They Love the '90s: Using Nostalgia to Woo Millennials

Why does nostalgia give people a warm, fuzzy feeling--and make them more likely to open their wallets? Find out why channeling the '90s in your marketing efforts is a smart move right now.
August 18, 2014

If you take a look around, you’ll notice crop tops, high-waisted jeans, overalls and flower-patterned dresses are cool again. You’re not imagining it: The '90s are making a comeback with a vengeance. Why now? Because smart marketers understand that one way to get consumers to part with their hard-earned dollars is to remind them of happier times.

When people see things that remind them of their cherished memories, they’re more likely spend money on it, according to the results of a new study by researchers at the Grenoble School of Management in France. “We wondered why nostalgia is so commonplace in marketing," the researchers wrote. "One reason could be that feeling nostalgic weakens a person’s desire for money. In other words, someone might be more likely to buy something when they are feeling nostalgic.

“We found that when people have higher levels of social connectedness and feel that their wants and needs can be achieved through the help of others," the researchers added, "their ability to prioritize and keep control over their money becomes less pressing.”

The Good Old Days

For the study, which will be published in the October 2014 issue of Journal of Consumer Research, the researchers conducted multiple experiments to test whether feeling “a sense of nostalgia-evoked social connectedness” would affect the way people want to spend, donate or value money. To do this, one group was asked to recall, reflect and write about a nostalgic past memory; a second group was asked to think about new or future memories. The study found that the group which thought about the past was more willing to pay for products and give more money (but not more time) to others.

This type of research is exactly why brands these days are looking to elicit feelings of nostalgia when launching new product lines or promotions. And '90s nostalgia is particularly hot.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal magazine put Brazilian soccer star Neymar on its cover wearing a nostalgic, '90s-era Calvin Klein Obsession sweatshirt. Calvin Klein also hired Lottie Moss, Kate Moss’ little sister, to be the face of its new clothing campaign. Lottie’s black-and-white photos for Calvin Klein Jeans were shot in a remarkably similar way to the photos her older sister posed for more than 20 years ago in Calvin Klein ads.

The fashion industry isn’t the only one using nostalgia to drive sales. Remember when boy bands ruled the world in the '90s? Then the millennium came, and boy bands realized their fans had grown up and moved on. But 15 years after disappearing from the limelight, new boy bands are emerging and are suddenly cool again—just look at the enormous success of One Direction and The Wanted.

Even smart marketers from the Disney channel knew they shouldn’t miss out on the '90s nostalgia ride and created the series Girl Meets World, a follow-up to the well-loved '90s sitcom, Boy Meets World.

Who Loves the '90s?

Brands are focusing on the '90s, because they know they need to tap into the spending power of the biggest and most diverse generation that’s ever existed: the millennials. Many of these young adults grew up in the 1990s and are now entering their peak earning and spending years. Ignoring them would be a bad business move.

But what is it about the past that’s so seductive? According to Dr. Clay Routledge, a social psychologist and associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, when people think about the happy memories from their past, that nostalgia makes them feel good about the future. It also increases people's self-esteem and their perception of social connectedness.

Nostalgia can even make us feel warmer on cold days—it’s literally the “warm and fuzzy” feeling that allows you to put your guard down and be more accepting and carefree. After conducting various studies over the course of several years, Constantine Sedikides, a professor of social and personality psychology at the University of Southampton in England, also found that people are more accepting of those they don’t know after they spend some time thinking about the past.

Smart companies can successfully use nostalgia as a marketing tool to build a strong brand with a loyal following. Just stick to your core vision, but capitalize on the nostalgia trend by creating new lines or campaigns in addition to your main products and services.

Helping customers reconnect with the era of their childhood may just give them that "warm and fuzzy" feeling about your products and services—and help you create a profitable new sales stream.

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Photo: Getty Images