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A pitch for the past: how and why nostalgia marketing works

Brands have long plumbed the depths of nostalgia in their marketing to great effect. Does history continue to have a hold on the teched-up consumers of today and tomorrow, or has nostalgia had its day?

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“I think we were all struggling with a sense of identity for a long time. But SG50 was when Singapore really started manifesting its nostalgia.” Jian Yang, business director at the Strategic Public Relations Group. (Above) A lion mascot SG50 bag charm by German luxury label MCM

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Vinyl collectors checking out the array of old-school delights at Hear Records, formerly sited at Burlington Square.

SIX years ago, a Google startup launched a mobile game called Ingress. Leveraging on ground-breaking technology such as GPS location play and augmented reality, it enthralled users with an immersive gaming experience. By 2014, it peaked at 7 million users. While impressive, another game - based off Ingress and its underlying technologies - was soon to achieve numbers that eclipsed those.

That game's launch in 2016 saw a remarkably strange phenomenon descend over citizens young and old alike. Everywhere, they began hunting. In Taiwan, a man rigged his bicycle with 11 smartphones - all with the game running. In the US, teenagers with their eyes glued to their screens walked into furniture or even oncoming traffic.

Several governments - increasingly aware of the game's popularity and its ability to command undivided attention - were forced to issue safety warnings. And in Singapore, hundreds of people descended upon Yishun Park, staying till the wee hours of the morning in a united effort to do one thing: catch 'em all.

Same technology, similar styles of play. So what made Pokemon Go, which passed 800 million downloads this May and bumped Nintendo's share price by 86 per cent in its first week, do so much better than Ingress?

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Simply put, the game feeds off a heavy dose of millennial nostalgia.

As of July 2016, 46 per cent of people who downloaded Pokemon Go in the US were between the ages of 18 and 29 years, according to data compiled by SurveyMonkey Intelligence.

These young adults had spent countless lazy afternoons in front of their television set during the 90s, fantasising about one day becoming a Pokemon master.

And now, with one download, they could live out their childhood dream. Better yet - in their fellow players, they found a common identity stemming from a shared history.

Psychologist Clay Routledge, who has been studying the effects of nostalgia for over 10 years, told TIME magazine that Pokemon Go is "the perfect marriage" of nostalgia and new, exciting technology.

Nostalgia has long been a powerful tool in entertainment, branding and marketing. Coca-Cola did it, with its Share-it-forward campaign in 2015 that featured classic Coke glass bottles. IKEA South-east Asia did it too, when, in promoting its 2015 catalogue book, it rekindled the nostalgic love for a physical book.

"To start browsing, simply touch and drag. Notice something else? That's right, no lag," gushes a beaming IKEA employee. "Each crystal clear page loads instantaneously no matter how fast you scroll."

Why we're sold

So what makes nostalgia so effective? Nostalgia comes from the Greek words nostos, meaning "homecoming", and álgos, meaning "pain". It was first used in the 17th century to describe the anxiety suffered by Swiss mercenaries longing for their homeland.

In modern times, the word has evolved to characterise a deep yearning for the past - the happiness of remembrance and the ache of knowing those days are unreachable, in equal measure.

It works particularly well in marketing and advertising because of the emotional bond that consumers form with the product or service, as several research studies have shown.

Ogilvy's chief strategy officer for Asia, Benoit Wiesser, says nostalgia marketing works well when people feel that their best days are behind them and the future is bleak.

"It is done by tapping into a tension that people feel, and giving them a slice of the past to soothe them," he says.

In general, nostalgia marketing has seen more success in Western mature markets that are experiencing slower economic growth and higher unemployment. Asia, on the other hand, underwent a massive transformation in the past 20 years where people strove to better their lives.

"Brands connected with people by helping them move forward, rather than looking back at the 'good old days'," Mr Weisser points out.

But a new generation in Asia is emerging, driven by the children of families who have entered the middle class. Unburdened by the need to boost their standard of living, they seek quality of life in the form of reconnecting with their heritage.

"While the momentum is still going forward, they yearn to go back in time to rediscover timeless truths, beliefs and traditions," says Mr Weisser. He adds that for this reason, nostalgia marketing can work for this group of Asian consumers as well, albeit for slightly different reasons.

"For instance, many premium skincare brands today have used nostalgia by leveraging people's desire to look for traditional or "secret" ingredients from times before."

In Singapore, nostalgia marketing came out in full force in 2015.

"I think we were all struggling with a sense of identity for a long time," says Jian Yang, business director at the Strategic Public Relations Group (SPRG). "But SG50 was when Singapore really started manifesting its nostalgia."

A #growingupsingaporean hashtag began trending on Twitter on July 22. Locals gushed about everything childhood-related, from the Milo truck to country erasers to haw flakes.

