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Blast from the Past: The Rise of Nostalgia Marketing

July 2, 2022by Jaquelin Bonura

“The good ol’ days”

“For old times’ sake”

“Back in my day”

There is no shortage of adages that stir up feelings of nostalgia. In uncertain times, much like the ones we’re living through now, consumers crave the familiar to connect to a time that felt more stable and secure. After the tumultuous start to the 2020s, we’ve seen a rise in demand for a return to cultural phenomena that moved us. Millions tuned in to reunions for shows like “Friends” and “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to recapture the delight familiar characters brought during their heyday.

As marketers, we can connect to this desire for nostalgia to not only keep consumers grounded in continuity, but also to give a second wind to an old idea that can unite across generations – take, for example, vinyl records. Once considered a dead medium, analog audio such as vinyl records has seen a resurgence. This has provided an opportunity for parents and grandparents to unite with the younger generations and share music they loved. And clever advertisers and artists have capitalized on the sentimental wave and begun to release special vinyl editions.

Alongside the use of nostalgia to promote goods and services, retro marketing tactics are making a comeback, too. While showing up in cyberspaces is critical for any marketing strategy, investing in traditional spaces can enchant consumers and provide a break from the ever-evolving digital landscape. Of course, marketers are also finding that what’s old can be renewed in the virtual world.

Retro Marketing Tactics Making Waves in a Digital World

With an increasing desire in the world to ditch the screen and connect in the real world, the demand for retro marketing is on the rise. In a post-2020 world, millennials and Gen Z in particular are seeking to escape the daily struggles of an anxious, uncertain future. As consumers seek connections to brands they love, adding old-school methods such as direct mailers, billboards or strategic product placement to any marketing strategy can benefit a brand in the long run.

Strategic Product Placement

While product placement has never really gone out of style, understanding how to strategically find a place for your brand to show up can boost sales and brand recognition, impacting your bottom line.
When the ’80s stylized sci-fi series “Stranger Things” made its debut, Gen Xers were able to reminisce about a less digitized time – and their purchase power proved that nostalgic tug on the heartstrings a success.

The coming-of-age series features a time when kids played together in person instead of on their Xbox – and highlighted a tabletop role-playing fantasy game, Dungeons and Dragons. Previously stereotyped as a game primarily played by a gaggle of geeks, D&D has seen a revival – but it’s not just geeky Gen Xers playing anymore. Data shows that D&D has a new target audience – Elder Gen Z. Its continuous rise in sales can be attributed to more families learning to play together during pandemic lockdown– and has led to a revitalization of Friday night tabletop games for a new generation to enjoy.

Marketers can learn from D&D’s newfound popularity and find spaces to place their product in a genuine way that will connect with their intended audience.

Direct Mailers and OOH

The rush of excitement when you hear that ding as you get a new email or text has long passed. Getting a letter or a package in the mail nowadays is gratifying. Why is that? As we expand further into a virtual world, there is a sort of freshness of receiving a tangible piece of mail that can’t be ignored as easily as another email in your inbox.

This refreshed perspective has afforded brands the opportunity to connect with consumers in a way that feels more personalized. Companies that have quirky brand identities, such as Ikea, have benefited from direct mail campaigns that showcase their products and contain ways to connect with digital touchpoints – such as adding QR codes or personalized offer codes that can only be redeemed online.

Out-of-home interactions can offer similar results as direct mailers. The industry has seen an upswing in spend on billboards (both print and electronic) as an important initial point of interaction with a brand. These older tactics are being made new for those consumers who are fatigued with the blue light of a screen and instead wish to encounter brands in the real world.

Integrate New Elements to an Old Design

Some companies have sought inspiration down memory lane and are reviving old ideas by infusing them with new elements. A few brands have done this right by staying authentic and reaching out to connect generational cohorts through products they loved yesteryear.

Nostalgia + Interactive Real-World Environment

2016 was a tough year globally, and Niantic, a mobile software company, capitalized on the desire to return to a time that felt more wholesome: the late ’90s/early 2000s. This era saw the rise of the cultural episode known as Pokémon, a trading card game and television show chronicling the adventures of a young boy dedicated to discovering (and catching) adorable tiny sidekicks with battle capabilities. In 2016, when the divisive world was seeking something uplifting to unite us, Niantic reached into the past and brought Pokémon to life with the use of Augmented Reality (or AR). The mobile game known as Pokémon Go quickly set hearts aflutter – globally.

By featuring AR tech that allowed people to catch the Pokémon they’d been dreaming of in their living rooms, neighborhoods and elsewhere, Niantic captivated existing fans, as well as created an entire flock of new fans that The Pokémon Company could sell merch to. It also served as a marketing vehicle for brick-and-mortar locations by bringing people together to team up and defeat Pokémon Gyms at locations that in the past decade had declined in popularity, such as shopping malls. By allowing Niantic to use their stores as Pokéstops, shops saw a significant increase in foot traffic and an uptick in sales.

Integrating New Tech to Revive a Product

For those who lived through the ’90s, you may be familiar with the absolute flex it was to have a Tamagotchi AND have it survive long enough to learn cool tricks and reach maximum happiness levels. An egg-shaped virtual pet that begins as an egg and only reaches old age if lovingly and properly taken care of, Tamagotchi was a quintessential ’90s craze that has made its way into the 2020s in a fun new way.

The love for these black and white virtual buddies inspired parent company Bandai to put a new spin on the trend for their 25th anniversary. The Tamagotchi Smart turned the nostalgic toy into a functional smartwatch that utilizes tech like voice recognition and touch screen and features a pedometer. The 25th anniversary reveal was huge for millennials with young children and allowed the generations to bond over something that was simultaneously new and old. Sales for Bandai exploded, leading to a successful marketing campaign that utilized both traditional and digital tactics. (You can even order Tamagotchis on Amazon now … what a world!) The use of nostalgia when life can feel a little overwhelming paid off, providing comfort for the millennial fans, as well as opening the door to a multigenerational fandom.

How Can I Make It Work for My Brand?

If you’re interested in using retro marketing tactics or nostalgia to connect with audiences in your next campaign, here are a few suggestions.

Know Your Target Audience Well:
Different touchpoints will resonate best with different generations of audience. A direct mailer might feel like a welcome digital break for Gen Xers or Baby Boomers – while strategic product placement might work best with millennials and Gen Zers, who are consuming content at binge-worthy rates.

Combine Past and Present:
Much like Pokémon Go or Tamagotchi 2.0, combining the nostalgia of an old fad with new tech can lead to a multigenerational connection. Play on the memories, but make it relevant – not just a relaunch of the same old thing. 

Stay Authentic: Remain true to your target audience, especially if you have a long, rich history that you can throw back to. Leaning into spaces where you can meet your target where they are (especially using traditional touchpoints) can go a long way.

Looking for help ideating your next great retro marketing campaign? Email Dana Arnold at darnold@hiebing.com to set up a call.

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