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Blast from the Past: The Power and Sour of Nostalgia Marketing

Photo of an old tv, cassette tapes, phones, and radios

Adulting is hard. As age brings childhood memories farther from focus, a craving for sweet nostalgia creeps into the subconscious. The desire for the bygone days free from the chokeholds of social media and technology create a demand for products, music, and moments that dish up reminders of the past. 

Nostalgia is comforting, and, for businesses, nostalgia’s allure is comfortably profitable. Nostalgia marketing sells consumers on the reminder of their memories, their childhood, their feel-good moments. These small reminders create a powerful impact on the psyche, compelling us to link a product with a memory, with happiness, an

d, most importantly, with our youth. Ultimately, we never even realize that the hook that lured us was something we will never and can never recapture. Youth is, after all, a most unfaithful mistress.

How does marketing lure the consumer to chase the past so profitably? The tactics differ for each generation because nostalgia takes root in memories of the past. Here’s how marketing pros get into the minds, hearts, and pocketbooks of the Boomers, Gen X, and the Millennials. 

Table of Contents:

Selling the Memories: The Snapshot of Youth Shapes the Message

  • Baby Boomer Nostalgia Marketing; Remember the Good Old Days

  • Weasin’ the Memories: All About Gen X Nostalgia

  • That’s Hot: Millennial Nostalgia Marketing 

Crossing the Generational Divide: How to Evoke Music Nostalgia in Marketing 

  • Baby Boomer Music Nostalgia

  • Gen X Music Nostalgia

  • Tapping Into Millennial Music Memories

How to Evoke Nostalgia in Marketing with Vintage Visuals 

A Nostalgic Twist

Selling Nostalgia: The Snapshot of Youth Shapes the Message

Tapping into nostalgia requires understanding the youthful profile of the generation that is the targeted audience for the message. Nostalgia looks different from generation to generation. The touchpoints and major events that shape each generation help mold marketing and its nostalgic messaging. 

In nostalgia marketing, each generation’s unique profile serves as the buyer persona and showcases the consumer habits and preferences of the specific generational cohort. Brands may create a profile of each generation using their own data and internal analyses. Typically, nostalgia marketing targets Baby Boomers, Generation X, and the Millennials. Here’s a basic marketing snapshot of each of these generations.  

Baby Boomer Nostalgia Marketing: Remember the Good Old Days

Photo of a McDonald's Menu from the 1070s

Do Baby Boomers reminisce about the good old days? Yes, because their good days were really quite good. They remember when McDonald’s hamburgers only cost a nickel. When life was gentler. When the world wasn’t so crazy. The Baby Boomers were the children of the Greatest Generation and the so-called Silent Generation. The Baby Boomers were dubbed from the “baby boom” that followed wartime, when soldiers returned home to their spouses and started a family.

The Baby Boomers witnessed the first man on the moon and watched coverage of the assassination of JFK, Dr. King, Robert F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X. They remember a different kind of lottery, a ceremonial televised reaping decades before the fictional Hunger Games. Baby Boomers were the first environmentalists, the first feminists, the first leaders for Civil Rights. They remember the British Invasion, Woodstock, when the milkman delivered to the door, and when television screens transformed from black and white to Technicolor! 

Weasin’ the Memories: All About Gen X Nostalgia

Gen Xers understand that the world truly “may never know” how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. They recall crucial survival skills like how to fix a cassette with a finger and how to properly wind a watch (“Ted, don’t forget to wind your watch!”). They know that MTV began with “Video Killed the Radio Star” and it ended with reality TV. 

Gen Xers were once known as the slacker generation. Defined by John Hughes and Cameron Crowe movies and later by Reality Bites, their soundtrack was the music of Seattle or the Sunset Strip. Sometimes a bit of both. Or a mix of the two influences, depending on the age of the Xer.

The events that shaped their youth and adulthood blared from television screens. Politics and entertainment enmeshed as live broadcasts showcased Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill sexual harassment hearings, O.J. Simpson’s infamous murder trial, and coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing. Gen X remembers the craziness of Y2K and how the world didn’t end that day. Instead, darkness fell a year later. Members of Gen X were in their early 20s and 30s when the world stopped. The day the towers fell and nothing was ever the same again.  

Photo of a Blockbuster tape with the sticker reminding people to rewind the movie when finished

That’s Hot: Millennial Nostalgia Marketing 

Millennials recall the contagious laugh of Tickle Me Elmo, the care demands of Tamagotchi, and the unveiling of the OG iPod. They remember when Taylor Swift was simply just focused on the teardrops on her guitar. 

Millennials were the first generation to grow up with social media (RIP MySpace). They also  were the first generation to endure cyberbullying and never knew what it meant to live without the online social pressure. Millennials were the first generation to experience FOMO and to have every moment captured with digital receipts. 

