In a world where Kate Bush can top the charts 37 years after releasing Running Up that Hill, Burger King can spectacularly return to its colourful 1990s logo, and a flurry of automotive brands such as Peugeot or Citroën carry out their own retro rebrandings, returning to their original 1930s logos in a sector which is ruled by innovation, we might ask why are today’s consumers turning to nostalgia in their purchase decisions?
In the case of Burger King, the new (or old?) direction was clear: “to create a brand that modern consumers could feel good about, ”and one which “feels less synthetic and artificial”. This may seem surprising from a fast-food chain which is leading in the use of substitute meat products, created in part using genetically modified yeast found on the nodules of soy plants, but it’s clear that its2000s-inspired skeuomorphic aesthetic was no longer enjoying positive associations with today’s consumer. For this reason, the brand returned to an aesthetic previously abandoned due to its association with greasy 1990’s fast-food that fuelled poor health and obesity.
Arch-rival McDonald’s recently made headlines for reviving Grimace as part of a hugely successful advertising campaign, its long-misunderstood purple-blob mascot (which was revealed in 2022 to be in fact a giant taste bud) through the means of a milkshake which Tik-Tok users used as a prop to participate in a trend where by drinking the shake would transport them to ominous and artificial environments fitting of a 90s kids birthday party in a soulless fast-food establishment. For its new pilot concept selling iced drinks and sandwiches, CosMc, McDonald’s opted for a retro sci-fi aesthetic which harks back to the great American tradition of 50s diners and ice-cream parlours.
It might be tempting to see this as a uniquely Gen Z phenomenon. After all, Tik-Tok is the new stomping ground of these consumers, seldom understood by anyone born before 1997, however nostalgia branding’s appeal goes beyond this age group and tapers with age. 15%of Gen Z consumers would prefer to think about the past rather than the future, matched by 14% of millennials and 50% of Gen Z feel nostalgic for certain types of media, something again seen amongst 47% of millennials.
This phenomenon is largely attributed to the state of the world we live in. Coming out of a global pandemic which upended not only individual lives but rewrote many social norms and made our digital identities even more important into a new world marked by conflict, instability, and inflation. Consumers are looking towards nostalgic brands to remind them of the “good times”, even if they occurred outside of their living memory. Over a third of Gen Zs feel nostalgic for the 1990s, even though much of this age group were born after the end of the decade.
What this means for nostalgic brands is a connection to products that remind consumers of a time when life was fun and carefree. The pandemic was a time when health ruled almost aspect of our lives, and to some, it marks the end of an era in which food became ever more natural and unprocessed. From McDonalds’ bright purple Grimacemilkshake to the rapid rise of controversial “American candy stores” in the UK which offer a variety of unregulated confectionary. Games console Xbox created three fictional flavours of cereal to promote its new Elite Controller 2, activating memories of a time when cereal would be sold with a toy inside – a practice that fell victim to increased consciousness about how we market unhealthy foods to children. Here in Spain, Nestlé dropped Jungly, a chocolate bar for kids dating from the 1990s due to dwindling demand. 5 years later, a public mobilisation led to its return, this time marketed at young adults.
In addition to this warm, fuzzy feeling that helps today’s consumer forget about rising inflation, there is another force at play: our desire to recover things that are lost or forgotten. The release of Stranger Things on Netflix caused sales of Eggos, a frozen breakfast waffle marketed by Kellogg’s in the USA, to rise by 14% in the final quarter of 2017 and caused a surge of demand for the product worldwide. Fuelled by nostalgic content on the big screen and on the phone screen, “nostalgic discovery” - the desire to taste food from a bygone era can be seen as a parallel to the ever-increasing interest in international flavours. In the same way, across Moscow the Varenichnaya No.1 restaurant chain sits amongst popular Georgian, Indian and Japanese restaurants, proudly serving popular Soviet-era foods to young, cool freelancers born years after the collapse of the USSR in1991.
In conclusion, nostalgia can be a great way to attract young people to your brand and create a lasting emotional connection with your customers, providing them with comfort and reassurance in uncertain times. Furthermore, nostalgia has helped brands become and stay relevant on new social media platforms such as TikTok, a space where many others have tried, and failed, to tap into today’s zeitgeist.
While the path ahead may be more straightforward for brands with an established consumer following and a marked history in the market, the good news is that today’s desire for discovery means that newcomers can innovate by look towards old ways of selling or finding up-to-date ways to reinvent classics to achieve similar results.