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Cowbells, Whoppers and Super Grover: the power of a good throwback

February 11, 2021 • Corrie Commisso

Remember the good old days? Live concerts, drinks with friends, haircuts, traveling, just … being around people in general?

It hasn’t been quite a full year since COVID-19 sent the world into quarantine, but it already feels like that B.C. (Before COVID) world was another lifetime. If you find yourself waxing nostalgic and wishing things would just go back to the way they were, you’re in good company.

There’s a legit psychological phenomenon behind the rise in nostalgia during times of stress and difficulty. The word was first coined by a Swiss medical student in 1688 by combining two Greek words: “nostos” (homecoming) and “algos” (pain). He observed Swiss mercenaries exhibiting an obsessive longing for home that coincided with insomnia, depression and anxiety in the field. In keeping with the historical time period, he assumed this “nostalgia” was a byproduct of demonic possession. Swiss scientists later suggested that it was, in fact, the constant clanging of cowbells in the Alps causing brain damage.

The scientific and medical communities have come a long way since 1688. Today, we know that nostalgia isn’t a mental illness or a brain malfunction: It’s a coping mechanism. Recent studies show that conjuring up memories of happier times reduces your body’s stress-related cortisol levels, relieves depression and counteracts boredom. Nostalgia can literally make you feel warmer on a cold day, so bring on the memories of Mom’s homemade chicken soup.

It’s no surprise, then, that our current global health pandemic has spurred a serious wave of nostalgia. People are trading sourdough starter recipes like black market gold. Declining drive-in movie theaters are cashing in on their 1950s vibe (and the social distancing they can manage better than screening rooms). In one study examining how COVID-19 has affected entertainment choices, more than 50% of consumers said they found comfort in revisiting the TV shows and music they loved when they were younger. Two words, fellow 1980s kids: Cobra Kai!

But our current state of nostalgia is more than just a trend. It’s a powerful tool that brands can use to create deeper emotional connections with their customers and consumers. Putting a fresh spin on old, familiar concepts helps build trust for new ideas and directions, and some of the most iconic companies have already tapped into the consumer craving for throwbacks. Burberry’s 2020 “Singin’ in the Rain” ad was inspired by the history of the brand’s founder inventing a type of weatherproof clothing.

Burger King’s rebrand featured a throwback to the 1960s.

The Home of the Whopper — Burger King — recently announced its first rebrand in 20 years, drawing heavily on its iconic 1960s identity while giving it a modern update. And if you watched the 2021 Super Bowl, you will have noticed that advertisers bet big on nostalgia in their spots this year. Budweiser brought back a whole slew of its ad characters from decades past. Cadillac revived Edward Scissorhands. DoorDash took a nostalgic stroll down Sesame Street. Even Scotts Miracle-Gro got in on the action with John Travolta reprising his famous dance moves from “Grease.”

At a moment in time when consumers are feeling anything but warm and fuzzy, conjuring up happy feelings in your marketing can go a long way toward cementing positive associations with your brand or organization. The good news is that you don’t have to have a hundred years of history behind you to do it—but there are steps you can take to do it well.

Dig into your own story first.

Dig into your company’s story using our StoryARC™ methodology

Even brands and organizations that are relatively new have a history. Float ideas that hark back to your founding story, showcase how you’ve changed and evolved, or remind customers what they first loved about you. More established brands have an even deeper well to draw from. The key is to understand your own story first so you can find the right cultural nostalgia to help bring it to life.

Make authentic connections.

Once you know your own story, it’s easier to join nostalgic musings with your brand values. The key word here is authentic. There are plenty of examples of nostalgia marketing that failed because the connection between the brand story and the throwback felt either gimmicky or inappropriate. For example, a brand that values empowering women today would be wise to think carefully about reviving the 1950s, a time when women’s roles were less evolved and more gendered.

Be sensitive about what’s aged well and what hasn’t.

Queue up just about any old movie, and it won’t take long for you to cringe over a one-liner or storyline that feels completely out of place in today’s #metoo, #blm world. Before signing on wholesale to a nostalgic direction, make sure it doesn’t alienate or offend audiences.

Revisit the past—but don’t get stuck in the past.

A trip down memory lane is meant to be just that: a trip. And the thing about trips is that they end. Nostalgia isn’t meant to be a long-term marketing strategy—it’s a tool you can use in strategic moments. And even then, the past should point to your current and future trajectory. Ovaltine is one example of a brand that got stuck in the past. For (too) many years, Ovaltine drew on the nostalgia of its product as a sleep-time aid, even when consumers and competitors had shifted to focus on the energy boost provided by the vitamins and minerals that similar powdered products provided. By the time Ovaltine shifted its strategy, in the minds of consumers, it was already too deeply entrenched with “old” to make the leap to “new.”

Like any approach to building consumer relationships and trust, successfully tapping into the past as a means of powering the present requires insight and understanding, plus a finger on the pulse of popular culture. But done right, nostalgia can be a big brand boost.

So here’s to groovy tunes, favorite characters, feel-good moments and the opportunity for Throwback Thursday to move your brand forward.

History Factory Plugged In · Ep. 30: The Pull of the Past with Professor Kristyne Batcho

 

Need help defining or understanding your corporate story? History Factory is the expert on bringing brand history to life. Don’t hesitate to contact us—we’d be happy to help.

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