Why nostalgia matters in marketing

You can’t get away from nostalgic images in branding, marketing and advertising these days – from retro-look fashion items such as Fila sportswear to Spotify's Listen Like You Used To campaign – but why is this? Professor Marie-Cécile Cervellon, marketing specialist from the EDHEC business school, answers questions about the power of nostalgia in marketing today.

Why is nostalgia constantly being used as a source of inspiration and creativity?

Nostalgia is a powerful sentimental emotional state, it drives sensations and emotions associated with positive memories from eras that one lived or not. One might be part of the youngest generation, generation Z, and fantasise regarding the 50’s or 60’s, have the illusion of a golden age in the past. Fantasies are a powerful source of inspiration and creativity. And emotions are a powerful way to sell products and services… What is interesting with nostalgia is that it is socially, psychologically and demographically indiscriminate; nostalgic feelings might affect all age groups, all genders and all personality types. It is very effective in bonding individuals, in creating links between generations. Nowadays, across products category, brands build on their heritage, their history, to reinvent themselves in continuity.

When did the trend begin?

We could refer to painters like Jacques-Louis David from the 18th century who did find inspiration in ancient Greece or Roma. Nostalgia has been a source of inspiration for centuries. Yet, commercially speaking, regarding the consumer trend, we could date retro or newstalgia to the end of the 90’s, the end of the last millennium, at a time when we were facing with the passage to the 2000, much uncertainties, the computer bug at midnight of the year 2000 for instance. The passage to the next millennium was a time to look back, review the achievements of the millennium and retain the good memories. The Volskwagen New Beetle was born in 1997. What is astonishing is the longevity of this retro-trend that gets bigger and bolder every year.

What keeps the trend going?

We could talk about the aging of the population and the wish of transmitting the good and beautiful from the seniors to the youngest. Yet, the trend in fashion, in spirits, is embraced, undertaken by the youngest generations. They are the source of the revival of Fila or Champion sportswear for instance. Hence, there are other reasons for this success.

First of all, the younger generations face such uncertainties, economically and politically that looking at periods of prosperity when pensions were secure, and jobs were for life, is a source of escapism of the reality of the present. The environmental consciousness that is raising is also an element of explanation. The past is fantasied, with agriculture being perceived as more locally-grown and less industrialised. Technology is another element of response. Thanks to the existence of online archives that are instantly, readily and, for the most part, freely available. The past has never been so present.

But one of the strongest, if not the strongest driver of this retro trend is the quest of authenticity, finding meaning in consumption, that characterises the youngest generations. Retro objects and experiences have a story and the sensuous markers to get in touch with one’s cultural, social and family heritage.

How and why is nostalgia now seen as being beneficial and providing a means of criticising the present?

We might have the feeling that looking back and moving on is an oxymoron. The reality of this trend is that it forces us to take the time to reconsider the present, because our present is the nostalgia of tomorrow, and we want no regret. When we see the environmental concern and mobilization among the youth, in order to build a brighter future for the next generations, we understand that there is a continuity between the past, the present and the future.

It is beneficial because the retro trend forces us to value the savoir-faire of our ancestors. From fast fashion and fast food, we move to slow fashion and slow food, with the latest scientific advances complementing traditional techniques that are revived. It is also beneficial because the second-hand market, fuelled with vintage products, forces us to reconsider the value of our purchases, durability becoming one of those characteristics that becomes important in many countries.

What are the characteristics of today’s nostalgia?

The characteristics of today’s nostalgia are, first, its ubiquity; it is present everywhere in the world and it pervades a vast number of industries. The second characteristic is that it is a collective and not an individual feeling, which provides a sense of community; people are able to reassemble around a passion for instance, for certain eras, certain brands. Social media is isolating people than bringing them together. And the last characteristic is that it is resistant. It means that although it is a trend, that helps people be “in fashion”, it is also a manner to resist conformity. It proposes options to express one’s identity, in reference to a fantasised past.

Written by professor Marie-Cécile Cervellon, marketing specialist from the EDHEC business school and co-author of Revolutionary Nostalgia: Retromania, Neo-Burlesque, and Consumer Culture (written with S Brown, University of Ulster).