How Nostalgia Marketing Made Brands Thrive: iCarly, Pokémon, and Taylor Swift [2022]

As you shuffle through songs on your playlist, suddenly a 2007 throwback starts playing. Immediately, you find yourself in your mom’s car – driving past your old stomping grounds on your way back from school. 

You feel a strange mixture of euphoria and melancholy hit you. It feels both uplifting and sad. From just shuffling through a Spotify playlist, the power of nostalgia has deeply impacted your mood.

We know this feeling all too well. After all, nostalgia impacts us both mentally and physically – in fact, research has described it as triggering a “reward pathway” in our brains. It comes as no surprise, then, that something as small as an old song can compel such strong emotions.

Unsurprisingly, marketers have picked up on the unique power of pleasant memories. They even developed a field called nostalgia marketing. But how exactly does it all work – and does nostalgia have a long-term place in how consumers in 2021 engage with brands?

Nostalgia marketing relies on positive associations in consumer behavior

Marketers have the difficult task of creating a positive brand image. In other words, they want consumers to feel elated when they think of a certain brand. But spinning positivity out of thin air can be difficult – especially when younger generations distrust corporations.

In research conducted by Deloitte, less than 5 in 10 of Gen Z and Millennials think businesses have a positive impact on society. And this has declined steadily over the years.

As a result, creating positive brand associations in 2021 represents a difficult task marketers have to grapple with. They must develop appropriate messaging, ensure their audience receives it, and nurture positive relationships. And many long-term brands have opted to rely on nostalgia to expedite this process.

Yet the power of nostalgia has always existed – so why has nostalgia marketing increased exponentially this past year?

Nostalgia comforts consumers during times of stress

At this point, you probably have an idea as to what caused this rise in nostalgia: the pandemic. Suddenly, billions of people had their daily lives disrupted almost immediately. Millions lost jobs. Families dealt with losses. Every day felt like a new, insurmountable challenge.

People lost the comfort of familiarity because of the pandemic – and many looked to the past to find it again.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Valentina Stoycheva, nostalgia acts as a kind of self-soother during these traumatic and stressful times. In other words, it helps us cope and move forward. Instinctively, we reach for familiarity found in the past.

Consumers acted accordingly – and fast. They started to consume products and experiences that harkened back to the olden days. For example, sales of iconic Pokémon cards increased by a whopping 574% from 2019 to 2020. 

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Brands reacted in a similar fashion – and some took it to the extreme. Burger King completely rebranded itself by returning to a refreshed version of its old logo. But most notably, Olivia Rodrigo and Doja Cat rose to meteoric success through the power of nostalgia.

Olivia Rodrigo, Doja Cat, and others ride the nostalgia wave

Olivia Rodrigo, an 18-year-old singer-songwriter, became the poster child for Gen Z music with her smash hit, “Driver’s License”. In this epic ballad about young love gone sour, she pulled at the heartstrings of not just Gen Z – but Millennials, too. 

How did Rodrigo and her team manage to cross multiple generations? Nostalgia.

In “Driver’s License,” we hear the woes of a teenager dealing with their first heartbreak. We hear how Rodrigo’s entire world seems to have crumbled before them. In the second to last verse, Rodrigo belts out “I still fucking love you” – and quietly sings about driving alone at the end of the song.

Some bitter listeners feel Rodrigo, at just 18, has no clue what it means to actually love someone. But she shot back, stating that she “feels heartbreak and longing really intensely” as a teenage girl. 

And this sentiment rings true for most people, regardless of their age, who tuned into her song. It evoked a nostalgic feeling of going through the motions of young love in high school. 

When Rodrigo released her album, “Sour,” in full, her team went ham on nostalgia. In her music video for “good 4 u,” we see Rodrigo through an intentionally blurred lens as she belts out the song as a cheerleader. The entire video reminds viewers of their high school days – and Rodrigo even credits Paramore’s 2007 smash hit, “Misery Business,” as the song’s main inspiration. 

The entire music video seems modern yet comes off as if it were filmed in the 90s on a polaroid camera. The entirety of Sour feels like a Y2K fever dream.

Rodrigo’s marketing team leaned into this nostalgia. She partnered with Sour Patch Kids to release an exclusive, “Sour”-themed candy box with Rodrigo on the front. Their team even hosted a free car wash to promote this collaboration, a nod to her first release.

In other words, Rodrigo became an immediate superstar with hit after hit through the power of nostalgia marketing.

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Similarly, Doja Cat’s hit song, “Say So,” sounds like a retro, laid-back 70s disco track – and the music video takes this vibe even further. Just like Rodrigo’s “good 4 u,” Doja Cat’s video takes viewers on a trip to the past through its old-school looks and retro scenery. The song became a smash hit and accelerated Doja Cat’s rise to stardom.

Olivia Rodrigo and Doja Cat dominate modern pop – and nostalgia boosted their status as iconic musicians. Outside the realm of music, consumers have also started to dive into revised classics within the entertainment industry – proving nostalgia marketing has its place everywhere.

iCarly masterfully comes back – with a fresh take on an old classic

iCarly aired on Nickelodeon for roughly five years, and its main characters – Carly, Freddie, and Sam – became beloved icons for Gen Z. When fans learned about the show’s return, they watched it in droves.

