Using Nostalgia to Market to Millennials

By Blue Star Design / 01 May 2017


I know I couldn’t have been the only one who was thrilled at the idea of Gilmore Girls being rebooted (as long as it was nothing like Season 7, which we won’t talk about). Then there was the Netflix original series of A Series of Unfortunate Events, which I was excited to binge because I’d read all the books as a middle-schooler. Then there was the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, which I rushed to see in-theater with my mom. FINALLY there was a remake of the Power Rangers, and I began to notice a trend: marketers were using my nostalgia against me! I had successfully fallen victim to every single nostalgia inducing moment. And, it’s not going to stop, because I know I’m going to be first in line to see Space Jam 2 when it makes its reappearance.

It isn’t just Netflix and the motion picture companies using nostalgia to gain an edge, though: for instance, there is a definite shift in the pop acts that are cruising along Sin City. Celine Dion and Donny and Marie aren’t the most coveted tickets anymore: now Britney Spears, J-Lo, and the Backstreet Boys have their own acts where for approximately $500 you can feel like a thirteen-year-old again (Lip-Smackers and crimped hair not included).

Even our local bars, like 16-bit in Lakewood, capitalize on nostalgia to make millennials tick.

Nostalgia is obviously a powerful tool. Of course millennials want to relive their fond memories of the past when they had less responsibilities, fewer worries, and more fun. Smart companies can use nostalgia to not only bring back those fond memories in the minds of millennials, but also to channel those good vibes towards their brand. All of a sudden, your brand isn’t stuffy--it’s fun and retro.

However, when you choose to do an ad campaign that plays on nostalgia, you run the fine line between hitting the mark and falling flat. Your campaign will have to be genuine, fun, and inspired to work well.
Let’s look at a few examples of nostalgia marketing that worked and some that didn’t work:

Worked: A Year in the Life

Netflix’s reboot of Gilmore Girls worked because all the old characters made an appearance at one point or another. Amy Sherman-Palladino wrote it, so the dialogue flowed the way it would in the old series. Rory was experiencing problems that most millennials could relate to: losing her job and some not-so-great drunk decisions. They nailed it with this reboot because they were able to capture all the good things from the old series and still manage not to ruin it while updating it.

Didn’t Work: Mean Girls 2

Yeah, I bet you didn’t even know there was a Mean Girls 2. I didn’t even have to see that movie to know I wouldn’t like it. Unlike the hilarious 2004 original, the sequel to this series had no catchy one liners and no Tina Fey. While the second movie in this franchise is meant to induce nostalgia, because so much is different than the original, it just seems like a cheap copycat to the first movie.

Worked: Strawberry Shortcake

Children of the eighties love their Strawberry Shortcake. And, the brand made a smart move by releasing “vintage” dolls into stores right at the same time millennial parents will be buying toys for their children. The TV show was reinvented with a fresher look; however, parents have the option of buying the older shows and dolls as well, tapping into their nostalgia and giving their kids something fresh to watch that looks and feels like the shows they watch everyday.

Didn’t Work: Urban Outfitters’ “Vintage” Sweatshirt

Clothes aren’t left out of the nostalgia game, and shops like Urban Outfitters cater to this market by offering new clothes with a vintage flair. This PR blunder was all over social media in 2014, so you’ve probably already heard about it. However, we’re going to mention it as a warning that you have to keep your campaigns in context.

The gist of what happened is that Urban Outfitters released a sweatshirt with a Kent State University logo in a vintage, 1960s style. That’s fine and dandy (wooooo rep Ohio!). However, they also included splatters of red dye (that ended up looking a whole lot like blood) on the sweatshirt, which made it appear as if it was worn during the Kent State shootings. As a company that constantly pushes boundaries of what’s appropriate, you might expect controversial clothing. This one crossed a line, though, and Urban Outfitters had to release an official apology for this blight.

Worked: Toy Story 3

Disney hit the timing on this one perfectly. I had hoped that the final installment in one of their best franchises wouldn’t disappoint. What I didn’t expect would be to sit in a theater sobbing next to my mom because Andy was leaving for college the next week--and so was I. The writers wanted Andy to grow up with you, which was a clever way to induce tissue-needing nostalgia into a quirky, funny movie about talking toys. After composing myself following the end of the movie, my mom and I both declared it was definitely the best one out of the three, which is high-praise in my Disney-obsessed household.

Didn’t Work: The Hobbit

When this movie came out, I really wanted it to work. I grew up watching LOTR series as a kid, and I loved the magical world of elves and orks. The costumes, acting, and special effects were top-notch, and Peter Jackson deserved every award he got. However, The Hobbit was disappointing to a lot of fans. The original book was thinner than all three of the subsequent books, yet they dragged The Hobbit out into a three-part series. What this ended up doing was make it seem like the studios were sucking money from you instead of producing a quality picture. Also, the utilization of CGI was just not the same as the on-site shots of New Zealand from the original three movies. My husband and I are both huge fans (so much so that we actually have a LOTR Risk Board). We went to go see the first movie at midnight, and never even bothered to go and see the other two.

The final takeaway:

To induce nostalgia, you have to be genuine and keep true to the original version of what you’re doing. The Hobbit failed (IMHO) because of the “fakeness” of the CGI, while Mean Girls 2 failed because of its copycat storyline. However, nostalgia works well when companies--especially big corporations like Netflix and Disney--take a step back and ask what would pay homage to the first set of classics without leaving a bitter taste in viewers’ mouths. It’s tricky to do, but if you do it right, there’s no telling how far a millennial audience will carry you.

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