Nostalgia marketing: The future is here

‘Kitne aadmi the?’ Few who grew up to Hindi cinema in the 1970s could ever forget Gabbar Singh’s iconic dialogue in Sholay. In 2016, the creators of a popular advertisement for Google India counted on just that. The six-minute ad, released on YouTube and titled ‘The Hero – A Bollywood Story’, centres around an ageing cinema hall manager who almost bagged a role in the hit film as a young man before being forced to give up on his promising dream of becoming a Bollywood ‘Hero’. Four decades later, his son takes him to the place where the memorable line was shot and the two engage in a poignant re-enactment of the scene. What follows is a nostalgic homage to other films of the last five decades, including more recent ones like Dil Chahta Hai and Rang De Basanti. The ad’s popularity was inevitable. Since its release, it has garnered almost seven million views on YouTube.

But Google has not been alone in riding the nostalgia wave over the past decade. More recently, 7UP and Onida have revived their Fido Dido and Devil mascots respectively from the 1980s and 1990s. The Jawa motorcycle, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, is back on Indian roads today, while yesteryear music hits and Ameen Sayani’s Geetmala radio shows have made a comeback through Saregama’s Carvaan. Internationally, too, brands like Microsoft, Apple, Walmart, Bacardi, and others have capitalised on our collective longing for simpler times. Retro is clearly back in style.

What makes nostalgia tick?

In his 2010 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman observes how as human beings, we consciously define ourselves through stories, shaping them around significant events in our lives. This explains why familiar senses can inspire a longing for a past that almost always appears simpler and fonder with time. Nostalgia was long thought to be a mental defect. But a growing body of research has shown that it can actually counter negative emotions like boredom, loneliness, and anxiety while enriching our lives with meaning. This is precisely what makes nostalgia such an effective marketing tool. A 2014 study published by the Journal of Consumer Research showed that it even encouraged consumers to spend more.

A keen understanding of the target audience and the cultural milieu of the past is fundamental to nostalgia marketing. Nostalgia, by definition, is contingent on maturity. Advertisers need a sizeable window of collective experience to tap into for their marketing to be effective. It makes little sense to use nostalgia to sell products or services to a 14-year-old. On the other hand, consumers in their prime spending years of 40 to 60 and older millennials (who acquired purchasing power more recently) provide a range of experiences for marketers.

Much of recent nostalgia marketing has evidently attempted to appeal to both older and younger consumers. A part of the strategy behind Google’s 2016 ad was that it contained references to films from two Indias – an older socialist India and a modern post-liberalisation India, thus appealing to cohorts that grew up in both. Onida offers another telling example. In the 1980s, when television was establishing a nascent presence in Indian middle-class homes, the brand launched its iconic Devil mascot. The Devil remained Onida’s mascot for two decades before the company wrapped it up. When it was resurrected in 2018, it was clearly meant to evoke the memories of those who knew the brand three decades earlier.

We have also seen marketing specifically targeted at older millennials, who also came of age at a relatively simpler and more stable time. In 2013, Microsoft released an advertisement targeted at American millennials for Internet Explorer that drew heavily on the shared childhood experiences of the average American who grew up in the 1990s. Five years later, Parle-G, an 80-year-old brand consumed by children and grandparents alike, launched a campaign that drew on familiar memories that Indian millennials associate with the popular

Manufacturing nostalgia

In 1888, Kodak released its first commercially successful camera, marking the beginning of mass-scale technologically aided nostalgia. Today, social media and smartphone technology provide the means to create and distribute content, and with it the ability to effectively manufacture nostalgia. It only takes a smartphone equipped with a good camera, the right editing app, and internet access to create and drive powerful content. Social media is replete with listicles curated to trigger nostalgia by evoking past pop culture fads. But consider how any content that sparked such a trend on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram first began as a single post on one profile before going viral.

Recent marketing has effectively capitalised on the nostalgia enabled by such platforms. In 2016, the much-adored painter Bob Ross, best known for the 1980s US television series The Joy of Painting, experienced a resurgent popularity, two decades following his death, after the classic show was picked up by Netflix. He soon became a trending topic on Instagram and drew the attention of Adobe, which released a series of tutorial videos to promote their Adobe Photoshop Sketch that paid homage to the late artist.

Modern technology has reduced the spontaneity that once characterised nostalgia. There are currently over four billion people with Internet access, more than five billion mobile phone owners, and above three billion social media users across the world. Ironically, rising technological adoption and disruption is inspiring and aiding a retreat towards simpler times. Since memories can now be triggered at the tap of a screen, nostalgia is more accessible than ever before. A powerful emotion, it is a perennial marketing tool. It would be interesting to see what becomes of this trend in the decade ahead as technology matures and a generation of digital natives approaches its prime spending years.