Brands quickly hitched a ride on this wave of sentimentality. Tiger Beer put out its humorous 'Unofficial History of Singapore' video campaign, taking viewers back in time to an imagined narrative.

It answers some of the most important questions in our lives: Who invented chicken rice? Who created the Kallang Wave?

Iconic, yet shrouded in mystery.

Three years after SG50, marketing tactics with nostalgic elements are still popping up in Singapore. NTUC Income's Fear Less commercial last year used examples of childhood fearlessness - jumping off the top of a flight of stairs, catching spiders, swinging from trees and swimming in lakes - to promote financial planning.

United Overseas Bank (UOB) tapped into the spirit of wild youth from every era, to show that consumers from different generations are more similar than they thought.

Even the recent Hollywood film Crazy Rich Asians played Chinese oldies throughout the movie to evoke a nostalgic happiness, even though the movie was set in 2018.

Time for a #throwback

It's all good to know that nostalgia sells. But how can businesses use it to lure the biggest spenders of today - millennials? A report by Accenture revealed that Asian millennials, defined by the Pew Research Center as those born between 1981 and 1996, are estimated to have US$6 trillion in disposable income by 2020.

Millennials are delightfully tricky.

With social media in full swing, these group of consumers are some of the harshest and fastest critics the advertising industry has seen. And yet, as a generation that has experienced the most change, they are also more likely to hanker for the past - a phenomenon some have labelled 'early onset nostalgia'.

These young people present an unparalleled opportunity for marketers. The vast resources of the Internet give them an enormous range of experiences to tap, and great depths of nostalgia for brands to plumb.

In 1994, researchers Stacey Baker and Patricia Kennedy coined the term "stimulated nostalgia" to describe a kind of nostalgia provoked by a time prior to birth, and handed down via stories. This phenomenon has also been called "historical nostalgia".

Millennials in this day and age don't have to have been present at the Beatles' 1963 Royal Variety Performance, where John Lennon told the crowd: "For our last number, I'd like to ask your help. The people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you'd just rattle your jewellery."

These days, platforms like YouTube allow them to fall in love with the idea that they were there, witnessing the Beatle charm.

This taste for the past has also fuelled a revival in vinyl. Last year, vinyl sales in the US rose for the 12th consecutive year to a record-high 14.3 million albums. In the UK, sales shot up 27 per cent and in Canada, it lifted 22 per cent.

And it isn't just re-issues of classics that are all the hype. The top-selling vinyl album of 2017 in both the US and Canada was Ed Sheeran's Divide.

In Singapore, owners of record stores are seeing huge interest from young people. House of Turntables owner Kevin Pang says that five years ago, millennials made up about 30 per cent of his customer base. Today, they make up 70 per cent.

Nick Tan, owner of Hear Records, says it all boils down to the need for a physical anchor in this digital age.

"Besides an amazing sound quality, young people crave something real, and vinyl gives that. From searching for the record, to appreciating the album cover, to needing to place the vinyl on a turntable and later flip it over, every vinyl is a story.

"But do you remember the first song you downloaded?" he asks.

On No 57 Aliwal Street stands a coffee bar attached to a vintage lifestyle shop and a museum. Lou Peixin, who has vintage dresses from her online store Baju Mama Vintage on display in the lifestyle shop, says that she has seen more young people getting interested in apparel from past eras over the last two years.

Ms Lou, a 25-year-old singer-songwriter whose works are inspired by Golden Age jazz, says that the allure of the past is that it offers a better alternative to the present.

And, never having lived through it, young people do tend to romanticise the past.

Andy Wilson, head of strategy at BBDO Asia, says: "The yearning for stronger inter-personal and community connections, or for the prevailing values of family and humanity, the appreciation of craftsmanship, or of a life more profound and simple - these are desires that exist in all of us and that brands can be tap into through clever use of nostalgia."

He adds: "It is the 'lost ideals' that matter, not the era which is represented."

Hear Records' Mr Tan has noticed a common feature among millennials who walk into his shop for the first time. These youngsters aren't just drawn by the rose-tinted past.

"Vinyl is something new and exciting to them," says Mr Tan.

This potent blend of the "old" and the "new" is a crucial goal for marketers.

Daniel Heerkens, digital marketing strategy director at 2Stallions, gives his two cents' worth: "Don't copy and paste old trends from the past. It's always more effective to innovate an old trend to fit in with the present than merely bringing it back to life."

When photo-sharing app Instagram first launched, its user interface borrowed heavily from the instant camera concept. The Instagram logo mimicked an old-school Polaroid, and users could only upload photos in a square format - the shape of a Polaroid snap.

But what this technology gave users - that the Polaroid couldn't - was a real-time sharing of experiences that tore down geographical boundaries.

Local video publisher Our Grandfather Story (OGS) employs the same tactic of weaving modern relevance into the past. Since last year, OGS has told some timeless stories that originate from the 60s to the 80s, and thousands of millennials have nonetheless lapped them up.

