How Can Advertisers Effectively Use Current Technology to Tap Into Nostalgia

By Neil Cunningham, Co-Owner & CEO at Cream

There is a science behind people’s love of nostalgia. Researchers into the neuroscience of nostalgia have for a long time suggested this emotion triggers activity in several areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision making; the amygdala, which processes our emotions; and the medial temporal lobes, which processes the sensory input and connects it to our memories. When we feel nostalgic, these parts of the brain become more stimulated, with evidence pointing to a boost to one’s mood and an increasing sense of meaning to life.

In a world of existential and domestic stresses, an environment has been created where consumers increasingly gravitate towards the comfort and safety of nostalgia, over the excitement of innovation.

But despite data showing that more than half of US adults are likely – either ‘extremely’ or ‘somewhat’ – to make a purchase when a product or brand makes them feel nostalgic, Kantar’s Link ad testing database of over 250,000 ads shows that, on average, less than 3% contain nostalgic elements.

As technology and AI evolves at a rapid pace and brands scramble to either stay ahead of the curve or regain cultural relevance, can advertisers better tap into nostalgia as a trend while using the latest technology to reach audiences and improve advertising effectiveness?

Merge creative thinking with AI strategies

Creative thinking merged with the growth of AI-generated stimulation strategies and content, means we are moving toward idea generation underpinned by AI tools becoming the norm. The recent ChatGPT and DALL-E integration will only speed this up and allow marketers to work more efficiently (and cost effectively) to produce new ideas and concepts based on the past – past cultural moments, past campaigns, past creative stimuli, and past successes.

For example, earlier this year, Coca-Cola launched its “Create Real Magic” campaign, which challenged digital artists to add their own creativity to some of the brand’s most famous visuals over the centuries using AI technology. The best work was featured across billboards in New York’s Times Square and London’s Piccadilly Circus, with 30 creatives participating in the Real Magic Creative Academy, a three-day creative workshop at Coca-Cola’s Atlanta headquarters.

But brands must be mindful that by increasingly leaning on backward-looking technology, there is a risk of tapping into the same era and nostalgic insights as your competition. This is where human input is still imperative. Marketers and brands have always needed to cut through the noise and if everyone adopts the same technological tools and tactics, efficacy will likely suffer over time.

Tap into ‘in the moment’ cultural trends

We are seeing brands tap into nostalgia as a shortcut to emotionally engaging consumers – often targeted at older generations, who have more time to feel nostalgic as well as greater spending power (McDonald’s recent back to the 1990s retro campaign used this to great effect).

However, more recently, we’ve seen trends, such as Y2K, growing among Gen Z, highlighting that people didn’t even have to be present for nostalgia to have an impact. For example, Taco Bell partnered with Paris Hilton for the return of the 2000s favorite Volcano Menu and even the recent Barbie movie was shot and adored through a Y2K lens.

Similarly, when tapping into cultural moments to regain relevance, Clarks stand out as leading the charge in their category. The Wallabee shoemaker is on a journey to reinvent itself for Gen Z by harking back to its 90s staples.

And these trends have been elevated and amplified through social media. For Gen Z targeting, TikTok is understandably becoming the default search and research resource for brands. Unearthing audience trends by scouring TikTok throws more algorithmic attention on what is already popular, leading to more advertisers and agencies thinking they’ve discovered a new insight. For example, on TikTok, you’ll see thousands of videos on Y2K outfit ideas, Y2K aesthetics, and the sounds of Y2K. And timed just right by Clarks, 90s TikTok trends of Gen Z sporting everything from spaghetti straps to bucket hats and cargo pants are more prevalent than ever.

Implement an audience segmentation strategy

If you’re going to deploy nostalgia, first take a step or two back. How does it link to your desired audience’s psychological state; how does it bring to life what is unique (or useful) about your product or service, and is this approach really the best way to gain attention in a cluttered advertising and communication market? Make sure your audience segmentation is based not just on age or generational centre of gravity, but also on current motivation and needs.

AI tools can help advertisers sift through vast amounts of customer data and identify target audiences more accurately and more quickly. It can group individuals based on shared desires and behaviors, such as demographic, geographic location, and purchasing habits.

AI can also be used to bolster human-led survey-based research – which can be a good way of seeing whether a nostalgic theme is resonating with certain audiences. In a hybrid format, it can enable marketers to test at scale, cost-effectively and at speed. Marketers will increasingly use AI-based ad testing solutions on top of, or possibly even completely replacing, survey-based results.

If nostalgia makes sense for your audience, brand, and campaign, the final step is to be  conscious of what wasn’t great about the era or moment you’re tapping into, as well as what was. The recent success of the Barbie movie showed how shining a light on how times have changed (mostly for the better) could be balanced with a clear understanding of nostalgia in its purest form.