The reboot became one of the most successful shows on Paramount+ to date – and has already been renewed for a second season. For those who grew up with iCarly, watching the reboot feels like catching up with an old friend. The familiarity of its mainstay characters, which still include Carly and Freddie alongside new favorites like Harper, feels long overdue.

The addition of people of color as main characters, including Harper and Millicent, comes as the most welcoming change to the show’s original formula. It feels representative of its audience whereas before iCarly featured an all-white main cast.

Producers seemed to recognize the power of the show’s nostalgia while recognizing the original version had addressable problems.

By placing such an iconic show in a modern context, it evokes a strong nostalgic feeling among viewers. The show’s success even prompted more than 7,000 Reddit users to encourage ViacomCBS to explore rebooting another classic, Ned’s Declassified.

By leaning into consumers’ longing for old shows, entertainment companies have carved out an emerging niche that thrives off of nostalgia marketing. 

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But this trend brings up an interesting question: to what extent should companies modify old assets to ride this nostalgia wave? For Taylor Swift and Pokémon, little has to change to get fans excited.

Retelling classic stories packs a powerful punch

Before Olivia Rodrigo and Doja Cat became this generation’s starlets on the rise, Taylor Swift dominated the pop music industry. From upbeat, happy-go-lucky anthems like “Shake It Off” to slow, country songs like “Teardrops On My Guitar,” Swift’s discography has been etched into the minds of younger generations everywhere.

Unfortunately, Swift lost rights to her first six albums after her former manager purchased the master recordings. So when she announced in 2019 she planned on rerecording all six of her albums, fans felt excited yet concerned. 

Could Swift capture the same sentiments of albums she wrote years ago? Would rerecording popular songs – with practically no changes – make for an exciting launch? In hindsight, absolutely.

While her launch of “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” generated buzz, her most recent project – “Red (Taylor’s Version)” – has taken fans by storm. 26 songs from her album charted on Billboard Hot 100 – with “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)” taking the top spot.

And get this: Swift and her team changed very little to get this project off the ground. Beyond releasing a few additional parts left out of the original album, her songs sound the same as before. The album has everything to evoke strong feelings of nostalgia – and it does a great job because it remains true to the original.

The Brown Daily Herald described the album as a “mosaic of nostalgia and heartbreak”. US Magazine noted the album will make fans feel nostalgic, acknowledging “that’s the point”. Swift’s team brought fans back to where they were in 2012 when the original album took off.

Taylor Swift decided to retell a compelling story that worked in 2012 – and its renewed success reveals how consumers will eat up nostalgia even in its purest form.

This recreation of nostalgic elements has shown itself in other industries as well. Pokémon has found great success in remastering its beloved Diamond and Pearl series, originally released in 2006. Pokémon simply redesigned graphics for the Nintendo Switch but kept the story and concept largely the same – just like Taylor Swift did with her latest album.

According to initial reports, these games have already ranked as the second biggest launch of 2021 – despite releasing less than a week ago on November 19th.

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Fans and consumers love nostalgia, from music to fashion to video games, but what does this mean for marketers looking to capture this essence in 2022?

Nostalgia needs to thematically align with your brand

When Olivia Rodrigo entered the music scene, nobody knew what to expect. She had the opportunity to set the tone for her personal brand – which ended up relying heavily on pop-rock nostalgia. In essence, her team’s promotions align with her musical direction. Nostalgia marketing makes perfect sense for her.

Similarly, nostalgia has to align with your brand’s voice, audience, and overall goals. As a B2B marketer, nostalgia might not work for you. After all, can you think of any B2B brands you interacted with in the past ten years you long to remember? Unlikely.

However, you can still participate in nostalgia through creative campaigns and promotions. Pizza Hut executed nostalgia marketing excellently through its ‘Newstalgia’ campaign – complete with retro games, PAC-MAN, and, of course, pizza.

Nostalgia marketing is complementary – not a substitute

Although nostalgia evokes primarily positive feelings among consumers, it can also inspire negative emotions. Nostalgia causes people to long for something they can no longer have. It’s an unnerving feeling that lingers if thought about for too long.

If you want to integrate nostalgia marketing into your branding strategy, consider it as one part of a multifaceted campaign. Too much nostalgia may make consumers feel uncomfortable. Worse, it may make your brand appear cheesy or even novel.

Young and old generations relate to nostalgia

It may seem easy to pass off younger generations as not having anything to look back on, but nostalgia revolves around a feeling more than a passage of time. Many consumers report feeling nostalgic when hearing modern music or seeing new photos. Nostalgia seems more like an indescribable sensation than something attached to a specific date.

Olivia Rodrigo and Doja Cat’s success demonstrate this perfectly. Both call back to time periods Gen Z has no connection to – the 90s and 70s – yet they feel nostalgic for the era’s aesthetics and sound. As a marketer, you have a similar ability to evoke nostalgic feelings – as long as it feels referential to something in the past.

Whether you listen to music, play video games, or watch TV, you will inevitably encounter nostalgia marketing in 2021. Consumers’ longing for familiarity, exacerbated by the pandemic, has launched this trend into a viable strategy marketers can pursue in 2022. Consider how nostalgia fits into your audience and brand – and start riding the nostalgia wave before it gets too crowded.

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