Retro resonance: Tapping into the cultural vaults of past decades continues to give brands like Gap room for growth

Kurt Stuhllemmer
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When the future is uncertain and the present complex, the past can be a great way for brands to connect with their customers on a more emotional and personal level. Tapping into positive emotions, and a sense of nostalgia, can build a sense of familiarity and trust.

Tapping into past memories and experiences to connect with people’s emotions is most often used by brands such as Coca Cola and John Lewis at Christmas, but it need not be left languishing under the mistletoe.

Research we conducted in 2023 among a representative sample in the UK and US highlights the effectiveness of nostalgia in marketing whatever the occasion. 81% of Brits and 83% of Americans said they enjoy things that remind them of the past. The results were similar across all age groups in both countries.

Nostalgic revival

Gap’s ‘Linen Moves’ campaign is the most recent spot to tap into nostalgia as it reimagines the music video ‘Back on 74’ by Jungle. The ad spot sparked a TikTok dance craze garnering over 1 billion views for the apparel retailer. Yet it also nodded to being ‘relevant now’, with South African Grammy Award-winning artist Tyla is front and centre of the campaign.

Gap is of course not the first brand to use nostalgia outside of Christmas. Mattel’s clever marketing around the infamous Barbie film successfully used nostalgia to create fame and build excitement, amplifying warm connections that many have with the past to drive future behaviour. The film reignited sales of Barbie products (note that 100 dolls a minute are still sold by Mattel) and created new franchise opportunities for a younger audience.

Memory marketing

Yes, nostalgia works for brands short and long term. When asked if they were more likely to buy brands that they remember from their childhood, 65% were. Surprisingly, the younger generations aged 16 to 34 years were even more likely to do this (74% in the UK and 70% in the US) than people aged over 55 years of age. These younger cohorts have of course grown up in a brand dominated world, but the insight frames a huge commercial opportunity for brands.

With around one third (33%) of Brits and 37% of Americans choosing the 90s as their favourite era in our survey, brands are clearly getting it right in choosing the 90s as one of the most popular eras to hark back to.

Whenever nostalgia is used by brands, it should be carefully considered and tailored to fit the brand identity and audiences in order to genuinely connect with a clear and positive meaning.

It is most effective when used by brands that have a strong history or heritage, or those that cater to a specific demographic with a shared cultural or generational experience. But choosing the right moment is key.

Back to the future

Nostalgia should be used with sensitivity to avoid coming across as outdated or tone-deaf. Finding the most relevant events or generationally defining moments is something to be carefully considered if you want to ensure positive rather than negative connections.

Ultimately, balancing nostalgia with a modern and relevant approach, as Gap has done, can avoid alienating younger or more diverse audiences and is critical in an increasingly divided world. Using ‘peak’ emotions and salient hooks to tie memories to your brand is a fantastically powerful tool. Just be careful how you go back to the future.

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