3 Ways to Evoke Nostalgia in Your Content Marketing

There was a time when I could just be a knight on Halloween.

I have a fond memory of an early Halloween costume: a brave, nameless knight in shiny, hand-stitched armor. I was thrust into the ding-dong crusade with a papier-mâché sword and a Magic Marker mustache. The costume’s simplicity was only outdone by its willful obscurity. Who am I supposed to be? I’m supposed to be counting my candy by now!


Today, distressed for a clever Halloween getup, I long for that once simple approach to the celebration. This, my friends, is nostalgia. Deriving its name from a Greek compound meaning “painful yearning to return home,” nostalgia is a bittersweet emotion. The feeling you get from hearing an old song or seeing a photo of your favorite vacation spot can at once whisk you away to the past and help reinvigorate your passion for the present.

Triggering nostalgia as a means of influencing engagement is a powerful marketing tactic, but a memorable campaign does more than just hint at yesteryear. Here are a few strategies to help mature your nostalgia content plan.

Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads

These days, the 1985 blockbuster “Back to the Future” is an inescapable source for nostalgia marketing. The time-hopping movie and its sequel serve as reflecting pools for three, maybe four generations of consumers. Toyota, most notably, reunites the film’s actors to check in on technology predicted in the fictional 2015. Hover boards? Well, no. However, an equally surprising development in the real 2015, at least for marketers, is our collective expansion of cultural memory.

Remember when Marty McFly travels back to the ’50s and plays “Johnny B. Goode” at the high school dance? He introduces the song by saying, “This is an oldie where I come from.” But today, songs from 30 years ago don’t quite feel like oldies. Writer Chuck Klosterman suggests the Internet has helped dramatically shrink the gap between historical events and broaden our common frame of reference.

What’s this mean for content marketing? Because broad cultural memory now extends far beyond lived experience, campaigns can more easily evoke nostalgia across multiple audience segments. Millennials are connecting memories to campaigns based on “Back to the Future” and “Star Wars,” movie franchises that came out before they were born. The same can be said of music. A 2012 study from Cornell University and the University of California, Santa Cruz found 20-year-old college students similarly attached to popular music from the early 1980s as they are to music from the early 2000s.

Now in 2015, with our beefed-up cultural memory, what is the nostalgia sweet spot? Going back 20 years is a good start, says Marlene Morris Towns, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. So take yourself back to 1995. Where was your brand? Where was your core audience? What connections between those findings can you draw?

In 2013, Microsoft asked these questions and came back with its “Child of the 90s” commercial to celebrate the 20th birthday of Internet Explorer. It starts by saying, “You might not remember us, but we met in the 90s.” Then the video reminisces of toys (Tamagotchis!) and games (Oregon Trail!) that were popular during a millennial childhood. It ends with, “You grew up; so did we,” inviting users to reconnect with the browser.

Microsoft succeeded in unearthing obscure relics from the past that actually feel like “oldies.” We’re so inundated with nostalgia bait, obvious cultural cues won’t strike a chord anymore. But the distinct buzzing of a Tamagotchi in your pocket instead of a phone is a clever reminder of how far we’ve come.

Practice The Three R’s

“Remember Bop It?”

The local comedian shakes his head and his audience gives a knowing chuckle, as if to say, “That was a wacky thing.” At the comedy club down the street, this is the cheapest laugh in the game. A more compelling way to evoke nostalgia, however, is to share a fresh version of the shared memory. Here are some tips on how to do so, using the Three R’s we learned in grade school.

Reduce. Share old photos related to your brand on social media using the Throwback Thursday hashtag #tbt. Again, ideally you want to take your audience back 20 years, but images from three years ago should be the minimum. And don’t water down the strategy with posts on #FlashBackFriday and #WayBackWednesday as well. Limit nostalgic social posts to once a week.

Reuse. Borrow elements from a memorable design or campaign and incorporate them into a new project. Herbal Essences recently relaunched a popular ’90s line, complete with original packaging and a famously evocative television spot. That quarter, the nostalgic launch helped the line of hair products raise its brand affinity score by 27 percent.

Recycle. Put a new spin on a familiar memory. A common way to go about this is to pair romantic, relatable imagery with a cover of a classic song. Apple’s 2013 commercial “Misunderstood” captures a busy, holiday family gathering, set to Cat Power’s moving rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas.”

Draw From a Nostalgic Repository

Do you know that feeling nostalgic can actually make you warmer physically?

In 2012, Chinese researchers investigated the perceived effects of temperature on nostalgic feelings across five tests. They found that people in a cold room were more likely to be nostalgic than those in a warm room, and that over the course of a month, nostalgia was more common on cold days.

It is at least conceivable, therefore, that your mind recruits favorable memories to maintain physiological comfort. The warmth we experience through revisiting the past is half of the bittersweet nostalgia formula. But what if we paused the daydream before we compared it to the present? What if we just appreciated the benefit of having once been a homespun knight?

Maintaining nostalgia for a psychological lift is a research strategy of Dr. Constantine Sedikides called “nostalgic repository.” Rather than define nostalgia as comparing the past with the present, he focuses on the past as a means of defining life checkpoints. He argues this to be a healthier version of nostalgia for, say, people in nursing homes or prison inmates.

Marketers designing nostalgic triggers should consider accessing the kind of events one can’t compare. Milestones like weddings, graduations, first kisses, first jobs and first homes are common pillars to revisit. Then, search for avenues within those events to tie to your brand.

Tens, a six-person, Scottish sunglasses company, hitched a recent ad to the memory of summer break. Designed as a 1980s infomercial, and shot on an old-school VHS camera, the video transports you to an endless California beach party. Tens sunglass lenses are designed to make everything feel nostalgic ­—like wearing an Instagram filter—and this ad speaks directly to that brand identity.

Remember: The most powerful form of nostalgia is one derived from a moment, a place or a person. These are memories that can counteract loneliness and anxiety and boost self-esteem. For this reason, Humphrey Bogart once found comfort in saying, “We’ll always have Paris.” It’s a memory you can’t take, but you can certainly give back.

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