They were in high school when the illusion of school safety flipped, when the Columbine massacre ushered in a new fear. The Millennials entered the workforce during the Great Recession, and their adulthood took shape under a crushed economy. They were officially known as Generation Y; they were the first children to survive helicopter parents. 

Millennials favor experiences over things. They are the generation that shined a light on the crucial importance of work / balance, and they were the first generation that demanded this balance. 

How to Evoke Music Nostalgia in Marketing 

Photo of the Napster login window

Understanding the nostalgic profile of each generation enables marketers to focus messaging around sounds and visuals that move emotions and boost sales. Music is one of the easiest ways to link a product to the past because music stirs memories. 

A song links the mind to events from the past. A heartbreak, a vacation, a sad moment, a monumental first. For Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials, selling a product and attaching that product to a memory may be as simple as grabbing the right soundtrack. 

Targeting a specific generation requires a thoughtful interpretation of their youthful experiences. Some songs will never be attributed to a negative feeling. The best song for nostalgic advertising should be universally recognized by a specific generation. 

Baby Boomer Music Nostalgia

The Boomers grew up with the British Invasion. However, it’s crucial for marketers to understand that the Invasion was more than just The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It was Herman’s Hermits, The Hollies, The Kinks, The Zombies, The Yardbirds, The Who…the list goes on and on. 

Baby Boomers also were the Woodstock generation. Psychedelic rock and folk music mixed into the generational experience. 

Gen X Music Nostalgia

Gen X enjoyed a unique musical experience. The Sunset Strip bands–Poison, Motley Crue, and Guns N Roses–highlighted the 80s era of excess. Mix in Prince, Madonna, George Michael, hip hop, and rap pioneers (like Public Enemy) and add in a bubblegum dose of New Kids on the Block, Debbie Gibson, and Tiffany. Bookend that generational music experience with grunge for a healthy hit of nostalgic chill. 

The generation also knows all the lyrics to “Ice Ice Baby.” It’s truly a complicated musical experience for X, but marketers can pick almost any tune from the 80s and 90s that had heavy MTV rotation and the nostalgia will bleed. 

Tapping Into Millennial Music Memories

Photo of the original iPod

If Gen X enjoyed a mixed bag of musical genres thanks to MTV, it likely paled in comparison to the musical experience of Millennials. Gen X learned about new bands from friends, from MTV, and even from Beavis and Butthead (Ween and White Zombie), but Millennials had the internet, Napster, and, later, iTunes. Music went digital, and the album transformed into a downloadable experience. 

Millennial nostalgia runs the gamut in tunes. Backstreet Boys and N’Sync, Britney Spears, Jay-Z, Limp Bizkit, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Kanye….the list is endless. But perhaps true Millennial nostalgia hits much deeper with The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” Hanson’s “Mmmmbop,” Dave Matthews “Crash” The Barenaked Ladies (“Brian Wilson,” “One Week,” and “If I Had a Million Dollars”), and, let us not forget, The Spice Girls! Of course, Abercrombie will always, always be able to squeeze nostalgia out of “Summer Girls.”

How to Evoke Nostalgia in Marketing with Vintage Visuals

Music serves as a reminder to the brain and triggers specific memories from the past. Visual reminders also evoke nostalgia, and images are an incredibly powerful  marketing tool. 

Nostalgia marketing deploys visual tactics to create feelings of happiness in consumers. These images link to the past via old video clips or a reemergence of an iconic logo, tagline, or ad campaign.

Coca-Cola deploys nostalgia marketing when it releases its iconic polar bears during the holiday season. These characters were introduced in the ‘90s and are part of Gen X and Millennial nostalgia. 

McDonald’s used nostalgic visual and tactile (touch) marketing through its Adult Happy Meal campaign. Gen X and Millennials rushed to purchase the meals that included toys from the past (McNugget characters, for example). 

Interestingly, nostalgia marketing has not been a tactic deployed by AB-InBev to revitalize its floundering Bud Light sales. The former best-selling light beer in America once dominated televisions with ad campaigns that brewed into pop culture history. Spuds McKenzie (the original party animal) and the Whassup guys hit deep into nostalgia. 

A Nostalgic Twist

Nostalgia sells, and brands understand the impact and importance of the music and images of youth. Is nostalgia and the warm fuzzy feelings it evokes powerful enough to move product and sway consumer demand? Perhaps like all advertising messages, the impact depends on the intended audience. Then again, Millennials and Gen X might remember another nostalgic piece of sentiment. One that is tied to a viral email thread (remember those?) and that became a hit song–a spoken word piece from Baz Luhrmann, the director who gave us Leo DiCaprio as Romeo. 

In the late ‘90s, columnist Mary Schmich penned a graduation speech to the Class of ‘97. She dished out much advice, using a cadence similar to that of Desiderata. But perhaps Schmich’s best advice to the Class of ‘97 (high school millennials and college Gen X) was this:

“Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.”

Perhaps the heart of nostalgia marketing lies in its hope to recycle the past, give it a glow-up makeover, and sell it for more than the original. 

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