#TBT: The Art of Nostalgia Marketing

With the growth of mindless consumerism and increasing uncertainty about the future, many consumers are looking to the past for more meaningful purchases. Research by the University of Southhampton has shown that, as we grow older, nostalgia gives our lives a sense of meaning and continuity. Collecting old records, dressing in vintage clothes, or playing our childhood video games can take us back to happier, simpler times. It’s no surprise, then, that nostalgic groups sharing collective memories and old pop references from the past have multiplied on social media. And, unsurprisingly, the hashtag #TBT (throwback Thursday) is one of the most used hashtags (with over 500M related posts on Instagram).

Related Read: Global Tribes: A New Way to Connect with Your Audience

So, how can brands market to nostalgic consumers? 

Throwback Feelings

Nostalgic consumers associate objects or references from the past with fond memories, often from their childhood or youth. The past has a comforting effect on nostalgic consumers, who will choose a particular product because it takes them back to a specific moment in time. Products are a gateway to the past, and thus are given a new emotional dimension. 

A good example of this kind of nostalgic marketing is Nintendo’s release of a mini version of their NES. The NES classic model might not be a perfect throwback to the original Nintendo, but its design very much borrows from the original NES, taking players back to their first gamer experience. Ralph Lauren’s September 2019 campaign is another example of a clever throwback campaign, as it features models posing in the iconic settings of the classic 90s’ sitcom, Friends (see below). 


Nostalgia can be quite paradoxical, in that you don’t have to have lived in a specific time to experience longing towards it. This feeling, coined as “fauxstalgia”, is a growing sentiment, especially among the younger generations (millennials and Gen Z). For brands, fauxstalgia is a way of connecting with both younger generations that fantasise about times before they were born and older generations that reminisce about the past. 

Fauxstalgia is often fed by representations of the past in popular culture. Take the Netflix series Stranger Things. Its 80s inspired setting is full of references to 80s films and retro props. While Gen X and older viewers can relate the show to the memories of their youth, the series has captured the attention of all generations, including those born after the 80s.

Brands have jumped onto the Stranger Things fauxstalgia phenomenon; in 2019 Netflix signed promotional agreements with 75 brands for the release of the third season. H&M stocked replicas of the garments worn by characters on-screen. Baskin-Robbins introduced flavours based on the scoops sold at the show’s Scoops Ahoy ice-cream parlour, while Burger King and Polaroid released upside down Whoppers and cameras (see below).

Related Read: From Laptops to Lattes: How Big Brands Create Cult Followings

Isn’t It Ironic?

In the past few years, nostalgia has become a recurring theme in the mainstream culture, with the big 90s comeback, followed by a 70s revival and a more recent 80s trend. Vintage fashion and online platforms like eBay have made it easier to access objects or products from the past, thus developing nostalgic consumerism. 

Of course, there is a level of irony to the recent nostalgia trend. Younger millennials and Gen Zs seem to have absorbed a wider range of cultural references, re-appropriating these 

references with creativity. They may intentionally dress in full 80s gear, or listen to niche 90s R&B, not because they find the style particularly elegant or actually enjoy that music, but rather as an ironic nod to that time. Their style is not set in stone either; they will playfully mix and match different eras and references, as a way to express their individuality. 

Depop, the clothes selling app, are a brand who understand the playfulness associated with ironic-nostalgia. Their Don’t Stay Still 2018 campaign video was shot with a 90s grain and featured creative individuals wearing a mash-up 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s inspired outfits as they moved through their day. 

Nostalgia Works

Nostalgia marketing allows brands to connect with their audiences on an emotional level. Thankfully, there are many different ways in which brands can use nostalgia marketing; they can draw on aesthetic elements from the past and old cultural references, or they can go full retro by relaunching limited editions of old products, or adopting icons from the past.  

Nostalgia marketing is especially successful with brands that have a long history and can therefore play-up their retro dimension to prompt a nostalgic reaction in their current and new audiences. This explains how a few iconic brands from the 90s which went out of fashion, Kangol, Ellesse, Fila and Kappa for example, have re-emerged with the recent 90s comeback. According to CNBC, Fila sales increased by 205% between 2016 and 2018.¹

But a brand doesn’t need to be decades old to profit from nostalgia marketing. The key is for brands to connect with their audience’s experience of the past. Recently, Spotify’s Nostalgia campaign was a huge success as it appealed to both nostalgic adults looking back at cultural references from their youth, as well as younger, ironic-nostalgics. The team behind the Spotify campaign skillfully played with language to evoke times past; comparing expressions and references from the past to expressions and trends of today (see below).

Key Messaging for Nostalgia Campaigns:

  • We allow you to reconnect with your childhood memories
  • We help you express yourself through past styles
  • We let you escape the present day

If you enjoyed this article on engaging nostalgic audiences, download our latest guide –
You Are What You Buy: Marketing to Global Tribes. It’s packed full of marketing insights, including how to resonate with global communities, like fandoms and gamers. 


¹ Shirley Tay, ‘How a ’90s nostalgia trend powered the comeback of two century-old sports brands’, CNBC

Eleonore Maudet
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