Getting nostalgic about nostalgia

Human Branding's Johanna Faigelman looks at why millennials are seeking comfort in "better times" of recent past.

By Johanna Faigelman

What is nostalgia? The most basic definition is: one’s sentimental longing for the past. Interestingly, nostalgia has gone from a serious medical condition to a tool for savvy marketers in just a couple of short centuries. (Check out the recent examples here and here.)

In the 17th century the Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer coined the term nostalgia from the Greek words nostos and algos to describe the pain resulting from the desire to return to one’s home. For several centuries this term was used to describe a medical condition linked to an “unhealthy” attachment or “longing for” one’s home (better known as homesickness). Fun fact – there are more than 5,200 cases of recorded deaths from nostalgia in the U.S. Surgeon General’s records (many from soldiers pining for home, and mom’s apple pie, during the Civil War).

By the 20th century, nostalgia stopped being considered a “legitimate” illness but continued to carry similar associations and be viewed in a mostly negative light. Feeling nostalgic for the past was seen to be in direct opposition to a progress loving modern culture.

How times have changed. In the 21st century, we appear to have become a culture of veritable “nostalgia addicts.” There is evidence of this everywhere from the Mad Men craze to the latest Lego movie, to the newest Chevy advertising.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than millennials’ current obsession with the ’90s. Yes, there have certainly been many generations that have demonstrated nostalgia for a time period gone by – take the boomers who after having had kids and settling down into middle age often look wistfully back at seminal events like Woodstock and the sexual revolution, not to mention the music of the Beatles. Certainly marketers and the entertainment industry took notice and showered them with movies (like The Big Chill) and advertising campaigns that borrowed cues from those times gone by.

What is remarkable about millennials’ ’90s obsession is how little time has actually passed since the ’90s.

Millennials, despite being the most populous group since the boomers, have not (to date) had the same opportunities as their parents’ generation. They were brought up being told they could do anything and accomplish great things but have not been able to see that through. They have had many obstacles thrown in their path from the global recession, to 9/11 to the lack of employment due to preceding generations significantly delaying retirement.

This can be seen strikingly in the fact that one out of every eight millennials in the U.S. has moved back in with their parents. So these millennials living in their parents’ basements, like the optimistic creatures they are, are not wallowing in self-pity, rather they are taking themselves to their version of a “happy place” and that “happy place” is their childhoods – whether real or often imagined. This phenomenon is a new form of nostalgia, a “newstalgia” for a recent past — that in many cases never actually existed — where things were simpler, choices were fewer and technology was in its infancy.

Evidence of “newstalgia”-fueled desire to return to this “happy place” is everywhere.

On social media, there is the immensely popular post theme “Throwback Thursdays” (#tbt) with people posting photos on sites like Instagram, Twitter or Facebook that are from their past – the more hilarious the better. To date there have been over 40 million pictures tagged with #tbt on Instagram.

This ’90s obsession has, in some cases, become very focused on specific movies, toys and other “cultural artifacts.” A case in point is how the revamped version of My Little Pony has flown off the shelves in recent years (not to mention spawning the Brony movement… a very niche but interesting manifestation of millennials’ fascination with all things ’90s) and that TV shows like Beavis and Butt-Head have been resurrected by MTV. In short, millennials are looking for positive and fun reinforcements right now and these nostalgic blips are quick and easy ways to do this.

Marketers who leveraged this “newstalgia” desire amongst millennials have had tremendous impact.

Old Navy wanted to reach women between the ages of 25 to 35 and tapped into ’90s nostalgia, leveraging  pop culture icons (the cast from Beverly Hills 90210, the Backstreet Boys, etc.) to create fun commercials channelling the fun spirit of that decade and connected it to jeans, flip-flops and other Old Navy Classics products to great success.

When Microsoft launched its new version of Internet Explorer (which historically had been unpopular with millennial users), it engaged its young audience by building their trust through memories of Pogs, virtual pets and Walkmans. Their tagline was simple and to the point: “You grew up. So did we.” Microsoft’s nostalgic marketing campaign was a slam dunk and its brand power index rose 18% because of it.

Here’s an idea to try out at your next meeting when you are trying to figure out a meaningful way to connect with your millennial consumer target: instead of thinking of them as the “gods of social media” or “narcissistic Instagram selfie-takers,” harken back to how those Civil War soldiers felt when they were on the battlefield pining for mom’s apple pie. Then think of today’s millennial living with mom and dad, sending out resumes and waiting for the day they will start to change the world. Wouldn’t a little Mario 64 set to the tune of an old Hansen song do them good right now? Just think of what taking them to that “happy place” can do for your brand.

johannaJohanna Faigelman is the founder and president of Human Branding, an applied anthropology research consultancy that provides strategic branding direction to Fortune 500 companies around the world.

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