Welcome to the Land of Nostalgia

Advertisers chase the new by going back to their roots.

It’s neither a specific place nor a specific time. Nobody’s really from there, but everybody lives there. Wanderlust has been thrown out the window as social media’s driving force, yet #ThrowbackThursday still thrives. Urbandictionary.com describes nostalgia as “When you think about how great your life was a few years ago…and then depress yourself knowing it won’t be that way ever again—ever.” It’s relatable, but even more distressing that everyone knows the feeling. In these tense times, it seems our only common ground is that things were better before. Music has reupholstered 80’s new wave, millennial fashion constantly cycles back to a retrosexual wardrobe, terrifyingly successful political campaigns ride on the idea of going back to a better time.

And, of course, advertisers are there to keep the ball rolling.

Revisiting an original identity for a brand accomplishes a range of feats in an act so simple it’s almost infuriating. It pays homage to the people from before, bringing loyal customers back to their childhood, and it cements a brand’s icon status, all by going back to the original concept. Revival becomes the new reinvention. Interestingly, nostalgic marketing practices seem to be limitlessly effective on millennials. A curious observation, because how can nostalgic marketing practices even work for a generation that wasn’t even around the first time? These powerhouses will show you how it’s done.

Back to the basics

Rapid evolution in technology, design, fashion, and social values place brands in a continuous race to keep ahead of the game. Logos are ever more streamlined and packaging simplified to be consistent with today’s prevalent minimalism. Over time, this can lead a brand to lose its distinction, and the ceaseless renovation never allows a proper identity to truly sink in.

In his talk at this year’s adobo Design Series, Bruce Duckworth, co-founder of Turner Duckworth and President of AD&D, highlighted the importance of intelligent design. He cited Miller Lite, an American light beer brand that made a successful nostalgic transition on packaging alone. Previously, Miller Lite was under constant redirection, changing their cans to keep up with the market. At one point, Miller’s Lite can almost completely echo their competitor’s, and the brand’s sales reported a 7% decline. Their solution was to recall their original packaging design — gothic font on a white plain and logo — without introducing any new campaigns, products or promotions. The visual identity, first created in the 1970s, was revived by carefully tweaking specific elements (like the centerpiece red barley crest, absent from the packaging since 1994), while maintaining their core image.

By simply returning to their original concept, Miller Lite grew bottle sales by as much as 30% without advertising. The brand successfully leaned on nostalgic capital to re-establish themselves as the original light beer. New audiences, who didn’t experience Miller Lite’s initial packaging, were catered to with the streamlined design and given new ‘ownership’ over the coveted original, uniting consumers from all generations.

Not just for the old folks

Another effective method of nostalgic marketing is to tug on those heartstrings. Emotion is possibly the most universal tool to reach a wide audience. When an ad incites memories and feelings are so wistful it almost hurts, it triggers a demand not based on practical necessity or value, but on a personal need to feel comforted.

Take Jollibee, master of exploiting public emotion. Using a now-iconic TV spot from the 1980s, Jollibee’s “Langhap Sarap” ad by Publicis JimenezBasic panders to parents and younger audiences alike. The ad revived the catchy Langhap Sarap jingle, only making minor adjustments in lyrics and updating the track to sound more modern. Where the old spot is quintessentially 80s (bright colors, Farrah Fawcett hair and short shorts galore), the reboot connects to a millennial audience by using today’s young personalities and viral sensations (there’s even a dab thrown in for good measure). Central elements of the original, namely the jeepney and two astronauts, are kept intact.

Timing, in this instance, is key. The teen audience of the 80s is now 30 years older with teens of its own to raise, so in truth, the ad targeted the teenagers in everyone. Jollibee perpetuates the idea that although you’ve grown up, they’ve stayed exactly the same, just as you remembered.

Similarly, Lucky Me Pancit Canton catered to a more recently grown up audience with #OurOneAndOnly. Lucky Me’s return to their original pancit formula was given a boost with the ad’s reunion of John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo. The pair, prevalent in rom-coms of the 2000s, engage in the typical flirty date behaviors, which would normally be trivial if it weren’t for their glaring love team status. These brands make maliciously good use of a generation’s teenage memories to guarantee the ads’ success.. On paper, these campaigns only pander to a certain age range, but the nature of that commonly shared experience ensures a huge response.


