Fall Feels Like a New School Year: How to Use Nostalgia Effectively in Marketing

Why is it that, when the crisp air tickles our cheeks on a fall morning, we remember cool mornings waiting by the bus stop? That, when we feel the bright *crunch* of freshly fallen leaves beneath our feet, we imagine running from house to house in search of the best Halloween candy? Or, when we smell the rising smoke of a fireplace off in the distance, we think of cozy moments at home snuggling up to the people we care about most?

The reason is nostalgia, a powerful emotional concept that has the unique ability to tug on our heartstrings and make us return to our memories.

In marketing, language and imagery that evokes nostalgia can provide consumers with feelings of comfort and security, and these emotions help to build relationships and trust.

Nostalgia Based on Cultural Moments

One form of nostalgia-based marketing focuses on cultural moments that a specific generation experienced and remembers. 

  • Baby Boomers might think back to memories of drive-in movies, Beatlemania, Howdy Doody, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and the moon landing.

  • Generation X might remember MTV, My So-Called Life, Madonna, mix tapes, Live Aid, Pac-Man, and Doc Martens.

  • Millennials may yearn for the days of the Spice Girls, inflatable furniture, platform shoes, Friends, choker necklaces, and sticker earrings.

While memories overlap, cultural moments define generations in ways that transcend their adolescence. That’s what makes them so powerful!

Cultural Nostalgia in Practice

In the 1990s, preteen and teen girls would yearn for the day the dELiA*s catalog arrived in the mail. The quirky girl-power brand exploded into a cultural phenomenon with its sassy lines of graphic tees, choker necklaces, and chunky sneakers that resonated with both rural and urban audiences alike. The brand reflected a certain carefree coolness that girls absolutely loved. dELiA*s eventually went out of business when the generation that grew up on the clothes eventually outgrew them.

In recent years, though, a resurgence of 90s trends have brought back the beloved styles millennials wore in their youth. Dolls Kill, a contemporary brand, struck up a licensing deal to bring dELiA*s back, and it was overwhelmingly successful. Media companies loved the story, and millennial readers felt the hype for the return of something they remembered fondly from their childhood.

The return of dELiA*s shows the power of nostalgia in commerce, how a clothing item can lead you to long for decades past. Not only did now-adult millennials buy into its return, but the brand became available for a whole new generation of shoppers eager to test the nostalgic trend.

When enacting marketing strategies and tactics based on nostalgia, it’s important that you have a crystal clear understanding of your buyer persona/s, and do your research on what transformative, cultural moments and trends were important during their lifetimes. Inauthenticity will most certainly be noticed.

Nostalgia Based on Universal Experiences

Another form of nostalgia-based marketing focuses on shared experiences that most people have encountered in their lifetimes. These are moments like the first day of school, or reading a bedtime story, or feeling fresh snowfall on your face at Christmastime. While the exact memories that individuals associate with these points in time will be distinct, they stem from shared moments that a large amount of people can relate to.

Experience-Based Nostalgia in Practice

Fragrance companies often rely on experience-based nostalgia to evoke emotion- and a purchase. The idea is that a scent can bring you back to a moment in time that you long for, and remember fondly. A fragrance might remind you of a person you loved, an amazing experience you had, your favorite season or place, or any moment in time that feels special.

Homesick Candles is one company in particular that relies heavily on nostalgia to build relationships with its customers. The brand first introduced candles inspired by US states and cities, touting itself as creating candles that “smell like home” - and now has entire collections specifically devoted to “memories” like Grandma’s Kitchen, Road Trip, and New Job.

The relationship between fragrance, emotion and nostalgia is quite strong, but brands in other categories can utilize shared experiences to build trust as well.

Tips for Building Nostalgia into Your Own Marketing Campaigns

Nostalgia can be a very powerful tool in your marketing campaigns, but only when it’s used effectively. Here are some tips for nostalgia-focused storytelling that your customers will actually respond to.

1. Be authentic.

First and foremost, try to view nostalgic-based marketing as an opportunity to connect with and delight your customers, rather than just a ploy for attention or sales. When it comes to campaigns that are based on shared experiences, your customers can absolutely tell when your approach is disingenuous.

2. Do your research.

Truly get to know your customers, and what makes them tick. If you’re trying to create products, experiences, or communications that they relate to, it’s important you deeply understand who you are working to reach. Think about what memories they care about, and then build out the ways your offerings relate to them.

3. Be strategic.

Don’t just hop on a nostalgia bandwagon because everyone else is doing it. Be intentional with your efforts, and only build nostalgia into your marketing strategies when and where it makes sense to.

4. Welcome conversation.

The most beautiful part of using nostalgia in your marketing efforts is its potential to unlock commentary from even your quietest customers. Memories get people talking, and as a business, this conversation can help you uncover a world of new ideas and insights about your audience. Pay attention to how your customers respond to your efforts, and use this new information to grow with every campaign!

Looking for ways to use nostalgia in your own efforts? The team at Doukas Media takes a relationship-based approach to marketing that drives tangible business results.


Rachael Doukas