By Sally Chase

What do fanny packs, Stranger Things, and Geico’s He-Man campaign have in common? All three are hugely successful products that tap into a phenomenon called “nostalgia marketing.”

Nostalgia marketing is likely already on your radar if you are tuned into business trends. An evergreen practice, it is perennially fresh and viable. More seasoned business people may recognize past examples of nostalgia marketing in 1980’s products like The Wonder Years and “The Summer of ‘69.” The success of this strategy is amplified by times of political or economic uncertainty; however, 2018’s vitriolic political discourse and stock market swings contribute to the lure of bygone times. If you are hoping to jump on the nostalgia bandwagon, now would be an excellent time.

What is nostalgia marketing, anyway?

Marketing is the art of communicating the value of your product. Emotion often plays a large role in consumer marketing. People gravitate towards goods and services that promise happiness, beauty, love, admiration, comfort, excitement, and success. Think of shampoo commercials that depict thick, flawless tresses and legions of attractive suitors. Or consider automobile advertisements that fill each scene with the markers of material wealth and luxury. Techniques like these are selling you on a feeling as much as a product. Similarly, nostalgia marketing capitalizes on basic human drives by fueling our need for peace, security and belonging.

Nostalgia can be described as a feeling of melancholic longing for bygone times. The term is from the Greek words for “homecoming” and “pain.” Mature generations tend to idealize their formative years as simpler, kinder and calmer. Sometimes there is truth to these recollections. Life is typically simpler and less stressful before one enters the competitive working world, or taking on family responsibilities and endures great losses. One’s emotions are also most intense during the teenage years, which makes for lasting, powerful memories. Other times, nostalgia is fueled by our tendency to view the past through rosy glasses or judge the grass greener elsewhere. (The irony, of course, is that in a few years’ time, today’s youth will feel nostalgic for the present decade.)

Nostalgia marketing interests younger generations for different reasons. Some have admiration for the way their parents or aging cultural icons grew up. Others are drawn to the products’ unique, original feel. Retro goods appear novel to them, appealing to them as vintage and cool.

Many major consumer brands have tapped into nostalgia in some form or fashion. Consider Coca-Cola’s retro glass bottles, Old Navy’s Backstreet Boys adverts, and BuzzFeed’s never ending stream of 90’s product reviews. These large and successful brands aren’t foolish; nostalgia marketing works. According to the Journal of Consumer Research, buyers are more likely to be liberal with their hard earned savings if an item channels their warm feelings about the good old days.

How can you make nostalgia marketing work for your business?

If you are geared up to utilize this trend for your small business, the first step is to identify your target demographic. How old is your ideal consumer base, what is their gender, where do they live, and what are their interests? Gathering this data will enable you to calculate what constitutes the “good old days” for your target audience. It will also help you to determine what trends were happening during your customers’ glory days. Were the good times 10 years ago? 20? 40, or more? The good old days generally correspond to one’s formative years, or from ages 10 to 20. After computing the correct decade, with a little research, you can discover what your product resembled that number of years ago, and what other fads were popping.

At this point in your planning, you are faced with several options. Nostalgia marketing can take a number of forms. The main option is between bringing back classic products and reimagining current products. If you choose to reimagine a current product, nostalgia can be incorporated into your product’s design, functionality, or packaging. It can also shape your advertisements, your store experience, or some combination of the above. Remember, the goal is to capture or re-create the warm fuzzy feelings of your market’s heyday (or to reimagine your product in a way that is novel and hip in the eyes of young consumers.)

For example, if you are marketing camping gear to millennial women, look back through the catalogues from the 90s. (Side note: the millennial consumer is prime real estate now.) What features and designs were popular when these women were going on family camping trips? What else was big in the 90s? Some examples include fads like boy bands, 70’s comeback fashion, Disney princess movies, and Bill Nye the Science Guy.

If you want to put in a little extra legwork, you can find a gamified way to poll your customers on their favorite childhood experiences. Your poll could take the form of an interactive quiz game in the checkout line, or a playful follow up survey emailed to recent customers. This tactic will provide you with more precise information on your clientele, and it has the added benefit of investing them in your product design process. As always, be sure to be aware of relevant intellectual property law lines.

Once you have identified your target demographic and researched formative year fads, it is time to get creative! You probably won’t want to break the bank for major campaigns like Bill Nye endorsements or Cinderella imagery licensing. Your nostalgia marketing might instead make use of features like tie dye fabrics or Tarzan (a public domain character) packaging. Fear not if you don’t have the budget for these initiatives either. Your nostalgia strategy can be as simple as choosing the right genre of music to pipe through your store, or painting a wistful slogan on your display windows.

After following these steps, all that is left to do is to track your return on investment and pat yourself on the back for nurturing your customers’ fondest memories. If you are having second thoughts about leveraging people’s cherished experiences for profit, consider the positive side effects of nostalgia. Research tells us that nostalgia reduces anxiety and loneliness, and increases tolerance and generosity. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.