In the pandemic era, nostalgia truly sells better than sex

Nostalgia Marketing by Abigail Takahashi

By Zazie Atkinson

With uncertain futures and the general fear of the unpredictable, tapping into people’s nostalgia is a way to find comfort. And while the world is in a standstill, instead of looking fearfully to the future, we turn our thoughts to the past, in hopes of escaping our current realities.

The lockdown nostalgia

In the first few months into the lockdown last year a sense of nostalgia was felt worldwide. Not one for our childhood or a time without social media, but for life before the pandemic. Many people were starting to feel nostalgic for the most mundane things: the whirring of the copy machine in the office, commuting amongst the billowing fumes and tightly packed tubes, or even just human contact in the form of hugs or handshakes. Nostalgia tends to reappear during times of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals, and the pandemic was no exception.

As a result of football matches being suspended for what felt like a lifetime, FIFA’s YouTube channel was uploading World Cup matches from way back in 1970. Online music streams of old classics soared, with Spotify claiming that during the first week of April 2020 alone, there was a 54% increase in nostalgia-themed playlists. Similarly, now that we are currently in the third UK lockdown, we look back at the first with a sense of idealization, romanticising what was once the norm.

A new nostalgia

A bizarre trend which has shown itself overwhelmingly through social media platforms such as TikTok is the nostalgia for the first lockdown last March. With many young people suddenly being stuck at home, TikTok gained a huge number of users at the beginning of lockdown almost a year ago. For those familiar with the platform at the time, a number of trends will be familiar to you: the whipped Dalgona iced coffee – or 달고나 커피 in Korean, which translates roughly to the coffee “having a sweet flavour” – which involves whipping up sugar, instant coffee and water to create a creamy texture, baking banana bread, doing a Chloe Ting workout on YouTube and a number of now famous TikTok dances. It seems that we continue to look to the past with rose-coloured glasses, not acknowledging the real circumstances. Additionally, in an ever more divided world, a common sense of nostalgia, and therefore collective memory, can help connect people in isolation.

Talks about a ‘new normal’ in the world was ongoing from the start, and what was particularly touched upon was consumer habits. Would the general public become more mindful of what they purchase? Could the rise of the sustainability movement help curve the cycle of excess buying? And how can these non-essential products and services be sold to us when most of the world is stuck inside?

Nostalgia as a marketing tool

Nostalgia marketing has been referred to as “the advertising equivalent of comfort food”. What is so fascinating about the use of nostalgia as a marketing tool, is that it is everywhere. From advertising slogans on TV and billboards, to sampling music in new recordings. It works extraordinarily well and is widespread amongst every age group and demographic. But why is it so effective?

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that nostalgic feelings made participants more willing to spend money on consumer goods or services, whether that be on toys, breakfast cereals, movies or even donating to charity.  Brands are therefore connecting with their consumers on this emotional level, relying on collective memory. This evokes a sense of comfort, security and happiness. A further analysis of 1400 successful advertising campaigns found that those with emotional content were likely to perform twice as well as opposed to those that did not rely on emotion. Emotion evokes a reaction and therefore is key in pushing customers to action.

Forbes published an article a few years ago claiming that nostalgia marketing works especially well on millennials, and the pattern is clearly continuing with Gen Z. In this new phase of globalization, technology is developing at such a rapid pace that our generation has gone through so many cultural revolutions. Looking at the development of photography and smartphones alone, we find that Gen Z is the last generation to have childhood pictures still in physical form, yet only two decades later and smartphone cameras have become the norm.

Trends in nostalgia marketing already seem to have done a full 180-degree turn, with many teens nowadays spending extortionate prices on disposable film cameras or even buying ‘vintage’ film cameras, that probably aren’t even 30 years old yet. Vinyl’s have been on a slow ascent to popularity for a number of years, but even CD’s and tape recorders are suddenly being sold in mainstream stores again. This type of nostalgia marketing works on people’s perceptions of the past, without being the ones to have lived through it. This makes sense, however, as nostalgia can also be described as a longing for something that no longer exists, or has never existed to an individual.

Graphics courtesy of Abigail Takahashi

Disney’s constant live-action reboot are no doubt a perfect example of this. With an increase of streaming platforms coming to a head in a streaming war, many platforms are opting for reruns and revivals as a way to increase their viewership. With HBO’s long-awaited HBO Max comes the guarantee of all ten seasons of the popular and beloved series Friends, as well the promise for a reunion special. Disney+ already has a number of reboots under their belt, as well as sequels, prequels and TV spinoffs. The list is constantly being updated, proving that nostalgia marketing is truly not going anywhere. However, the one major caveat of nostalgia marketing is that it can sometimes feel like a cash grab or be ineffective by creating a feeling of outdatedness.

The new nostalgia in marketing

The nostalgia, and perhaps more importantly the impact, of the first lockdown has also made its way into the mainstream. Nescafe have since uploaded their own recipe to their website, using their instant coffee range, to make the famous Dalgona coffee. Some have already predicted the presence of the coffee on our beloved coffee shop menus when they reopen, with some warning of a hefty price tag alongside it.

With futures so uncertain, many of us want to look back into the past for a sense of belonging and sentimentality. And, as the TikTok nostalgia for the first lockdown has shown, brands do not need to delve too far into history to find an event or era worth re-marketing. However, with vaccine programs underway and a somewhat clear roadmap out of lockdown set out in the UK, it may be reasonable to suggest that now, more and more people are looking forward to the future instead.