A living legend

At the head of the icon parade marches the mother ship of brand identity, Coca Cola. The company’s marketing history is packed with pop-cuolture iconography credited to the brand. Now almost a trivial element, the glass contour bottle was a watershed, assertively distinguishing Coke simply through packaging. 1945’s red disc became the widely accepted symbol for Coke everywhere, to the point that the company practically took full ownership of bright red. Spenserian script, polar bears, the phrase “ice-cold” are virtually Coca Cola property. Even the modern, twinkly-eyed Santa Claus many of us think of as “classic” is a Coca Cola invention (St. Nick was given the full red and white makeover to sell Coke as a holiday product).

Coca Cola has an incredibly diverse marketing portfolio—almost too diverse. With a plethora of campaigns and gimmicks updated every possible season and specialized to region, demographic and individual product, Coke almost engaged in a cultural bombardment. For younger consumers overflowing with choice, it’s just too much.

This was the challenge for Turner Duckworth. At the adobo Design Series, Bruce Duckworth noted that today’s audience values sophistication and simplicity, the opposite of Coke’s colorful history. Under Turner Duckworth, Coca Cola, Diet, Zero and Life alike were tied together in one swift move under the ‘One Brand’ strategy, a 2016 global campaign that redefined Coca Cola’s entire identity. The ubiquitous red disc was the common denominator, serving as a visual unifier across redesigned packaging. Over the years, the disc has been glossed over, frozen, thawed, and practically thrown out with the bathwater, yet it remains Coke’s blood-red, circular heart.

To tackle a huge brand with a complex identity, Turner Duckworth simplified that identity to its very basics. The move was foolproof, doubling down on the plain truth that the red disc works. Unsurprisingly, homecomings have always been on Coke’s side. When the company tried to change the formula of Coke in 1985 with “New Coke”, the public demand for the classic recipe forced the company to revive the original. New Coke has since been phased out, and, just like the remainder of the company, only the good ol’ classic remains.

The Old One Out

One expects nostalgic marketing to honor the past. Celebrating a brand’s history is honorable, sentimental, rightfully legitimizing the hard work of previous generations. So of course this elicits a feeling of moral satisfaction, rooted in our society’s obsession with patriotism. But there’s always the black sheep. The alternate technique sees a brand’s self-congratulation replaced with self-deprecation; where instead of paying tribute to your past, you make fun of it. It’s a bold move that shows both a re-visitation of an original identity and an evolution in values. It’s risky, because you stand a chance of completely undermining your past achievements, thus estranging your loyal customers while only placing bets that you’ll gain a new niche market. And it’s daring because even suggesting a portrayal of a brand’s history in a negative light could spell disaster; hence this approach is best left alone.

Enter Old Spice. By 2008, the heritage deodorant was struggling, facing strong competition from Axe, who dominated the young adult market with promisingly seductive campaigns that simultaneously defined Old Spice as just for grandpas. The ‘Glacial Falls’ scent wasn’t performing and the 1-800-PROVE-IT campaign was on the rocks. Wieden+Kennedy transformed the brand forever with the viral “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign, which introduced Isaiah Mustafa, aka Old Spice Man (Hello, ladies). Old Spice Man is hyper-masculine, hyper-charismatic, and hyper-seductive, but most importantly, completely unrealistic. The ads are jam-packed with ridiculously extravagant displays of exhibitionist masculine bravado, such as power sawing a countertop, diving off a waterfall and riding a motorcycle shirtless, all in rapid-fire succession. Similarly, former NFL star Terry Crews touted the brand in an absurdist interactive online campaign in which users could play musical instruments by flexing Crew’s muscles. The campaign boosted sales by 107%, according to data from The Nielsen Company.

Although not immediately evident, this extravagant rebranding actually takes a leaf from Old Spice’s own marketing past. 1978’s The Mark of a Man campaign sold masculinity (as defined by the ads) as a desirable trait. While successful at the time, this dreamboat machismo would be looked down upon by today’s gender-stereotype-aware audience. With “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”, Old Spice turned masculinity on its head, making fun of themselves for an audience with changed values, drastically revising rather than making a complete transformation. This achieved both a recall and an identity shift that will be remembered for a very long time.

This era’s obsession with commodifying nostalgia could be read as dissatisfaction with our reality. For marketers, nostalgia taps into a coveted truth that is shared by most, if not all potential consumers. Audiences recognize the durability of an icon, the importance of distinction, and the value of self-reflection. That’s something that shouldn’t be ignored, because in this day and age, if what people really want is a little comfort in what they know, then so be it.