How brands can leverage nostalgia without living in the past

How brands can leverage nostalgia without living in the past
By Tim Barlow
Senior Director, Brand Strategy
May 23, 2023
The past has a persistent magnetism, playing on a sense of comfort that brands often leverage as a shortcut to emotionally resonate with consumers.

Nostalgia marketing is everywhere—from Pepsi unveiling a “new” logo that harkens back to the original to Rakuten bringing back Cher from Clueless for their 2023 Super Bowl spot. Of course, it’s not just brands—90s and early-aughts fashion is back alongside disposable cameras and flip phones. There seems to be a never-ending cycle of consumer love for the past.

In addition to its allure with younger consumers, nostalgia can provide a much-needed sense of relief, especially in moments of heightened volatility and uncertainty when looking back is more comforting than looking ahead. Life tends to grow more complex with age and the added responsibilities that come with it; by comparison, the past often has the allure of quaint stability. This appeal intensifies as people tend to view the past through rose-colored glasses, attaching sweeter and more wholesome feelings to memories that the original moment might not warrant. So, it’s no surprise that marketers and advertisers keep returning to the well to guide consumers to a happy place from which to build positive associations with their brands.

While significant value can be gleaned for brands that strategically leverage nostalgia, anchoring your hook to nostalgia alone is not a sustainable engine for growth—your brand can’t move forward if it’s stuck in the past. Successful marketing will identify and connect to the core of what makes past moments so special and tie them into the future, creating one continuous thread that weaves together that authentic, past connection with optimism for the future. Too often, marketers guide people to an over-simplified archetype of the past and leave them there. We must also pave the way to come back in a manner that authentically connects the past with the present.

Examples of brands succeeding with nostalgia

Shared values and beliefs can drive both customer acquisition and retention—all while deepening the emotional connection consumers have with a brand. Values can authentically ground the past, while beliefs can express those timeless values in a culturally relevant way with the present.

A recent example that perfectly encapsulates this approach can be found in Chevy’s electric vehicle (EV) commercial, “Mrs Hayes.” In the spot, a classic Chevy and its elderly owner are embraced and cared for by a younger community. A neighbor rescues a stranded Mrs. Hayes in his newer electric model and repairs her classic Chevy. It’s a holiday commercial with all the necessary sap, but at its core, the spot connects a timeless past with an optimistic, loving future.

Another great example of this approach comes from recent work done by Silk to launch its plant-based Nextmilk. Silk developed a nostalgic throwback to the legendary “Got Milk?” advertisements made famous in the 90s. The campaign featured the children of celebrities and athletes who donned the iconic cow’s milk mustaches in the original, but this time with Nextmilk mustaches. The work leverages the emotionally rich nostalgic iconography of the past but brings it forward to today and offers a clever wink to the future.

Balancing tradition and progress for brand success

To successfully deliver on this approach, brands should consider the following:

  1. Be kind to the past. Honor tradition where possible, recognize its inherent sentiment, and don’t react against it needlessly. Conversely, brands should ignore, oppose, or outright reject traditions that were exclusionary or discriminatory.
  2. Evaluate how the past is leveraged based on what values its usage is meant to convey today. Nostalgic symbols, icons, scenes, characters, packaging, smells, and more can be used as emotional anchors and markers of authenticity, longevity, and stability—but don’t be so beholden to such totems that their continued presence blocks progress.
  3. Utilize shared values and beliefs to both ground your brand and successfully connect the past with the present via a clear trajectory that points towards an optimistic and exciting future.

For brands, there is undeniable power when leveraging and harnessing the emotional resonance of the past in more intentional ways. However, marketers must recognize that connecting consumers with a positive memory or association is only half the battle. To be effective and have a long-lasting, positive impact on your brand, those positive associations from the past must unite with the present moment, align with the timely and relevant beliefs of today, and offer a trajectory to the future that brings consumers hope and even excitement to move forward.


ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
Go to ICF Next
Meet the author
  1. Tim Barlow, Senior Director, Brand Strategy

    Tim is a strategy and brand leader with deep expertise in connecting brands with the people that matter for them. View bio

The latest marketing trends, uncovered.

Subscribe to get insights, commentary, and news sent straight to your inbox.