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The stranglehold of nostalgia

The stranglehold of nostalgia

January 22, 2024

Everywhere you look, you’ll see the product of nostalgia. Retro fashions, classic redesigns and resurrected franchises. But are we chasing a ghost, at the expense of forward momentum?

The overwhelming draw of the past

To quote Mad Men, “nostalgia: it’s delicate but potent.” So taking that idea and running with it, let’s think of nostalgia as a perfume. It’s complex and transportive but also pleasing and alluring. It intoxicates and intrigues in equal measure, and can be a very powerful device when it comes to marketing and art. But I’m afraid the 21st century hasn’t exactly understood this nuance. And regularly hoses itself down with the pungent scent, slavishly adhering to the 30 year cycle.

On an etymological level – which is just a fancy way of saying “where words come from” – ‘nostalgia’ is made up of the Greek words ‘nostos’ (return home) and ‘algos’ (pain). It’s homesickness for a time we can’t get back to. At its core, this is an unhealing wound. So why is there such value in a seemingly negative emotional state?

New vs Familiar

Nostalgia feeds so heavily into our daily lives and therefore can often sit at the forefront of marketing concepts. There’s a reason Transformers was a big hit in the 1980s and then returned 30 years later to make billions of dollars at the box office. It’s the same reason recognisable songs will be used in adverts for unrelated products.

Back in 2013, the mobile network Three, launched a campaign featuring a tiny moonwalking horse, dancing to Fleetwood Mac. You could argue the mobile phone industry was born from the 80s, but that’s where the obvious connection ends. So why use an older song? It certainly wasn’t for cost reasons.

Is it because the heavy lifting had already been done with the use of a familiar sound? Something that would create a Pavolvian suggestion within the viewer? Or is it more insidious: by planting the idea that somehow the past was better than any potential future could be? Probably not as this is a technology company.. but either way, it was celebrated by the public and lambasted by the press. But we’re still talking about it, so it clearly did its job.

Capturing the ones that got away

Surely, nostalgia is the enemy of growth. Is there not a conflict in taking stylistic aesthetics or approaches back to a different time, while simultaneously selling you a future horizon? How can you present yourself as a progressive company, with forward thinking ideas, if you’re always looking backward?

The answer to these questions comes down to moderation. No matter what your industry provides, you still have an audience – someone you’re selling to. And with all audiences, they like what they know.

Nintendo have been successfully making video games for decades. So much so, that for a long time, Nintendo was synonymous with the act of gaming itself. You’d quite easily hear the phrase, “I spent all day yesterday playing Nintendo.” And while their demographic is a loyal one, they spied a gap in the market. Specifically, those who had grown up and left gaming behind, but wouldn’t be opposed to revisiting old memories for a small payment.

This led to the launch of the NES Classic Mini in 2016. It was a roaring success and saw leading competitors jumping in with their own mini retro consoles and arcade cabinets. Because, while it may be difficult to convince someone to drop £500 on the latest hardware, spending £50 to be transported to your youth, is a significantly easier sell.

Everything old is new again

In addition to capitalising on lapsed customers, nostalgia can also be used to add a sense of gravitas and legacy. How often have we seen companies revert back to previous designs of their logos and branding colours?

Peugeot is a French car manufacturer (so if you’re reading that word for the first time, chances are you’re pronouncing it wrong) who have always had a lion in their logo. Over the years, the look has shifted to match contemporary preferences but last year, the company ditched the heraldic shield layout and brought back the side profile, first introduced back in the 1960s.

I mentioned the 30 year cycle earlier. For those unaware, this is the concept that trends circle back and become popular again every thirty years or so. The 2020s is starting to see a wealth of 90s nostalgia, and oddly, in tow is 60s and 30s nostalgia along for the ride.

So Peugeot adopting this older logo, with its art deco minimalist feel, strikes a handful of different emotional chords. Lots of “Oh, I remember that logo. That’s a really classy, classic design!” And Peugeot aren’t alone in this. Drinks companies, tech giants, football clubs, they all eventually revert back to an earlier motif. Because slapping a new coat of paint on a brand that may be feeling stagnant, breathes new life into it. Even if the paint in question, is from a thirty year old can.

“I hate sand” – everyone who’s ever visited Tatooine

But just because there are examples of quick, short-term success, we should still be wary of overusing nostalgia. Just a hint is all that’s necessary. Looking at the most recent Star Wars film and TV releases, they’ve fallen into a trap – like the one under Jabba’s palace. You know, with the Rancor? Do you remember that? Anyway… they want to remind audiences why they loved Star Wars in the first place. But somewhere along the way, they forgot what that actually was.

Tatooine is the desert dirt hole that Luke Skywalker was desperate to escape from. It was a dangerous, miserable existence but when he hops on the Millennium Falcon and sets off into space, adventure awaits. That’s the bit we liked. So why are we dragged back to this arid wasteland? When did it go from a broken down point of origin, to some sacrosanct site for pilgrimage? The answer is over-milked, misplaced nostalgia.

The future doesn’t (entirely) lie in the past

To summarise, nostalgia is no more a cure-all, than it is poison. It’s to be used in careful doses for the best outcome. And whether writing, marketing or designing, harnessing that pining for the familiar – for how things used to be – should be done sparingly.

Because, creatively, it’s an ouroboros – a snake consuming itself. How can we move our brands and creative forward, if we are constantly regurgitating and recycling what we’ve already done.

And, maybe most importantly, never forget that back in “the good ol’ days”, people were still pining for “the good ol’ days.” Nostalgia is a symptom of pain, an illusion, not a guide. But, every now and then, it doesn’t hurt to dig out an old blanket and wrap yourself in it. If only for a little while.