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The Permanent Power of Retro Marketing

by Taja Dockendorf on 04/12/2022 | 5 Minute Read

If 2020 found you cocooned on the couch with a bowl of grain-free, vegan mac and cheese in your lap while watching the early seasons of Schitt’s Creek for the 4th time, you weren't alone. Nothing inspires a dive back into the familiar quicker than when the present goes to hell. And even as the world holds its breath and hopes for some form of normalcy to return, many of the behaviors we adopted to weather the past two years may be here to stay. 

Nostalgia marketing is one of them. 

Our turbulent world has certainly put creative agencies on the path to the past before. As a recent Forbes article notes, nostalgia played a crucial role in marketing campaigns run after 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008. What's more, it's fair to assume many of those initiatives achieved the sales they were designed to inspire. Forbes cites research from the Journal of Consumer Marketing that found “invoking nostalgia led people to be more likely to go shopping and spend." 

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For marketers, the past can be the silver lining that the next crisis cloud brings when it rolls in again. 

Why We Buy Into the Past 

The past's pull on us, however, goes deeper than compelling us to switch the channel between dark days and sunnier times. A 2018 study of "Finding Meaning in Nostalgia" in the Review of General Psychology notes that "nostalgia acts as a buffer against existential threats." Specifically, it's a safeguard against our own death anxiety. 

The global pandemic would likely qualify as a stimulus for worry over those kinds of perils. The links between the worry caused by these "existential threats" and the nostalgia that can "buffer" their effects can be verified by their statistical tracks. A recent Nielsen-powered study on the impact of Covid-19 in the entertainment industry found that more than half of consumers looked to television and music of the past for comfort.

As noted in Psychology Today, this kind of "retro-themed entertainment feeds into our tendency to reflect on the positive events that shaped our sense of who we are now." That propensity gets fueled by a phenomenon called "the reminiscence bump," an increase in the ability to remember events between the ages of 15 and 30, but to also apply that sharpened recall more exclusively to the happier memories of those times. Recent research on PsyPost deems the reminiscence bump a cross-cultural phenomenon that may make it incredibly potent for today’s Gen Z audience. Those in that demographic who took part in the research survey reported higher levels of stress and decreased satisfaction than their elder Millennial and Gen X counterparts—younger Millennials and Gen Z'ers may be especially receptive to campaigns that call up the past. 

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Feeding the Hunger for Yesterday's Take on Brands 

A recent USC study pointed to two critical factors in inspiring nostalgic thinking that may help explain why the boom in retro marketing has been potent among food-based brands. It found that people felt more nostalgic when with family and friends or while eating than they did at work or school. The study posited that family, friends, and food might serve as "retrieval cues." These are the potent prompts found within our daily environment that possess the power to trigger memories. 

The results of an Ad Age-Harris survey suggest that some of the biggest food brands are aware of this nostalgic link between what we eat and what we feel. For example, survey data from Burger King and McDonald's shows "that (both brands') new packaging calls up nostalgia for some consumers and resonates especially with consumers in their 30s and 40s, who may draw connections between the retro-looking packaging and their childhood." 

Other food brands are in on their audience's appetite for the past. Eater roundup of "Fast Food’s Retro Glow-up" throws an old-fashioned spotlight on recent campaigns by Pizza Hut, Doritos, KFC, and Yuengling beer. 

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Bringing Nostalgia Home 

Over the past few years, we at Pulp+Wire have taken a deep dive into nostalgic branding by harnessing this retro magic for some of our favorite brands. The 70s "peace-and-love" vibe we helped channel for Grandy Oats keeps these "real granolas" connected to the crunchy ethos earned by a company committed to creating natural foods long before that mass-appropriated phrase lost its meaning. And though the swirling designs shaped for Suck on This packaging emulated the twisting pulls that produce these delicious saltwater taffies, the free-flowing forms create a slightly psychedelic spin appropriate to this classic treat as well. And our 70s-themed product launches for brands like RIND Snacks remind us of a simple, healthier time that seemed easier, more honest, and familiar. 

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Sometimes we dive even deeper to harness the past's power. Though art-nouveau was born well over a century ago, The Washington Post notes that trend forecasters say a full-scale revival of the style is just around the corner. That puts the labels created for Herbal Revolution's herbal tonics and teas in a powerful position of both celebrating the past and predicting its rise. 

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Work done for one of our favorite local beers shows how potent nostalgic themes can be when they're focused close to home. Our can for Allagash White honors elements of the award-winning Belgian-style wheat beer's iconic design. That image still stirs up many Mainers' memories of the seminal role in the brewing industry that Allagash played in helping to establish Portland (not the one in Oregon, Portlandia fans) as a founding city for the craft beer movement more than 26 years ago.

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On the bigger brand front, we see the retroification happening with the big kids, too. Look at the recent Burger King and McDonald’s rebrands—they went to the past to be new again. They stepped back into the time machine to rebuild consumer trust, to rethink your relationship with their brands by leaning into a look and feel that harkened back to a perceived simpler, groovy, less artificial, and corporately controlled time. That can be said for many brands, as we are in a time and space where we crave normalcy and things we find comforting, like the past. 

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So until the pendulum swings again and we find ourselves back to all-white packaging and tiny type—be it a 70s vibe, an 80s throwback, a 90s theme, or the resurgence of early-aughts fashion—we see you for all your retro glory and are here for it.


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