Nostalgia: Embracing the power of “rosy retrospection”
Last week our CMO, Sarah Shilling sat down with a couple of Walnut UNLIMITED’s lab-coated boffins – Dr Andy Myers and Dr Cristina Balanzo, leaders of our neuroscience practice – to talk about the psychological basis for nostalgia and what it means for brands. Here’s a brief summary of the key points but, if you’d like to listen in to the full and fascinating discussion, click here and subscribe to our Unthinkable Marketing podcast series.
Nostalgia’s not what it used to be……
There’s not really any way of getting away from it: #2020 sucked. And, so far, 2021 is not much better.
When the here and now is unremittingly bleak people can either look forward, with hope and optimism, to a time when things will be better; or, they can look back to a time when, in their minds at least, things were better.
Right now, one of these routes is closed off to us: the future is shrouded in mystery about when we’ll get back to normal and whether that normal will be the old version or a new one. Little wonder then that nostalgia is having such a moment, or that its 2021 incarnation is subtly different from the nostalgia of old. Our COVID nostalgia has a hint of desperation about it.
The warm glow of the glory days
Nostalgia is a powerful higher order emotion. Some trigger, perhaps something that is seemingly quite insignificant – the smell of a crayon, for example, creates associations in our brain that can spiral almost out of control, bringing up childhood memories and the complex feelings associated with them – being at a specific time or place, being with a specific person and the feelings of happiness, of security that we felt at the time. Such triggers can also be consciously created – for example, when we chat to old friends about the good old days or watch an old TV show – and this is where nostalgia starts to get interesting as a territory within which brands can operate. We’ll come back to this later.
What’s key is that nostalgia can create a positive mood reset, enabling someone to move from a negative emotional state into a positive psychological state by triggering the reward centres of the brain.
“From a biological point of view, you could argue that nostalgia is actually a kind of protective mechanism against the damaging effects of negative psychological states.”
Dr Andy Myers, Walnut UNLIMITED
It is also important to recognise how nostalgia differs from other emotional states. Primary emotions such as fear, happiness, anger, are automatic in terms of their reaction, we don’t have to employ higher cognitive functions in order to act on them. Whereas nostalgia is complex, it’s a very high order emotion, it typically requires us to appraise information, more conscious memory retrieval and the involvement of the reward system.
This means that is not only a temporary mood enhancer, but it can also be a more long-term emotional benefit. It can, for example increase our social connectedness, give us an excuse to reach out, reconnect with people, enhance our own feelings of worth.
But, of course, it’s not quite as simple as that.
The bittersweet (and complex) symphony
Even before the word nostalgia was even coined, the concept was associated with melancholy. People recognised that remembering the past evoked feelings of wistfulness for a time now lost. More recently, our concept of nostalgia has evolved. Now, while we recognise its darker side, we also celebrate its power to create positive emotions, to enhance our wellbeing and to create powerful forces of connection to those with whom we have a shared past.
Thinking about the past (too much) has potential downsides. Firstly, it can make us sad, by throwing into sharp relief how much better things used to be, and the better life we think we used to have.
Secondly, nostalgia can be addictive. The triggering of the brain’s reward systems releases dopamines – our feelgood nostalgia hit. We like dopamine. We want more of it. And the dopamine rush has been linked with addiction. Even without such alarmist connotations, there’s no denying that in taking us back to a cosier, easier past, nostalgia risks taking our eyes away from the present. Nothing wrong in that – in moderation. But wallowing in and living in the past certainly doesn’t represent a useful, long-term strategy for coping with the present and creating the future. Hence the warning to tread carefully.
And thirdly, it can be misleading. It is well accepted by psychologists that our nostalgic view of the past is an idealised one, rather than a truly accurate one – put simply we tend to remember the best things of our past (academics call this Rosy Retrospection) and memories associated with negative emotions tend to be forgotten more quickly than those associated with positive emotions (Fading Affect Bias).
This means that brands looking to leverage nostalgia in their messaging must tread carefully.
With great power comes great responsibility
Should brands use nostalgia as a tool for engagement with consumers? If so, which brands are best suited to do so? And how should they go about it?
“Nostalgia is creative way to provide strategic leverage for your brand. It can be particularly effective when you can own it authentically and, moreover, where your brand has a genuine role to play in the story.”
Dr Cristina Balanzo, Walnut UNLIMITED
Whether or not to use nostalgia is something of a moot point, as the list of those adopting this tactic grows longer week by week. Here are just a few examples of how it is being leveraged:
- Burger King’s recent rebrand “takes the brand back to when it looked its best” (link)
- Hovis reused its iconic Ridley Scott “Boy on a bike” ad from 1973 (link)
- Halifax’s use of Top Cat and the Flintstones lifts the bank to the top of the likeability ratings (link)
- Spanish brand Campofrio’s Christmas ad leveraged nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s (link)
- Tourism Australia’s: Dundee – The Son of a legend returns home (link) secured a Titanium Lion at Cannes
But, just as nostalgia itself has a dual nature, so too does nostalgia-based advertising: Firstly, consumers see through brands that use nostalgia just for the sake of it.
Secondly, past incarnations of a brand or message may not be appropriate for the present. The recent news of the Sex and the City reboot has been heavily criticised in some quarters for asking audiences to be nostalgic for a time whose attitudes towards equality, sexuality and gender politics now jar with modern thinking (link).
And, thirdly, nostalgia probably works best for established heritage brands, who have a nostalgia of their own and a credible reason for encouraging their consumers back into the past. That’s not to say that it can’t work for challenger brands but the New Kids on the brands Block (pun intended!) do have to work harder to ensure that nostalgia is the right approach for them.
How to play the nostalgia card
Psychology theory tells us that all kinds of sensory input can provoke nostalgia. The role of smell and taste in memory is well known (remember that scene in Ratatouille?) but, since all senses are inter-linked in the brain in any case, it is probably best to think of nostalgia as working cross-modally.
There are triggers you can use though. For example, the recent upsurge in home deliveries has put pressure on brands to invest more in the handover moment (link) as a key piece of engagement theatrics but there’s also a case to be made for adding more sensory input into the unboxing itself. Add the right smells (or sounds, or sights) into what’s inside the box and you can potentially create a strong experience that blends both the present and the nostalgic past.
While the here and now remains difficult and the future uncertain, you can be sure that nostalgia isn’t going away. Think best how to leverage this vital tool in the modern marketing armoury, otherwise you too might be consigned to history.
This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at UNLIMITED.