Marketing Best Practices

The Psychology of Nostalgia and Content Creation

Meg Cannistra By Meg Cannistra April 5, 2016

The concept of nostalgia has always been of interest to me. Sometimes, I don’t understand it (who would be nostalgic for JNCO jeans?). But I’ve felt the yearning for a person or place from long ago and know how consuming that feeling can be. It takes very little for nostalgia to burrow into our minds and transport us back in time. A little girl reading one of your favorite childhood books; the lingering scent of gardenias that smells like your mom’s perfume; a soft, silk blouse similar to one your grandmother wore. All of these sensory cues can elicit emotional reactions that make us nostalgic for moments long since past.

Not only is nostalgia an inherent part of our daily lives, it’s also one of the key ingredients to creating content that impacts your audience. Today, nostalgia has become a much bigger marketing tactic with brands tapping into the sentimentality many younger consumers have for their favorite 90-00s shows, video games, and fashions. You only need to check out Buzzfeed’s front page to see nostalgia for Nickelodeon shows, terrible ‘00s fashion, and gross food from childhood.

There are many ways you can utilize nostalgia in your own content. Below are 3 examples of brands using nostalgia, as well as the psychology behind sentimentality.

Focus on Universalities

Originally considered a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause,” nostalgia is now seen as a healthy occurrence that happens in all humans to various degrees. Most people feel nostalgic weekly and according to The New York Times, “nearly half experience it three or four times a week.” Even children as young as 7 wax nostalgic about past events.

Another facet of nostalgia is its ability to make people feel more socially connected. This is why nostalgia has seen momentum among younger generations. Technology makes it easy to share your sentimentality with millions across the globe. Posting a photo of an Nintendo 64 or a fridge full of Surge can compel people to share their own memories about the subject. With a simple search on Facebook, I stumbled across a post with people reminiscing about Blockbuster. People love bonding over childhood experiences and, thanks to the internet, it’s never been easier to do so.

Brand Example: Penguin Mad Libs

In 2009, Penguin Young Readers brought the childhood favorite Mad Libs into the digital age with a Mad Libs app. The app was incredibly popular (with well over six million downloads since its release) and found even more success after a redesign in 2014 to incorporate 3 co-branded versions and social network integration.

Mad Libs

Francesco Sedita, president of Penguin Young Readers, spoke with Digiday about Mad Libs and the app’s the redesign: “I think that the Mad Libs story is a universal story….The DNA of the brand is so great that it makes you feel funny, but it also makes you feel young and innocent in a way.” After the relaunch, the Mad Libs app jumped to number 1 in the “general kids category” and number 15 in the “general U.S. entertainment category” in the App Store.

Because nostalgia is a commonality among everyone and a way for people to bond, it’s important to hone in on universal experiences to get maximum engagement from your audience. Penguin Young Readers has a plethora of older content they could have selected for a digital treatment, but because of Mad Libs’ universal appeal, it was a no-brainer for it to be given an update. Focusing on a topic that has a wide reach will help create a dialogue between your brand and audience, and make it more likely for your audience to share your content.

Create an Authentic Narrative

Nostalgia is a meaningful reaction to daily life. It’s a way for us to connect our current actions and thoughts to past experiences. Doing so is a means of reassurance. Because life is so uncertain, people tend to become nostalgic in times of confusion and sadness. Recalling how you worked through similar events in your past helps inform your present state.

An article in Psychology Today explores this phenomenon and how feeling nostalgic can actually make people more optimistic about the future. Cognitive scientist Art Markman explains, “When times are tough, it may seem as though things may never get better. By focusing on positive times from the past, though, people may help themselves to be more connected to others, which can give them the resources to be more optimistic about the future.”

Brand Example: Toyota, “Fueled by the Future”

When using nostalgia to create a connection with your audience, it’s important that your content is authentic. Research is key to successfully employing nostalgia. Your audience will quickly see through a half-assed attempt at winning them over. You also need to know the difference between which references can be revitalized for today and which should remain in the past (no one wants a reimagining of one of these offensive vintage ads). Ensuring you’ve selected a topic relevant to your brand and audience will help you create an impactful story that resonates.

As many Back to the Future fans may recall, Marty McFly and Doc Brown traveled from 1985 into the future—October 21, 2015 to be exact. Many people hosted Back to the Future parties to celebrate Marty and Doc’s arrival. Brands got in on the fun, too, tapping into people’s love for the movie to create engaging content for their audiences. Most companies knocked it out of the park, but my favorite is Toyota’s Fueled by the Future video, featuring Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox.

The video is a promotion for Toyota’s new hydrogen-fueled Mirai and makes a nice reference to the garbage-powered DeLorean from the second film. Toyota did their research and cared about creating an interesting video for their audience. In doing so, they succeeded in developing an authentic narrative that made me very nostalgic for the first time I saw Back to the Future. The video has also garnered over 5 million views on YouTube and a bunch of publicity for their new car.

Find the Right Balance

As mentioned, nostalgia often causes people to have a more optimistic outlook. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Southampton discovered that those who were more nostalgic had greater self-esteem and were generally happier than those who seldom felt nostalgia.

Dr. Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University confirms this belief, saying, “[Nostalgia] brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives.” It makes sense that so many people often fall back on past experiences when feeling sad or overwhelmed. Nostalgia for times that have passed actually make us more prepared to face our current state.

Though nostalgia is generally a good thing, there are studies that show it can sometimes be harmful. Researchers from the 70s and 80s believed nostalgia exacerbated a problem called self-discontinuity (the thought “I am no longer what I used to be”). Today, psychologists don’t think this is a typical response to nostalgia. But it’s still important to remember that reminiscing on negative past experiences, rather than ones that are more positive, is likely to have an ill-effect on one’s current state.

Brand Example: Subaru, First Car Story

If you want to elicit a deep emotional response from your audience, using nostalgia is a great way to do that. But it’s important to find a balance between creating a longing for a time long since past and making them truly sad. You don’t want your content to ruin someone’s day. That’s why it’s important to really understand who your audience is when creating a nostalgic piece of content. It’s also good to know which subjects to avoid all together (I’m sure no one is clamoring for a commercial about times of war or the Great Depression). You want to compel your audience to reminisce about a fond part of their past, not depress them over a loss they still feel bad about years later.

Subaru hits the nostalgia sweet spot with their First Car Story campaign, an interactive digital campaign that had users design an illustrated rendition of their first car and describe fond memories spent cruising around in it. The information gathered was then transformed into an animated video that explored users’ first cars and their memories.

Subaru was incredibly in-tune with making sure the campaign was an authentic multimedia experience for their users by creating “700 unique animations and 650 sound designs.” These elements were then triggered by keywords in users’ stories to create a highly personal video. Users were also able to share their stories with friends via social media. Subaru’s First Car Story campaign was a huge success for the brand: they had over 18,000 story submissions and 500,000 site visits.

The Bottom Line

Nostalgia is an excellent way to show your brand’s human side. But remember to construct an authentic narrative by making sure the reference you’re using has relevance to your company. It’s also important to choose your memories wisely to avoid triggering any sad feelings.


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