How can brands make the most of “nostalgic consumption”?

Johanna Toiviainen, EMEA Marketing Director, MikMak, explains the phenomenon
Johanna Toiviainen
A record player

Between the brands we wished returned to our shelves, the boom in vintage household appliances, and the rise of influencers advocating an aesthetic or even decades gone by, nostalgia - whether linked to a period we experienced or not - is infiltrating our consumer habits as well as advertising and marketing.

The advantage of nostalgia is that brands don't always need to convince consumers to try or buy a product. They can tap directly into a 'dormant purchase intent' to encourage consumers to make an emotionally-led purchase decision. However, in an increasingly digital economy, betting on "sparking memories" or on the attraction of the past is not always enough to drive sales.

A clear increase in purchasing decisions linked to nostalgia

Clay Routledge, professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, believes that "many turn to nostalgia, even if they don't consciously realise it, as a stabilising force and a way to keep in mind what they cherish most". Stability is important: nostalgia provides landmarks, and retro has a timeless, intergenerational character that brings people together and reassures them.

Consumers are increasingly inclined to buy products that capitalise on this feeling. Food is one of the purchasing behaviours particularly motivated by nostalgia. From nostalgic food habits during the pandemic to all-time nostalgic favourites like McVitie’s biscuits and retro ice cream brands, nostalgia is a powerful purchasing driver. Aesthetics are not to be ignored, with the resurgence of vintage packaging choices for certain products.

Consumers are not only interested in what comes next, but also in what makes them feel secure and gives them stability. 

How can brands capitalise on nostalgia?

Brands need to consider nostalgic consumers as an audience with a dormant but high purchase intent. To take advantage of this, a nuanced approach is needed. Firstly, because nostalgia does not mean the same thing to all audiences: the way in which millennials or Gen Z define nostalgia may differ, for example, and the changes in vocabulary used need to be closely monitored. What's more, although sparking memories is important, brands cannot rely on it alone. Creativity, analysing consumer data and optimising the generational and geographical targeting of consumers are essential - especially given the abundance of choice in online retail. 

Firstly, brands need to identify how nostalgia can be better integrated into their campaigns. If a brand already has a nostalgic value, the most direct approach is to run a top-of-funnel campaign based on nostalgia in order to capture the audience that will be sensitive to it. This audience is worth its weight in gold: remarketing campaigns can be extremely effective here. If a brand needs a nostalgia boost, it will have to add this element to its strategy. It will need to identify what the target audience is nostalgic about and create new visual campaigns or products around it. 

Brands must therefore think about their audiences and, most importantly, have the means to analyse their behaviour. When it comes to nostalgic consumption, brands don’t need to compete for the attention of consumers because they already have it - but they do need to know where, when, what and how people are purchasing these goods. This data is the key to unlocking better commerce experiences and driving sales. It is therefore essential to maximise the use and analysis of sales data to optimise targeting - especially eCommerce data, at a time when over 80% of the UK population makes e-commerce purchases. 

Relying on first party data collection to analyse purchasing trends and the social platforms from which they emanate is essential. This is all the more valid given that 'nostalgic' consumption is heavily influenced by social media, where retro aesthetics and trends are extremely visible. With access to real-time category-level performance and purchase data at individual retailers, brands can more readily spot opportunities for growth and expansion. eCommerce data that’s granular enough will also reveal which product and marketing attributes perform best, allowing brands to adjust their strategies to optimal effect. 

Analysing consumer purchase intent rate data is another way of understanding what works across channels, with retailers and within campaigns. It allows brands to remain agile in the face of changes in consumer behaviour, and to optimise marketing strategies accordingly.

Brands therefore need to consider "nostalgic consumers" as an important segment that shows no signs of weakening. Understanding this kind of consumer and anticipating their needs and shopping preferences by tapping into the data, will help brands to personalise and improve the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns as well as better manage their sales and stocks by identifying their priorities.

Written by
Johanna Toiviainen
Written by
November 1, 2023