Should food brands look back to look forwards?

BrandOpus associate strategy director Molly Rowan Hamilton delves into the power of nostalgia, and explores the ways food and drinks brands can use it to connect with consumers

Writer and comedian Danny Pellegrino was recently quoted in Vogue on his belief that “nostalgia is a powerful drug” that we “clutch onto even tighter during turbulent times”. I know what he means. Nostalgia is my current drug of choice. I’ve become obsessed with anything that cures my longing for the bygone era of the time we now know as BC (Before-Covid). 2020 has well and truly removed the rug from beneath my feet. And in a world where so much of my life has changed, I feel myself constantly turning to my ‘old life’ or generations past, to counter my existential dread.

I’ve done the baking I used to do as a kid. I’ve done gardening, I’ve listened to old music, I’ve bought a record player, I’ve attempted sewing. I’ve found myself desperately trying to get myself tickets to drive-thru movie theatres across the city. I’ve pre-ordered one of the Juicy Couture velour tracksuits from the brand’s relaunch. I’ve been texting my ex. Most recently, I’ve signed up for an online collage-making class led by Ruby Kean on a new experiential platform thirdplace.

I was hooked by the introductory line: “Whilst we may not be able to go to the theatre this fall, we can certainly travel there in our minds.” For collage maker Kean, harnessing the power of nostalgia is something she understands well. And like all the other activities I’ve been taking part in, transporting people emotionally to a specific moment in time or a collective, subconscious memory, is central to many of her artworks.

For it to be harnessed correctly, nostalgia has to bring together past and present, old and new, in perfect synergy

Transportation is at the heart of what makes nostalgia so intoxicatingly powerful for brands. In the wider marketing landscape, tapping into nostalgia is nothing new. For a long time, companies have understood that nostalgia has a strong emotional pull on our wallet strings. The ‘Nostalgia Effect’ as documented by Decision Lab, will simply “make us more willing to spend money” by taking us into a more idyllic time in the past to enable them to be more stable, secure and at ease in the present.

Yet often, trying to tap into nostalgia is met with hesitance from marketeers. To some, nostalgia is a negative emotion, suitable only for heritage brands to play back repetitive stories of their past in order to claim some sort of legitimacy in the present. But to see it as such is to fundamentally miss the understanding of its true meaning (and potential). For it to be harnessed correctly, nostalgia has to bring together past and present, old and new, in perfect synergy to overcome a challenge or introduce the unknown so that brands, and people, can walk confidently into the future.