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Nostalgia in Marketing: A Journey Back to Simpler Times

In the fast-paced world of modernity, technology advances at the speed of thought and a significant portion of our social connections are virtual. Social media, while connecting us across vast distances, paradoxically contributes to a sense of detachment from the tangible world as we scroll from one bite-sized clip to another. And when we’re not on the tiny screens, chances are we’re bouncing between the bigger ones, with many of us working 9-5 on computers and enduring the everpresent 24-hour news cycles happening on TV. 


In our hyperconnected lives, isolation is a common feeling. There’s a collective yearning for the simplicity and authenticity of days gone by. (Even among those who never experienced them—just look at today’s youth, romanticizing the 1990s.) 


Nostalgia, that wistful emotion tied to memories (and ideas) of the past, interrupts our usual feed fodder, ads, and product aesthetics with a soothing balm: a comforting embrace that transports us to simpler times, when life moved at a slower pace, connection happened as a matter of fact in the course of our days, and relationships were cultivated more often face-to-face.


Brands clearly see (and capitalize on) the appeal. Just look at these examples: 


Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) Classic Mini, modeled after the exact system I played as a kid.

Nintendo Entertainment System Classic Mini

Free People is not only going with a very 90’s aesthetic in the way they’re merchandising their products this year, but they’re adding digital fade filters to photos that were no doubt shot in crisp clean light to make them look like they’re from another time. (Perhaps the era in which I was developing film in my basement?)


Free People 90's aesthetic

The Nerf Retro line exists, first of all. And secondly, celebrates its 30th anniversary with a temporary rerelease of its original blaster.


Nerf Retro

JNCO jeans are available for purchase again. (My god, the flashbacks I get from wearing those in wet Seattle weather.)


Image of person wearing JNCO jeans

And of course, for decades now, Coca Cola has been using nostalgia to make us feel something with every annual holiday ad. They knocked it out of the park again for 23.


Anyone can be santa coca cola ad

The vintage aesthetic of brand photography, certain product designs, and even packaging across industries of all kinds—it’s reminiscent of an era when craftsmanship and durability were paramount. It transports us to the simpler days of family dinners and homemade meals. 


These brands aren’t just selling products; they’re selling a narrative—a story that invites consumers to become part of a larger, shared experience. Through purchase, of course. 


Nostalgia, in this context, becomes a potent motivator for consumer action. The desire to reconnect with a romanticized past becomes entwined with the brand itself, inspiring not only emotional engagement but also a willingness to invest in the product. Consumers aren't just buying the product; they're buying an experience, one that promises something more real, more wholesome, more connected than anything else available in modern day.


For brands employing the mechanism in their marketing, maintaining a delicate balance is crucial. To be successful in a lasting way, they have to ensure their use of nostalgia is authentic and resonant rather than a surface-level marketing ploy. When done right, and with products that live up to the associated expectation, brands can foster a genuine connection that goes beyond transactions to create a community of loyal customers who share a collective appreciation for a more intentional way of life. And products that support that goal.


It would be easy to view the marriage of nostalgia and marketing as a cynical manipulation of sentiment for the simple, quick benefit of the brand. There are instances, of course, and I have my days! But the optimistic, still hopeful part of me views it instead as a sincere acknowledgment of the human need for connection and meaning, and a vote with our dollars to move to something more enduring, rooted, and kind. 


And for me, that kind of marketing is easy to get behind.


Are you thinking about incorporating elements of nostalgia into your next marketing campaign? Let’s chat about the ways it might work best for your brand. Let’s just promise each other to leave our rain-soaked JNCOs at home? 


Image of Karla Margeson, Managing Editor of Wheels Up Collective

Karla Margeson, Wheels Up Collective Head of Content and Managing Editor




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