A coping mechanism. A popular marketing technique. An act that makes you feel like you’re celebrating and like you’re mourning at the same time. Oversimplified, nostalgia is the sentimental yearning for things and times that have passed.
Whether you’re making a film, writing a song, designing a product or setting up your next marketing campaign, evoking nostalgia can guarantee gold.
For this article, we’ll be sticking primarily to marketing. Marketers often try to evoke nostalgia by creating content that features positive, familiar concepts from previous decades. By using icons from the past, marketers motivate people to associate a business with something that they already love and have fond memories of.
But why do we get nostalgic?
Do you remember the Lira? Do you remember the walkman and the portable CD players? Or perhaps playing with marbles (il-boċċi) and ‘passju’ or watching Top Gun, Herbie, Die Hard and the Ghostbusters and the yearly tradition of watching Home Alone as soon as the first tunes of Mariah Carey get aired? And for the slightly older… how you tried to mix tapes to impress a date and smoke candy cigarettes to be cool?
Nostalgia can be triggered by any explicit reminders of the past. It can happen when you walk by a neighbourhood you used to frequent in your childhood, when you encounter a person from your past, a photograph, a song, a smell, a game – anything we meet that shares similarities with things in our past has the potential to make us feel nostalgic. Nostalgic memories triggered by reminders may not be accessible without those reminders, but someone can also feel nostalgic without the need of explicit reminders.
In 1688, Johannes Hofer created the term ‘Nostalgia’ to refer to the growing number of young people enrolled in the army, specifically Swiss mercenaries, who were consumed by an ongoing desire to return home. Incapable of sleeping and despondent, these soldiers became ineffective and, in numerous cases, even suicidal. Not only was it seen as a serious condition, but nostalgia was also thought to be a potentially fatal disease.
Nostalgia is not just a spontaneous trip down memory lane. Nostalgia is a resource. When we’re feeling down or distressed, nostalgia becomes an essential, stabilising psychological tool. Compelling evidence has shown that dopamine, the feel-good chemical in the brain, is released when we feel nostalgic. Not only does remembering the past make people in duress feel a little happier, the act of remembering a happier past makes it easier to imagine a happier future.
Still, not everything that is old is gold.
See, to experience nostalgia, people don’t just go back and recruit random memories of driving to work or paying taxes. They think about the special times. Successive studies seem to agree: a sense of true stability and security, achievements, and deepening relationships are characteristics common to the majority of the memories that evoke nostalgia.
All questions relating to nostalgia also orbit around a common theme – our identity. We like to think we know who “we” are, but things get fuzzy quickly the moment you take a closer look. This is because everyone is, quite literally, constantly changing. On a biological level, our body changes every day. Go deeper, and you’ll find that we replace every atom that makes up our bodies every 5 years. On a macroscopic level, we change friends and we change the places we frequent. We also change our tastes, beliefs and everything else about us.
We get good days and bad days, and sometimes something happens and completely uproots and alters how we live.
And like most things, even nostalgia must be enjoyed in moderation. It doesn’t take much for nostalgia to become a cycle of negativity. But in general, times that generate nostalgia help us form one coherent, positive continuous identity. Nostalgia, seen this way, becomes the act of anchoring ourselves to the moments in our lives that make us feel safe, happy, successful or loved – moments that give us meaning.
How can nostalgia power up your marketing efforts?
We live in Malta, which is basically an open-air museum in the Mediterranean. There’s no shortage of elements that can evoke nostalgia in Malta: From our traditional wooden balconies to our old busses, from our old architecture to our colourful boats, Malta is teeming with elements that occupied a far greater role in our past. But in a context so saturated with nostalgic elements, meaningfully evoking nostalgia as a brand can get difficult. Below, we suggest some tactics that can be leveraged to evoke nostalgia without relying on the obvious and overdone.
Study your industry’s history.
Whichever product or service you offer, we’re going to bet it belongs to an industry with a long history. Insurance started in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC, the first car appeared in 1885, the first ever cellular phone call was made in 1973. You don’t have to go back 5000 years, but by studying (and sharing) the history of your product, you’ll be able to identify ways to rewind your audience’s memory that are relevant and meaningful to your brand.
Note that personal memories aren’t the exclusive source of nostalgia, humans can feel nostalgic for items and practices that belong to a time before they were even born. Those quaint houses, the car-free streets, the dresses, the more peaceful time, the slower pace of life. In this case, nostalgia gives us meaning and identity by letting us know what we’re missing, and what we’d like to get back from the past – even if that past isn’t our own.
Learn more about your audience.
Finding out the average age of your audience can equip you with essential information on what iconography and experiences they’ll resonate with. If you want to appeal to multiple age groups, then divide and conquer by focusing on elements that appeal to a specific age group, but this is not the only way to go about this.
In 2013, games from Malta’s yesteryears were chosen as the theme for Bank of Valletta’s calendar for 2013. Two years before, the bank’s calendar focused on old Maltese trades. In both cases, the calendars attracted tremendous interest. Not everyone may remember playing the games featured in the calendar, but they’re part of our shared history – and as we asserted in the point above – that still carries meaning.
Study your own story.
Utilising experiences that are nostalgic to you personally as a founder enables your audiences to gain real insight into your identity, and by association, the identity of your brand. When people buy from you, they’re not just supporting your business. They’re supporting you too. They’re helping you succeed. People don’t just want to know about your business, they want to know what you’re about. Sharing meaningful memories from your past gives your audience a great opportunity to understand your identity – who you are.
Things aren’t the only source of nostalgia: people are too. Creatives, artists, singers, sculptors, dancers and actors can help your business bring nostalgic iconography to life in a powerful way. We love what Carisma are doing with traditional Maltese motifs in their jewellery and accessories. We also loved it when Mvintage collaborated with Mary Rose Mallia to produce a music video introducing their new collection of Maltese feasts-inspired jewellery. Although any of our senses are capable of inducing nostalgia, it seems like hearing music or smelling something familiar are the two most powerful triggers.
Share your business’ story.
One of our favourite examples of a business using their own story to evoke nostalgia is Air Malta’s 40th-anniversary campaign. In 2014, Air Malta celebrated its 40th anniversary with the arrival of an aircraft freshly repainted with the airline’s original 1970s livery.
Sharing important moments and achievements with the public enables you to refer back to them in the future. Sharing and then reflecting on a rebrand can emphasise the value of your old brand while highlighting how you’re modernising for the future.
If your business is new, then keeping the future in mind becomes essential. So document events and actions that affect your business – both achievements and difficulties. In the future you will thank yourself. Likewise, developing organizational social rituals and traditions can help create memories that become a source of nostalgia in the future.
Remember what’s important:
Done excessively and carelessly, using nostalgia may just depress your recipients or worse – your recipients may think that you’re just being manipulative and respond negatively. But done conscientiously under the direction of professionals who are informed and responsible, nostalgia can forge connections both within your organisation and between your brand and your audience that last a lifetime.
If you’d like to find out how your brand can leverage nostalgia, let us know.