Nostalgia is a useful tool for brands to connect with people as they tap into the past to woo them over in the future. This was evident in one of the most buzzed about Summer TV shows - Stranger Things, an American sic-fi, supernatural horror series on Netflix, starring Winona Ryder as a mother whose 12 years old son goes missing in 1983. Along with his school friends, she launches an investigation into his disappearance which leads them to unravel government experiments, mysteries, supernatural forces and an unusual little girl.

The characters, costumes, props and set design in Stranger Things are all so '80’s, that it’s easy to forget this was made in 2015/2016. That it’s not just a great series, which somehow escaped your attention the first time around. All the sets are superb; comfortingly familiar schools, messy homes and weird labs. Little touches - the kids bikes, the make-you-smile hairdo’s, the colours and style of their jackets - are all spot on. 

Mine and many other people’s love for this new series can be traced down to a few things, chief among these is probably nostalgia. I was born in the 80’s, admittedly in the UK not the US, but it feels like the makers have captured a little something special of my era. 

But what does nostalgia mean exactly?

According to it’s a Greek work, meaning: "a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time." 

  1. A yearning for the return of past circumstances, events etc.
  2. The evocation of this emotion, as in a book, film etc.
  3. Longing for home or family; homesickness.

The origins of the word go back to 1770, when it was linked to "severe homesickness” which was considered a disease at the time. It's a blend of the Greek words nostos “homecoming" and altos “pain, grief, distress” which translates into the main modern meaning “a yearning for the past”, which was first recorded in 1920. 

Why do we need, perhaps even crave nostalgia?

One of the charms of nostalgia is the sense of escapism it provides, allowing audiences to loose themselves and immerse their present mind, into the past. Nostalgia can also help people make sense of the now, by having a greater appreciation and understanding for how we got to this point in time.

According to Gregory Carpenter, Professor of Marketing Strategy at the Kellogg School of Management: 
“People become especially nostalgic when they are anxious about the present and, especially, the future. The past is safe because it is completely predictable. Connecting with the past through familiar, loved brands transports people to another time by evoking the same feelings they experienced so long ago.

It works well for brands that have an authentic connection with the past, especially some powerful associations with it (e.g, the VW Beetle). It can work for brands without an authentic connection to the past if the brands can create that familiar feeling without. This is tricky but can be done. It is aspirational for some but at the same time nostalgic.”

Is this generation more susceptible to the charms of nostalgia? All the post-internet generations have endless choices of things to do, watch, listen to and read. Every generation is fascinated by those that have gone before them, this is played out in fashion for example, when there’s a return to a previous decades look. But fashion is no longer dictated by one or two key trends but rather many trends. Designers and labels are moving away from the spring/summer, autumn/winter fashion axis, to a more flexible rolling runway of new styles between seasons. 

So, if we’re not all consuming the same media anymore and conforming to the same fashion trends, each of our memories of the same era will likely be entirely different, as societies interests become increasingly fragmented. Sure there will be some people who are part of the same tribe as you, watched the same shows, read the same magazines, but you’re more likely to meet people who are into different things than you. This gives younger generations a more romantic view of the past, when there was a greater sense of being ‘in' a particular era and mass participation in a movement.  

New-look for the Co-op designed by North

New-look for the Co-op designed by North

How nostalgia can be used in branding and marketing

Nostalgia’s used in TV shows all the time and it’s an important element and feeling that can be used by designers when creating brands too. We’ve seen nostalgia used effectively recently in the rebrand of Co-op, when it made a return to an earlier ’60’s evolution of their image to guide today’s branding.

If you’re thinking about using it in your marketing: make sure your campaign focuses on the positive things we long for, simpler days and happier times, think about bringing back the old with a new angle and only use it if you have a brand with history, otherwise you will risk appearing inauthentic.  

When done well, nostalgia can help to create an affinity with a product, tell a story and evoke strong emotions. By rooting branding in heritage, giving it a background and place in the world, familiar touch points to relate to, you can show the origins of your company. All powerful techniques for increasing memorability and emotional pull towards the design, and in-turn your company. 

A word of warning: nostalgia is not always thought to be a good thing, some people have a love/hate tussle with it - and are more keen on looking forward, than remembering back. So, it’s worth thinking about your audience/s and which side they fall, if you’re considering making nostalgia part of your company’s brand identity.

Written by Charlee Sully, Brand Consultant, The Usual Studio
I work across design, ideas, strategy and content, writing about branding, design, innovation and entrepreneurship. I love sushi, tea's my cuppa of choice and BBC6 music's always on. Unlike a former housemate - I do find comedy funny.