Can you think of a song that makes you reminisce about the good ol’ days? There’s a high chance that you’ve heard that very same song in an ad. Did the ad grab your attention when you heard that familiar melody? Did you immediately feel positive about the product/service, whether you needed it or not? That’s nostalgia marketing at work.
Marketing is truly embracing the idea that “everything old is new again” right now. Even though nostalgia marketing itself isn’t new, people have noticed that it seems to be everywhere these days. But why?
There are a number of factors that have made nostalgia-flavored campaigns a smart bet for brands, from the lingering after-effects of the pandemic, when people craved sources of comfort through massive disruption, to the rise of the millennial generation, who are coming into their full power not just as consumers but marketers responsible for various campaigns.
But there is another factor that may surprise people: the high stress levels facing Gen Z. According to the American Psychological Association, 90% of Gen Z experienced psychological or physical symptoms as a result of stress in the last year.
To mitigate that stress, Gen Z is looking for comfort wherever they can find it. In an odd turn of events, the famously “digital native” generation has developed an insatiable appetite for media related to the pre-social media era of the ’90s and early aughts.
So how can marketers looking to connect with younger audiences leverage nostalgia in campaigns in an authentic way that resonates with Gen Z? You need to start by understanding why it’s so appealing.
Why does Gen Z seek out nostalgia for a time before they were even born?
In a study by GWI, 70% of Gen Z said they like listening to and watching media from earlier decades because it reminds them of a “simple” time. The pandemic overtook many major milestones for the Gen Zers just entering adulthood, from graduations and proms to on-campus college experiences or their first day in a real job. They’re looking to bygone days that seem to offer a much-needed break from day-to-day lives that feel out of control.
The same study also found that 14% of US Gen Z prefer thinking about the past rather than their future, and it’s easy to see why. The world right now is full of uncertainty: economic unrest, political strife, and rising temperatures… to Gen Z, the future looks bleak.
The insatiable appetite for this kind of nostalgia is evidenced by the continued success of publications like BuzzFeed that widely traffic in nostalgia and the enduring popularity of movies and TV shows from that era. But it goes deeper than a leaned-back desire to consume media. In fact, it’s Gen Z-dominated platforms like TikTok that are driving the trend to new heights.
Audiences on the platform engage en masse with accounts dedicated to early-00s fashion and Depop stores promoting vintage Y2K items that seem to offer young people a chance to get closer to actually experiencing that time period.
@isabelgalv4 #nostalgia #2000s #repost #abercrombie #millennial ♬ California (From “The OC”) – Geek Music
While Gen Z superstar Billie Eilish sampled audio from The Office and Nirvana songs have trended on TikTok, this time-displaced nostalgia is not just about media consumption. Spotify found that 80% of American Gen Zers like when brands bring back old aesthetic styles and 74% love when brands produce retro products or content.
Brands have an opportunity to leverage nostalgia to bring these brief escapes from the noise of the real world to life for Gen Z. They may never have actually lived in a world where screens weren’t ubiquitous and the economy was a source of seemingly boundless opportunity, but they crave an authentic version of that experience.
But it takes the right approach to nostalgia marketing to hit those restorative highs and generate the maximum level of connection and goodwill with Gen Z consumers. You can’t just throw any random cultural artifact from the late ’90s into a campaign and expect it to work.
What’s the difference between good and bad nostalgia marketing?
What sets Gen Z apart from the generations that preceded it is, of course, the internet. And not just the internet as it exists in a computer system; the digital world has been dominant for Gen Z’s entire lives. The only frame of reference they have for what life was like pre-smart phones and social media is what they see on TV or hear from older friends and relatives.
Look no further than this year’s Super Bowl to see throwback marketing in action. The big game’s expensive commercial airtime was saturated with flashy ads that placed nostalgia front and center. For the older generations, there were the ’70s and ’80s: Michelob Ultra’s take on Caddyshack, John Travolta going full Grease for T-Mobile, and Intuit TurboTax deploying Men Without Hats’ notorious earworm “Safety Dance.”
But for millennials and Gen Z, there was the ’90s and ’00s: Rakuten tapped Alicia Silverstone herself for an ad that basically served as a love letter to her Clueless shopping icon Cher, while T-Mobile continued to showcase Scrubs BFFs Zach Braff and Donald Faison as part of an ongoing campaign.
Brands that don’t have the budget or appetite to snag an actual star from the ’90s (or invest in a Super Bowl commercial) should consider applying the same lessons to campaigns on social platforms. You can see how effective instantly recognizable nostalgic audio can be in a campaign from Google and Samsung featuring Gen Z superinfluencer Addison Rae set to the Backstreet Boys.
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But nostalgia can also be counterproductive to your overall goals for your brand if used in the wrong way. In 2014, RadioShack put up a widely lauded Super Bowl ad filled with 80s icons. Although the ad tried to use nostalgia to show that the brand wasn’t the same RadioShack everyone remembered, the ad actually reinforced the idea that the store was outdated and irrelevant.
You should do your research and make sure you understand how specific communities and niche cultures might be interpreting or using a specific set of nostalgic indicators and whether they are evoking the right message for your brand. Remember that older properties like Friends or The Office might include elements that are considered cringe (gasp!) or even problematic by today’s audiences.
Take full advantage of vintage vibes with nostalgia marketing
Don’t just jump on the nostalgia bandwagon because everybody else is doing it. The key to maximizing the effect of nostalgia is finding the perfect match between your brand and the piece of culture you’re using or referring to. Instead of just forcing a nostalgic reference into your ads, try to find a fresh take that’s relevant to your business and will be exciting to your audience.
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In the end, your campaign, from creative to messaging to cultural references, needs to align not just with your target audience’s interests, but with their sensibilities. That’s especially true with Gen Z, who are basically veterans of a near-constant stream of marketing since birth. They need to feel seen and spoken to by your campaigns, and nostalgia offers a great way to make that connection if it’s done well.
Above all, don’t take nostalgia too seriously; get a little cheeky and have fun when deploying a nostalgia-focused marketing campaign. In fact, you don’t even have to stay digital: after all, Gen Z is taking it offline by buying “dumb” phones and other analog tech to experience what an unplugged life might really be like. Billboards, anyone?