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Why Nostalgia Can Help You Market to Millennials

Posted by Dean Asher on 6/17/15 11:00 PM
Topics: college retail, Marketing to Students

We've seen a lot of '90s-themed marketing campaigns. We've highlighted a few stores to do it, and we've even based a monthly marketing plan around Clinton-era nostalgia. But have you ever wondered what makes it so successful with the millennial market?

Tanya Dua with Digiday set out to answer that question. We've pulled some choice excerpts, but read the whole story here.

“Nostalgia brings back that lovely, fuzzy feeling about how good things were back in the day,” said Jamie Gutfreund, CMO at agency Deep Focus. “You want to relive that feeling and brands know they can trigger those emotions in their consumers.”

And it works, too. Vladimir Vukicevic, co-founder and CTO of RocketHub,demonstrated in a rather wonky blog post that products based on nostalgia tend to depreciate slower over time. (Vukicevic only looked at tech products for his research.) And while marketers have used nostalgia as a tool for years, consensus is that millennials have a stronger affinity to the sentiment than previous generations: Nostalgia not only evokes better times — and a sense of belonging — but also makes younger consumers feel more fashionable.

“In terms of trends, what goes around, comes around,” said Marlene Morris Towns, professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “This generation is far more in touch with previous generations’ styles and tastes and there’s elements of a greater sense of discovery.”

Blame the economy — and technology. Millennials are the first digital natives; the first people to have their lives instantly, and constantly, chronicled online. And even if they grew up during a great recession, they have been inundated with information.

“Millennials are coming of age in an age of economic turmoil — a difficult job market,” said Cassandra Mcintosh, senior insights analyst at Exponential. “Therefore, they end up romanticizing simpler times much more – even those times they weren’t around for.”

Nostalgia speeds up

“We call this ‘early-onset nostalgia,’ where there is such an information overload that it has compressed their sense of time,” said Deep Focus’ Gutfreund. “Initially #tbt started off as a throwback to your childhood, but now, it’s throwback to last week.” (Satirical newspaper the Onion actually identified the early-onset nostalgia phenomenon back in 1997 with the hilarious piece U.S. Dept. Of Retro Warns: ‘We May Be Running Out Of Past.’)

And as tech speeds up, expect even more nostalgia marketing. Brands have a dizzying array of platforms to choose from when it comes to reaching consumers — from Facebook to Instagram to Snapchat to Pinterest and more — which is why Penguin, realizing the timelessness of Mad Libs, decided to adapt the classic books into an interactive app: It not only provided the perfect opportunity to take Gen-Xers on a trip down memory lane, but it also introduced the brand to a new batch of digital natives.

“We’re going after cool things, and millennials, of course, are going to be a part of that conversation,” said Sedita. “We realized that we could take this brand that we really believed in into the modern age and bring it in front of an audience that wasn’t really expecting to see it there.”

The authenticity factor

But nostalgia isn’t necessarily just about getting people to part with their money. It’s about storytelling, communicating a sense of authenticity for the brand and reflecting its core values.

“An honest evaluation of the brand’s history is an essential step in deciding whether to employ a nostalgia-based advertising strategy,” said Exponential’s Mcintosh, adding that brands with scandalous pasts or brands struggling with being perceived as modern should avoid it. Radio Shack may have initially scored with its self-deprecating 2014 Super Bowl ad loaded with references to the ‘80s, for example, but it ultimately contributed more to the perception of the brand as being antiquated and outdated, said Mcintosh.

Indeed, brands are only successful with it if they are valued, mean something to the consumer and are still relevant and valuable in the present context. There is a fine line between evoking memories and seeming outdated or out of touch. Products and brands that do well tend to be multi-generational, versatile, evergreen in appeal and are appropriated differently by different generations. Doc Martens, which meant one thing to Gen Xers, are interpreted as another thing by millennials.

“For my generation, Doc Martens were a sign of rebellion, worn with biker jackets and jeans,” said Georgetown’s Towns. “Today, they are more a part of the boho-chic look, paired with floral skirts as an accessory.”

“There is not a one-size-fits-all concept — but with the right product, strategy and audience, using a nostalgia-based campaign can be a success,” agreed Coca-Cola’s Thrasher.

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