day brought with it a new experience or situation for you to deal with.

New experiences catch us off-guard, and when we’re young we’re often overwhelmed with emotions that we’ve never even felt before.

Over time, these raw emotions lessen in intensity and once we’re adults, we’re fully in control.

That means it’s pretty hard for marketing to actually affect us emotionally.

Now, I want you to do something for me.

Just close your eyes for a second, and think about your first kiss, or your first crush. Think about that time you had a nightmare and stayed up all night, or the first time a pet died.

Think about some of the most vivid childhood memories you can, imagine you’re there.

Done? Great!

Thinking about your childhood, and the experiences you had, triggers strong emotions. Essentially, you’re reverting back to how you felt at the time.

You might not realize it but recalling those childhood memories will have triggered an emotional response.

It can be almost overwhelming.

That’s because it’s easier for us to recall an emotion we’ve felt, than to generate it from scratch.

When a marketing campaign attempts to induce an emotion, it’s an uphill battle.

People are instantly sceptical of any marketing, and shut themselves off. They don’t companies to manipulate them and so they restrict their emotional output.

They try to not feel a thing.

That makes it almost impossible for marketers.

Nostalgia bypasses those barriers, it breaches those defences, and it sneaks in under the radar.

When a company uses nostalgia, their audience can’t possibly regulate their emotions.

If something triggers a memory of their childhood, then they can’t suppress it. That recall then generates the strong emotion inside of them.

Our minds are set up to find connections and patterns, so we may then inadvertently link those feelings to the brand that prompted us to feel them.

And that association forms an intimate and personal bond between a potential customer and a company. A valuable bond.

But you need to be careful…

Pushing It Too Far

As awful as it sounds, using emotion in your marketing could alienate your audience. They might label it as manipulative.

People don’t mind too much when you try to manipulate them on a rational and logical level. They expect you to sell them on the features and benefits. They can simply reason their way out of a purchase and move on.

When you start playing with people’s emotions, however, you better tread cautiously. If prospects realize you’ve been playing their heartstrings like a ukelele, they’ll be mad. If they’re mad, then chances are they aren’t going to make that all-important purchase decision.

That’s the bad news.

Push things too far and you’ll achieve the opposite of what you wanted.

The good news?

You can easily tell when you’re pushing things too far.

Don’t forget that you (well, most of you) also respond on an emotional level to things. Maybe some of you do more than others, but you all do to a certain extent.

This gives you a great insight into whether your marketing is going too far.

If it “feels wrong”, and deep down you have this nagging sensation that you shouldn’t be doing something, then don’t do it. That’s your instinct telling you that you’ve taken it too far.

A campaign that makes its creator feel uneasy is bound to have the same effect on the audience, probably even more so.

As a rule of thumb: Keep pushing until you feel that you’ve gone too far. Get some external opinions.

If people feel manipulated, then you need to dial back the emotional elements of the campaign.

How To Use Nostalgia

Now for the juicy part.

I’ve explained how powerful nostalgia is, how it taps into emotions at a fundamental level, and how emotion is what prompts people to act.

I guess that means it’s time to talk about how to actually go about using nostalgia in your marketing.

As always, the best way to learn is through examples. So I’ve handpicked some great campaigns that use nostalgia to great effect.

And I’ll explain what makes them tick.

Spotify — Never Ending Story

Never ending stoooory!

I don’t know about you but I love this movie. I remember watching it as a kid, tears streaming down my face as Atreyu’s horse, Artax, slowly sank to his death in the Swamp of Sadness.

If that sentence means anything to you, then you’ll understand why Spotify’s ad is so effective.

The use of the crappy CGI, the iconic soundtrack, and the use of Falcor’s (the flying dragon-dog thing) original voice actor all conspire to return viewers to their younger selves.

It’s as if we’re watching our beloved childhood movie all over again, and so we open up emotionally.

How do Spotify stop it from going too far? They inject a little bit of humor into the ad.

Atreyu is now roughly 40 years old, sporting a large, bushy beard, and jokes:

“I can’t believe after all these years people are still listening to this song.”

It’s a little joke at the viewer’s suspense. Yeah, we’re taking you back to your childhood, but you regularly go back there anyway, so what’s the issue?

