Some brands are hooked on mining the past. We asked two creative agencies based at Workspace to explain the thinking behind nostalgia marketing, and ask where it’s going next.

A boy pushes a bike loaded with bread up a steep cobbled street. At the top, he delivers his bread, before freewheeling back down the hill. The heartwarming Hovis ad from 1973, soundtracked by Dvorak’s New World Symphony and directed by Ridley Scott, was recently crowned the most “iconic” UK ad of all time. A remastered version was aired again on ITV on June 3. 

Set in a rose-tinted version of “the olden days” — perhaps the 1920s or 30s — but released at a time of social strife and strikes in Britain, the ad harked back to better times with its “core message of hard work, family and the strength of the community”, in Scott’s words.

It’s a classic example of nostalgia marketing — using past memories to evoke emotions in the target audience. Levi’s famous Launderette ad, released in the 80s but recalling the 50s, came fourth in the recent poll. Both ads are proof of just how powerful nostalgia can be as an advertising tool.

A few years ago, nostalgia came back in a big way. If you were a sentient being back in 2016, you can hardly have failed to notice that the 1980s were everywhere you looked. On Netflix, there was Stranger Things, a show in which nerdy 80s kids ride ET-style bikes around to an analogue synth soundtrack. In advertising, Apple revived the Cookie Monster and Spotify wheeled out actors from The Never Ending Story. Nintendo re-released its clunky NES console, just to get in on the act.

Things have calmed down a bit since then, but nostalgia marketing hasn’t gone away. In the last few years we’ve had Arnie reminding us about the PPI deadline, He-Man and Skeletor strutting their stuff for Money Supermarket and Halifax doing its best to revive Top Cat, The Flintstones and The Wizard of Oz. Is nothing sacred? Why this obsession with re-heating the past?

Joel Gardner, Director at Theobald Fox, a creative agency based at Clerkenwell Workshops, says that nostalgia marketing can evoke a powerful emotional response. When done well, tapping into childhood memories can be like “hearing a song you used to love for the first time in years”.

Joel GardnerDirector at Theobald Fox

Nostalgia campaigns often target millennials, which explains the focus on the 80s and 90s. Hugh Stevenson, Managing Partner of Anatomy Brands, based at Kennington Park, points out that for anxious millennials living their lives online, nostalgia can offer a safe haven. “You could look at it as a sort of search for identity, looking back to the past for something secure and solid,” he says. Add to that the divisive politics of recent years and the need for something comforting becomes compelling.

Both Joel and Hugh agree that millennials are a sophisticated audience. “They can see marketing tools being used in an instant,” says Joel. “More and more sophisticated techniques are necessary to cut through to them,” agrees Hugh.

For this reason, nostalgia marketing should be used sparingly. “It can be really effective, but it needs to be used really sensitively and cautiously.” Joel hasn’t been using nostalgia marketing recently, simply because he hasn’t been working with any brands that he felt suited that approach.

If done badly, nostalgia marketing comes across as exploitative and unwelcome. Joel compares two recent ads, Nike’s Serena Williams campaign and John Lewis’ Elton John ad from last Christmas. For Joel, these neatly illustrate the best and worst in nostalgia marketing. Nike’s “plays on historical moments and heritage which they’ve actually been part of”, whereas, in his view, John Lewis tried to “fabricate a place in Elton John’s career and the joy he has brought to the nation.”

A recent project of Anatomy Brands has mined the past in an interesting way. Hugh and his team won the contract to come up with a “place-brand” for London’s Vauxhall area, local to their Kennington Park HQ. “When you're doing place branding you're trying to create a sense of identity for an area and in Vauxhall there’s a lack of cohesion,” says Hugh. “We wanted to make a virtue of the fact that there’s a diverse community and different things going on night or day that seem quite incongruous.”

They found the answer by looking into Vauxhall’s history. Dating from the 17th century, the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were “the birthplace of outdoor entertainment”, according to Hugh, where all sections of society would gather to witness fireworks, juggling acts and daredevil displays.

The colourful history of the gardens gave Anatomy Brands the inspiration for their tagline “Love Different – Love Vauxhall”. The campaign celebrated the eccentric characters who once performed there with a series of posters whose “anarchic, contemporary” style makes the connection to Vauxhall’s modern-day offbeat spirit.

It's an interesting twist on nostalgia marketing. Rather than taking refuge in a simpler, more comforting time, Anatomy’s place-brand finds continuity in a radical, pioneering history. Instead of harking back to the good old days, sometimes it's more exciting to realise that nothing’s really changed. Perhaps this is the future for the use of the past?

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