Millennial Early Onset Nostalgia and Yearning for Yesteryear

Nostalgia is one hell of a drug. Certain songs, places, people, and experiences conjure up fond memories of simpler times before job hunting and student loans crept into our lives seemingly overnight. Looking back on “the good ol’ days” offers an escape from our fast-paced, hectic lives by enabling us to “relive” or otherwise recapture pivotal moments of happiness that cultivated our present sense of self. Utilizing such positive emotions serves as a viable marketing tool, particularly when geared towards millennials who experience a cultural “information overload” that compresses their perception of time while enabling them to romanticize over experiences from the not-so-distant past.

“Nostalgia brings back that lovely, fuzzy feeling about how good things were back in the day,” said Jamie Gutfreund, CMO at agency Deep Focus. “You want to relive that feeling and brands know they can trigger those emotions in their consumers.” And it works, too. Vladimir Vukicevic, co-founder and CTO of RocketHub, demonstrated in a rather wonky blog post that products based on nostalgia tend to depreciate slower over time. (Vukicevic only looked at tech products for his research.) And while marketers have used nostalgia as a tool for years, marketing experts agree that millennials have a stronger affinity for the past than previous generations. Nostalgia not only evokes better times — and a sense of belonging — but also makes younger consumers feel more fashionable.

“In terms of trends, what goes around, comes around,” said Marlene Morris Towns, professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “This generation is far more in touch with previous generations’ styles and tastes and there’s elements of a greater sense of discovery.” Millennials are the first digital natives to have their lives instantly, and constantly, chronicled online. Even if they grew up during a great recession, they have been inundated with information. Digital media facilitates the perfect medium for nostalgic marketing and will likely improve as social media marketing engagement proliferates. Brands have numerous platforms to choose from when it comes to reaching consumers — from Facebook to Instagram to Snapchat to Pinterest and more. Penguin, the creators of the popular Mad Libs, decided to adapt the classic books into an interactive app. It not only provides the perfect opportunity to take Gen-Xers on a trip down memory lane, but it also introduced the brand to a new batch of digital natives. “We’re going after cool things, and millennials, of course, are going to be a part of that conversation,” said app developer Fancesco Sedita. “We realized that we could take this brand that we really believed in into the modern age and bring it in front of an audience that wasn’t really expecting to see it there.”

A fundamental element of nostalgic marketing is incorporating a “modern twist” on the object of nostalgia without simply just re-releasing the product in its original form. The original Mad Libs app suffered from this very problem. Penguin believed that the game had all the right ingredients to be a digital — and social — success, something that took a couple of tries to get right. The first version of the Mad Libs app was introduced in the App Store in 2009 but didn’t quite nail it. The original app was essentially a literal translation of the books. A truly immersive, interactive app that was much more evocative of the books came out last November after Penguin enlisted digital agency Kettle to improve upon the experience. Kettle brought to life Phil N. DeBlanks — the googly-eyed, smiley-faced doodle on every Mad Libs book — within the app. The mascot has been reimagined as a coach and even a friend to players, giggling when they type in a funny word and interacting with them at every step along the way. While we were trying to evoke the same sentiment that people got while playing the game in the books, we wanted to make sure that we weren’t just doing retro,” said designer Munkholm. “Nostalgia is not just about doing retro, but finding a balance between something that feels current but is still evocative of the past.” The “modernized” version of the app has yielded much more popularity. According to Penguin, Mad Libs sales have increased 74 percent since the original app was launched in 2009, and the app itself has seen over 5.5 million downloads. The app has an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 on the App Store from over 1,500 reviews, according to app-building company AppAnnie.

Brands must also avoid the pitfall of “self-deprecating” marketing while incorporating nostalgia. Companies struggling to cultivate a modern perception should avoid nostalgic marketing, which prevents any appearance of a “modern edge.” Radio Shack may have initially scored with its self-deprecating 2014 Super Bowl ad loaded with references to the ‘80s, for example, but it ultimately contributed more to the perception of the brand as being antiquated and outdated, said Exponential’s Mcintosh.

Regardless, nostalgic marketing enables brands to reach consumers on a personal level by relating enjoyable moments and experiences from their past. Millennials are the most valuable marketing demographic and they express more nostalgic mindsets than past generations. Therefore, utilizing nostalgic marketing with a modernized digital twist is an ideal means of advertising to millennials. Madmen star Don Draper famously pitched Kodak products while describing the effectiveness of nostalgia in an early episode stating, “Nostalgia is delicate, but potent. It’s a twinge in your heart more powerful than memory alone. It’s not a spaceship, it’s a time machine.”

About the author

We help companies build better digital products.