It’s a smart way of letting you in on the joke. The ad is no longer aimed at you, it’s for you.

I’m already a Spotify customer, but if I wasn’t, this would definitely make me think twice.

Incidentally, it also makes me want to revisit Never Ending Story.

Adobe Photoshop Sketch — Bob Ross

Check out those brushstrokes.

Being a 90’s kid in the UK, I never had the joy of seeing Bob Ross on television, but I know how big a following he had on the other side of the pond.

So big in fact that Adobe used him (played by an actor) to showcase their Photoshop Sketch app for the iPad.

In this video, the Bob Ross likeness calmly and serenely gives a tutorial on how to use the app, selling you on the features as he goes along.

For many, Bob Ross will evoke that sense of childhood wonder and immediately whisk them off to the past.

That leaves them open to digest what stand-in Bob Ross is telling them — that the app is awesome and any artists, aspiring or pro, should quickly go and download it.

In a world full of boring informercial-esque tutorials, it’s nice to see Adobe trying something different.

Perhaps my only complaint is that they basically rehash the Bob Ross show without their own take on it, and without adding their own riff.

Spotify slyly poked fun with their older and bearded version of Atreyu, and that let us in on the joke.

Adobe fail to do that, and there’s a danger that Adobe may turn off some their audience with the result.

Sunny D — Rollerblades

Totally radical, man.

In this ad, Sunny D ramp the nostalgia up a notch further with a parody of their own ad campaign from years ago.

Tie-dye shirted “kidults” rollerblade into a suburban home and grab some Sunny D from the fridge.

One of their mothers stops what she’s doing and declares she’s had enough, that these adults are 36 years old, and need to act their age and get a job.

It’s a great throwback to Sunny D’s old ad. Rather than repeating it, they even add a new layer by suggesting the people from the 90’s ad have been constantly rollerblading and drinking Sunny D.

They then move on to make fun of 90’s kids when the now-adults laugh out loud at the prospect of getting a job. Is this a subtle reference to the high unemployment rates and the misconceived laziness of that generation?

The ad’s upbeat and light-hearted nostalgia look back at an era fondly, but suggest it’s time to move on to the future.

Internet Explorer — Child of the 90's

I was a Hungry Hippos pro.

I can’t remember the last time I used Internet Explorer. Sorry Microsoft. Being a mac user I couldn’t even if I wanted to, and let’s face it, I don’t want to.

But this ad did at least drag me back to those hours of my childhood spent on Internet Explorer: Updating my MSN, downloading songs off Limewire, and looking up guides for my favourite video games.

It features a montage of 90’s pop culture moments that any child of the 90’s will remember, either fondly or with a disconcerted anguish.

Either way, Microsoft don’t hide the fact that they want you to feel nostalgic about that time. The almost inspirational swell of the music, the bright colours, and the punchy voiceover are all designed to send you back 20 years.

I guess the issue is, my memories of Internet Explorer aren’t that great. There’s a reason I moved on. Their assertion that they’ve also grown up is prone to fall on deaf ears.

But, in fairness, that’s a product problem, not a marketing one. I would have focused on the future rather than dredging up their past transgressions, but that’s just me.

All in all, the ad is fun to watch, and did make me yearn for the simpler times of the 90's.

But please don’t make me use IE again.

Looking Backwards

No, you aren’t losing your mind. Yes, this is the exact same heading as the first one.

That’s my cack-handed attempt at a clever meta-joke. This time we’re looking back at the article in a handy attempt to summarize.

I started off by making the observation that nostalgia is all around us, that it’s unavoidable.

I then explained why. It’s because emotion forces people to act. In your case, it means purchasing your product. Nothing gets those emotions firing better than a gold old blast from the past.

I went on to warn you of the dangers of pushing it too far and alienating your audience.

Finally, I showed you four examples of marketing campaigns that lean on nostalgia, explaining what works and what doesn’t.


I don’t know about you but all this talk of the past has suddenly made me want to spike up my hair, load up on Panda Pop and dance the night away to Britney Spears.

Hit me baby one more time.

PS. If you’re a SaaS company interested in hiring me to write your content, drop me an email and let’s make some magic together.

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