Nostalgia - the art of moving forward by looking back

It’s strange to think that there was a time, some 300 years ago admittedly, when ‘nostalgia’ was thought to be a mental affliction affecting soldiers fighting away from home.

However that definition has changed dramatically over the years and nowadays has considerably more positive connotations. Defined as ‘a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past’ and often associated with a particularly happy time, nostalgia is a way of tapping into feel good feelings and memories.

Research has also shown that this positive emotion also contributes to mood improvement, a sense of higher self-esteem and social inclusion. Nostalgia can pick us up when we are feeling lonely or bored. Critically, from a branding perspective, studies also show that feelings of nostalgia encourage us to spend money or donate to a cause and to pay more.

With this potent combination of emotion leading to action, no wonder that nostalgia has played such an important role in marketing and branding through the years.

The use of nostalgia in brand communications has always been with us – who can forget the iconic Hovis advertising of the ’70s featuring the delivery boy on his bike? Brands like Coca-Cola, Disney and Lego are masters of managing the power of nostalgia to create timeless emotional bonds with successive generations of consumers. The art is to continue to stay relevant and not become anachronistic or to feel dated.

But whilst nostalgia has always been part of the marketeer’s armoury it now feels more relevant than ever with more brands – old and new – recognising the power that it has to offer as an emotion. Why would this be the case? It appears that there are multiple forces at play, some of them contradictory. The current political, social and economic climate has created uncertainty and in uncertain times people gravitate to the past for comfort and security. We believe that we live in a far more troublesome world - although in reality we are better off and there is less conflict than at any time in history.

Our hectic, always on, digitally connected lifestyles create pressures that nostalgia is able to relieve. It creates positive thoughts, makes us smile and can provide a way of helping us to slow down. Nostalgia allows us to use past experience to help us deal with the challenges we face now. Curiously however it is the power of the digital world that gives us such easy access to the past and to live in part through it – the easy connection with old friends, the ability to purchase retro goods on ebay, to watch classic shows, music and ads etc via YouTube.


Consumers are increasingly looking for greater degrees of authenticity, craft and richer experiences to provide deeper connections and levels of meaning to their brand choices. Established ‘nostalgia’ brands can leverage their built-in emotional connection and new brands can create compelling fresh narratives that resonate – and the evidence for this is everywhere to see. We see it in the success of vinyl records and physical books. In the craft beer revolution – and the revival of lost beer styles. In the phoenix-like revival of the fortunes of Kodak and traditional photography – the first SLR to be designed since the early 1990s is about to enter production. Benefit Cosmetics connecting into a bygone age of glamour. TOMS shoes tapping into a traditional sense of fairness. The return of Colonel Sanders and the Nokia 3310. The analogue revival that offers the chance to enjoy a ‘real’ physical experience and to slow down.

The Iconic Nokia 3310 - 

The Iconic Nokia 3310 - 

Tapping into nostalgia plays out in more subtle ways too. The work that Echo has done for Joe's Tea with its friendly, modern take on the old livery companies of London and for Smarties where we have been developing a strong link between the brand and the importance of ‘traditional’, open ended play in child development are examples of this.

But for nostalgia marketing to really work well, brands have to have an astute understanding of modern culture and how it is changing. Brand design has an important role in harnessing nostalgia in a modern context. The best nostalgia branding actually gives a brand the opportunity to offer a fresh perspective on the present. In this way harnessing nostalgia can also allow brands to showcase themselves as future focused as they connect with timeless values, whilst depicting them in new modern ways. Levi’s is currently doing this through its ‘modern take on classic graphics’ ranges.

For nostalgia marketing to really work well, brands have to have an astute understanding of modern culture and how it is changing.

Harnessing nostalgia through brand design also presents an opportunity to champion the brand in its simplest and purest form, celebrating the equities that it is known and has been loved for, tapping into and leveraging what David Taylor at Brandgym refers to as ‘memory structure’. Undoubtedly there are brands out there today whose revival and survival could depend on understanding what made them famous and repurposing this for a new age.

The best nostalgia brands offer a fresh perspective on the present

Managed well nostalgia is an enormously potent emotional equity. It has the power to revive an ailing brand like Kodak, refresh a successful one like Nintendo and establish new ones like Sipsmith as well as to re-connect with old advocates and create new ones.