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Spice up your brand with the power of 90s nostalgia

09 Dec 2019  |  Helen Rose 
Spice up your brand with the power of 90s nostalgia

the7stars’ head of insight and analytics, Helen Rose, explores the appeal of looking back and how it can provide a direct line for brands to connect with consumers

Smitten with the Spice Girls? Obsessed with Oasis? Fanatical about Friends? If the answer is yes, you’re in good company. Research we conducted with YouGov into the power of nostalgia in marketing, revealed that the 1990s is the decade most likely to be remembered fondly, with 61% of Brits overall taking a positive view of this decade, and millennials particularly in favour.

Beyond the headline figures, we found that individual consumers tend to look back most keenly to the decade of their adolescence. It’s no coincidence that millennials - born between 1981 and 1996 - are so keen on the 1990s as for many, this decade represents their coming of age. Britpop, Girl Power, a Labour Landslide - it's a heady mix, particularly when viewed through the filter of memory.

So, what are the do’s and don’ts for advertisers wanting to tap into 90s nostalgia?

1. Mindset matters more than age

Although actual memory is often a key trigger, advertisers shouldn’t underestimate the power of 'fauxstalgia' – where people feel nostalgic for a time they didn't actually live through. For example, six per cent of people we surveyed were positive about the 1990s even though they were too young to actually remember them. Netflix is one brand with keen understanding of fauxstalgia: from Friends to Stranger Things, it serves a diet of heavily retro series to millennials who make up one of its biggest target markets.

What this means for advertisers is that nostalgia can be an effective marketing technique for audiences young and old: when harnessing 90s nostalgia, the audience is likely to include Gen X, Millennials and even Gen Z.

2. Understand nostalgia’s feel good factor

Whether 'true' nostalgia or a fantasy projection, looking back is often invoked by those who are feeling alone or worried. Our research found those in the lower socio-economic bracket, who aren't homeowners are the keenest ‘nostalgics’.

Looking back offers these consumers a way of accessing better times, even if they didn’t experience them directly. For anyone struggling with finding hope in the current socio-political context, the 90's arguably represents a happier time.

Back then, twenty-somethings were perhaps more bothered about creating their first email account and wondering whether Ross would get back with Rachel, than the more doom-laden concerns of today's millennials. How can brands bridge the gap between the 90s and the future, to reassure consumers - and millennials in particular - that brighter days are ahead?

3. Seasonal triggers are very effective

Seasonality is a powerful trigger for nostalgia with 46% of our respondents “strongly agreeing” that they think more fondly of the past at certain times of the year. Coca-Cola, not inherently a Christmas brand, has been successfully pulling the nostalgia trigger with its “Holidays are Coming” trucks ads for over 20 years. The campaign, which has run since 1995, creates clear annual peaks in its advertising awareness over the Christmas period.

What does this mean for brands? Seasonal triggers help consumers remember and can be a powerful vehicle. Brits get wistful at other times beside Christmas whether it’s Back to School, or key holidays and celebrations.

For example, GWR’s “Five go on a Great Western Adventure” campaign uses Enid Blyton’s Famous Five characters to channel nostalgia and a sense of adventure around old fashioned British Summer Holidays.

Whether it’s Cool Britannia, the launch of PlayStation or Tamagotchi, there is plenty of scope for brands seeking to link seasonality with 90s nostalgia.

4. Rhythm is the answer

Remember Liam Gallagher's fondness for The Beatles despite being born in 1972? Well, fauxstalgic Liam was onto something. When we asked our survey participants how connections are made with the past, music emerged as the number one cultural association across all decades ahead of fashion, TV or even tech.

What does this mean for advertisers? Music can be the emotional connective tissue between generations: those who lived in a specific time and place and those who wish they did. Whether it’s Blur, Oasis, Spice Girls or Take That, with the right choice of 90s soundtrack, brands have a powerful tool for engaging and appealing to a broad, mainstream audience.

5. Don’t overdo it

Executed with style, nostalgic advertising can appeal to even the most sceptical consumers, but it has to be used with caution. Ads that feel like they are being too obvious in over-egging nostalgia, or just tangential to the brand, can generate a backlash.

Older audiences may react adversely to historical inaccuracies or attempts to sugar-coat periods of history - for example, 90s Britpop may have been the epitome of cool, but you could argue its ‘lad culture’ associations feel increasingly out of place in light of today’s #MeToo movement. Younger audiences will pick up on a badly judged nostalgia campaign and savage it with memes in the way that Pepsi marketers lived to regret when they attempted to link their brand with the history of American Civil Rights.

Whether it’s nostalgia or fauxstalgia, advertisers must take care to treat consumers’ memories of our shared history with respect. That means only making a commercially-motivated link if it genuinely enhances the narrative rather than just rides on it.

Our research shows that nostalgia clearly has traction with the British public. From Pokemon to Britpop, brands wishing to tap into wider cultural, social or technological trends of the 90s have access to a wealth of nostalgic themes, that, done in the right way, will engage consumers and influence purchasing decisions.

We believe by treading carefully, marketers have much to offer by harking back to the 90s, 80s or whichever decade their target market deems “the good old days.”

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05 Aug 2020 

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