Striking a Balance: How to Successfully Navigate Nostalgia Marketing

By Bryan Humphreys


Nostalgia-centric marketing has long been an effective strategy for connecting with consumers.  Why?  Because it embraces a brand’s rich, robust history while connecting a consumer with a lost but beloved time and place.


“Nostalgia is a powerful feeling; it can drown out anything.” --Director, Producer, Screenwriter Terrence Malick

Whether it’s the boredom of seemingly endless lockdowns, a lack of connection to the outside world, or a general desire to return to the “before” times, consumers are longing for an escape from the pandemic. They want to relive the excitement of physical retail experiences, reconnect with other people, and find comfort in an unstable world.  Nostalgia marketing is helping to scratch all these itches.

So why does nostalgia marketing strike such a chord with consumers?

It has a lot to do with how our brains are wired. According to neuroscience experts, the brain makes upwards to 200 decisions every second, evaluating negative, positive, and neutral emotions based on external and internal factors. Things that are familiar are often associated with positive emotions, such as trustworthiness and authenticity. This means brands and designs that can draw on their familiarity with consumers will perform better based on these positive associations.

But brands need to be smart about how they utilize nostalgia to avoid seeming old and stale or even worse, lacking relevance.  Balancing familiarity, stability, and comfort with the needs of modern consumers is key to the success of this strategy of marketing.  

Futuristic Vintage
From fashion to toys to home décor, consumers are fascinated by the idea of what things used to be like. And consequently, all things vintage have risen in popularity. What’s really striking a chord with consumers, however, is creating modern or even futuristic twists on vintage themes, products, or ideas by utilizing experiences and technologies.

For example, we recently helped General Mills relaunch the partnership with got milk?.  We reimagined two vintage ideas—a classic 1950s milkman and the 1990s got milk? milk mustache ad campaign—into an exciting, shareable experience suitable for modern audiences. Titled “The Cereal Man”, this campaign had an immense impact with metrics topping 46M impressions between TikTok and Instagram within the first two weeks of the campaign launch.

That’s the balance that must be struck with a futuristic vintage approach—drawing upon the nostalgia of iconic themes, characters, and campaigns of centuries past but updating it for 2022 audiences. Taking the design cues already in place from the vintage design, we can use modern mechanisms such as TikTok and influencer leveraged marketing to bridge that gap for Gen Z’s and Millennials looking for comfort in the familiar with a modern twist.

Generational Relevance
Speaking of bridging generational gaps, nostalgia leveraged marketing is an excellent strategy for bringing people of all ages together, a strong desire driven by the loneliness of the pandemic. Why does this work so well?  Because it draws upon the past for older consumers while the modern twist appeals to younger consumers interested in trendy, vintage experiences.  Brands that are able to effectively transcend generations and connect audiences in authentic and relatable ways will have success in telling a compelling story for their consumers.

For example, the fashion, hairstyles, food & drink from the 1990s have been on trend as Millennials long for childhood comforts.  However, Mintel has noted that “U.S. consumers aged 18-24 are least likely to show interest in things that remind them of their past. Yet Gen Zs are currently enthralled with the fashion and beauty of the 1990s. This suggests that there is an opportunity to draw on what feels nostalgic for one generation and make it feel entirely new to the next generation.”

There are several strategies for achieving this connection.  The first is to incorporate digital technologies into the brand experience to create interest across generations. Pizza Hut recently launched a “Newstalgia” campaign that celebrates all the things millennials love and associate with the brand (from Book It!® pins, classic arcade games, red cups and Tiffany-style lamps) and connects it to a retro PAC-MAN game, appealing to both Gen X and Millennials.  The modern twist on this partnership is a limited-edition PAC-MAN box, featuring an augmented reality version of the iconic game printed directly on the packaging that fans can play using their smartphones, appealing to the digitally native Gen Z.

Another strategy is to create fun experiences that are relevant across generations. The entertainment industry has been particularly adept at this, creating in-person Friends and The Office experiences that allow fans to immerse themselves into their favorite childhood shows while also engaging younger generations who are interested in the cultural phenomenon of an iconic television sitcom.

Streaming platforms have also jumped on this nostalgia trend, putting a new twist on old favorites.  From reboots of popular sitcoms such as Full House to a reimagined, dramatic retelling of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, streaming platforms are creating cross-generational content with roots in the past but told from a fresh, modern perspective suitable for today’s sensibilities. And as an added bonus, the cross-generational appeal has given families who are locked down together ways to connect through a modern take on nostalgia.

Finding Comfort
Part of the appeal of nostalgia for consumers is the ability to find comfort and joy in the familiar while facing challenging times.  Consumers are increasingly looking for brands that feel like a safe option, like a respite from what is going on in the outside world. And if you grew up eating a particular brand, you may feel more secure in your decision to purchase the same product for your children.

This has been especially true in the breakfast cereal category. Cereal advertising is some of the most iconic advertising in the U.S. across generations and is often immediately recognizable. There is a nostalgic appreciation of the packaging artwork, of remembering a time when we looked at the back of boxes for entertainment or in the box for a prize.

And new entrants into the cereal market are capitalizing on this trend of finding comfort in something old. Magic Spoon cereals are inspired by the flavors and nostalgia of sugar-loaded, Saturday-morning-cartoon cereals but upgraded for a health-conscious 21st-century consumer. They offer the comforts of childhood while remaining a healthy option for those looking for a quick breakfast.

Reinventing Classic Formats
Classic formats are also getting modern updates, but reinterpreting old formats requires a lot of creativity to offer something in a new way. Take the resurgence of vinyl. When a physical object goes digital, there is often desire for it to go back to its physical origin due to changing consumer behaviors. There is something very reassuring in the physical and demonstrates a desire for sensory improvements in a zero-touch, always-on, digital world. The simple act of reading the liner notes of a vinyl cover provides the tactile component missing from digital formats.

There is value in originality, so why do these reinventions, remakes, reboots, and retro campaigns work so well? It’s because experiences are a wonderful way of sharing something that is personally meaningful with a broader group—offering new connections that consumers feel they’ve been missing during the pandemic. Nostalgia is clearly a powerful marketing tactic—a way to tell better, more immersive brand story at a time when consumers are taking comfort in familiarity.



About Bryan Humphreys
Bryan Humphreys is a Group Client Director at SGK located in Portland, Or. Bryan has a passion and focus on helping brands create deep emotional connections with their consumers.