"The medium we work on - micro documentaries - is a form that the digital audience is very used to consuming," says Ng Kai Yuan, one of the co-founders of OGS. "By packaging these unique narratives into short two to three minute video stories, we're able to capture their attention and bring quality content to their social feeds."

Nostalgia - ain't nothing but a mistake?

Still, some companies hesitate to invoke the past. Mr Yang of SPRG reveals: "There are brands which have told us as an advertising agency to stay away from nostalgia, because that nostalgia would reinforce its inability to move ahead."

This risk of stagnation is precisely why it is easier for brands of evergreen products and services such as insurance, banking and F&B to use nostalgia. These products transcend time, says marketing expert and author Jacky Tan.

So what about technology companies, with their futuristic branding? Can Singapore's booming tech scene benefit at all? It depends on who you're targeting, says Mr Tan.

Nostalgic marketing is less likely to work with innovative consumers, who are by nature forward-looking and always ready to buy the latest products.

But if the company is attempting to convince consumers who are late adopters of tech, then nostalgia can work very well. "Take for example, Grab puts up a nostalgic ad to compare the old days of hailing a cab to the modern days of calling a cab with Grab," says Mr Tan.

Another way that innovative companies might work nostalgia is through an established brand they can leverage on to rekindle consumer confidence. The verdict on that? Proceed with caution.

Sony reintroduced its iconic Walkman brand in 2015. The new US$1,200 Walkman, however, was a high resolution digital audio device unlike its predecessor, the portable cassette player released in 1979. While the new Walkman did made some headway in the audio device market, it never really took off next to Apple's iPod, nor did it succeed as a digital transplant of a beloved analogue product.

GoPro's relaunch of its original Hero action camera this year did not perform well either - for a different reason.

"Its first Hero action camera was launched in 2004, slightly less than 15 years ago… there is nothing much for these consumers to reminisce about the 2000s," says Mr Tan.

But when, in 2016, Nintendo rebooted its 1980s Nintendo Entertainment System video console in the form of the US$60 Nintendo Classic Mini, shipments sold out almost immediately. The Japanese giant had surprised itself with the clever use of nostalgia, concept and price point.

There is a far more subtle way that businesses sometimes deploy nostalgic elements in order to influence customer behaviour. This does not take the form of an outright product, but instead, involves discreet insertions of sensory stimuli.

Research on nostalgia by Prof Irene Huang of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) reveals that recalling a cherished experience that is unlikely to reoccur makes consumers more patient.

"Waiting time is negatively correlated with customer satisfaction," says Prof Huang. "Yet it is often required, whether a customer is waiting to be seated, or in today's digital age, waiting for web pages to be downloaded, or for a product to be delivered after an online purchase."

For example, a restaurant with a line of waiting customers might ease impatience by playing nostalgic music in the background, or including a long and loving description of an expensive item on its menu that involves, say, a 30-minute wait. Or supermarkets could likewise play nostalgic music to subtly persuade shoppers to linger in the aisles longer.

"When people have a feeling of nostalgia, they are motivated to savour the current experience and will stay longer in it," says Prof Huang.

So future-looking tech companies could strategically make use of the past, too.

Cybersecurity firms that have call centres might consider using popular oldies as their hold music to warp time perception and manage customer anxiety. E-commerce firms could include nostalgic design elements in some of their webpages if they take too long to load.

Back to the future

Consider the children of today, soon to be the spenders of tomorrow.

The classic Nokia phone never even existed for them. While millennials witnessed the turning point of the analogue age into the digital, these kids used smartphones in their strollers.

"Considering the digital age is going to grow faster than anything we knew in the analogue age, the rate at which things would become nostalgic in the first place would be much faster," says Mr Yang.

"The reality is that only recently we were telling our clients we had to penetrate the Snapchat platform because that's where the kids were. And then suddenly, we're all launching entire campaigns on Instastories, and my intern is saying 'no one uses Snapchat anymore'."

Does this mean that nostalgia will be lost on the consumers of the future - Gen Z?

It might be daunting for marketers, but Mr Tan suggests keeping this North Star in sight: the emotional link.

This key element of nostalgic marketing is the crucial factor that binds the consumers and the brand together, regardless of generation, he said.

In the first season finale of 60s period drama Mad Men, protagonist Don Draper pitches his advertising idea to Kodak executives who want to name their newest product - a photo slide projector - the Wheel.

Don, the agency's head of creative, tells the executives that technology is a glittering lure. "But there's the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product," he begins.

"Nostalgia. It's delicate, but potent."

In an almost dreamlike sequence, we see him project slide after slide of his family in happier, simpler times. "It's a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship. It's a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again," murmurs Don, eyes fixed on his family. He, too, can't completely escape the draw of the past.

"It's not called the Wheel. It's called a Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again...to a place where we know we are loved."

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