Troy Allen is the founder and CEO of Rise Brands. He’s an expert in branding, design and strategy.
It’s incredible how simple things can spark childhood memories and take you back to a familiar place in time. Not sure what I mean? Try holding a No. 2 pencil under your nose.
For me, one whiff of a freshly sharpened writing utensil instantly teleports me back to my middle school days in Ohio. There’s me in the back row, young and easily distracted, drawing David Lee Roth’s Eat ’Em and Smile album cover in one of my textbooks. Ah, memories.
Chances are, that same smell will have a strong effect on you, too. The excitement and wonder you knew as a kid will come rushing back. And you’ll want to stay there a while. What I’m describing is the power of nostalgia. Memories, especially those brought on by engaging your senses, can be a potent force. They grab ahold of you and resonate at a very personal level.
And if you’re in a business that sells products or services, this concept could be your new best friend—think of it like a Care Bear with a dollar sign on its tummy.
Past Perfect: The Psychology Of Nostalgia
Few things are as emotionally gripping as an experience driven by nostalgia. That’s not speculation. It’s science. In studies, when researchers induce memories through sensory experiences (think: sights, sounds, smells, etc.), the effects prove both powerful and positive.
In one set of experiments, a group of random participants listened to a playlist of old songs they all liked. The result? Subjects reported a greater sense of social connectedness and a big boost in self-esteem. But most notably, they left feeling more optimistic than when they arrived.
That last point represents a major discovery. It means scientists can not only link nostalgic experiences to happy moments in our past but also, as study co-author Tim Wildschut put it, “Nostalgia does have the capacity to facilitate perceptions of a more positive future.”
If nostalgia-driven experiences can get us to reminisce fondly about yesterday while also making us feel better about tomorrow, then why isn’t every company soaking their customers in a warm bubble bath of pleasant memories?
According to Clay Routledge, who has studied the psychology of nostalgia for 20 years, “I’ve heard business analysts and leaders argue that, although nostalgia may help some companies sell a range of products, it’s ultimately bad for business and the economy.”
In other words, CEOs and CMOs worry that tying their brand to the past will make people think they’re rusty, dusty and out of touch. I find that these misperceptions aren’t just wrong, they are costing businesses a lot of money in missed marketing opportunities and lost brand loyalty.
Cash Register, Meet Nostalgia
For a decade now, I’ve focused on turning nostalgia into a profitable business called Rise Brands. Back in 2013, while serving as CEO of a different brand strategy firm, I was beyond frustrated with my clients. In need of a healthy distraction, I devoted time to developing and building a retro “barcade” concept that blended my favorite childhood memories and my adult interests. The result was an immersive brand experience that surrounds patrons with everything awesome from the ’80s and ’90s.
Since then, I’ve seen firsthand how brand experiences that are anchored in nostalgia give people a sense of comfort and confidence. And as they take in sights and sounds that feel so familiar, they feel free and inspired to create new memories.
Ultimately, nostalgia is a source of happiness for many. And happiness makes us want to share our experiences with those we love. There, in the depths of our pleasant memories and human connections, lies the branding power of nostalgia.
Like Yesterday: The Next Generation Of Nostalgia
Alright, so perhaps your company can’t launch an immersive entertainment experience like ours, decked out with a floor to ceiling Lite-Brite. Don’t let that deter you.
Dozens of companies are finding ways to capitalize on nostalgia. Sony recently brought back the Walkman. And, in a tweet, McDonald’s elicited thousands of responses with the words “bring back _____.” Even Atari, a brand known for its ’80s arcade classics, has launched an NFT.
Whether you work for a traditional brick-and-mortar retailer or a young digital startup, you can profit big-time by reminding people about the joys of being a kid again. To get you started, here are three tips for tapping into nostalgic experiences.
First, research your audience. Find out what eras they connect with and why. For example, Gen Z (born after 1997) has revived several Y2K trends because many long for a simpler, pre-social-media existence. And while boomers enjoy harkening back to the defining experiences of their youth (the ’50s and ’60s), many have an even softer spot for the moments they shared with their kids (in the ’70s and ’80s).
Second, connect new ideas with old feelings. Remember, nostalgia is all about tapping into positive, familiar concepts from the past. If your brand has an interesting origin story from decades ago, customers may find comfort in reconnecting with it. But if your company has a more recent history, brainstorm ways to associate your brand’s unique features and benefits with the kinds of old-school feelings your customers cherish.
Finally, don’t ignore the details. When capturing the spirit and sentiment of yesterday, pay close attention to the particulars. Make sure your fonts, colors, expressions and images are all era-appropriate. With nostalgia marketing, accuracy is authenticity. The people you’re trying to reach will notice even the smallest oversight.
As a nation, we’re slowly emerging from one of the most nostalgic years in recent memory. In 2022, Top Gun topped the box office and Kate Bush had the hit song of the summer with “Running Up That Hill” from the series Stanger Things. Hello, 1980s! Inspirational nostalgia surrounds us every day. If you remove your 3D glasses and take a look around, your brand and bottom line will think you’re totally tubular for noticing.
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