If the success of the Netflix series Stranger Things has taught us anything, it’s that nostalgia can have a profound impact on consumers in the marketplace. The series, which transports viewers back to the early 1980s, is brilliant on many levels, even if, like myself, you haven’t exactly loved the writing throughout each season. Yet, even in the moments when I found the plot taking unnecessary and even outlandish twists (what was with the teenage gang of superhumans in the second season?), I remained a loyalist, glued to my television screen.
I couldn’t help but marvel at how perfectly the show always managed to give viewers exactly what they so desperately craved even when the plot was severely lacking: a chance to relive our idealized pasts.
Filled with pop culture references, fashion choices, and music that tug at Millennial and Gen-X heartstrings, watching the show can transport us back to our adolescent years. And these feelings of nostalgia are precisely what keep us coming back for more each season. Stranger Things, however, is hardly alone in using nostalgia to appeal to consumers. In fact, over the last several years, nostalgia has all but dominated the marketplace.
A Blast to the Past
When season three of Stranger Things debuted on Fourth of July weekend, it broke records by drawing in an average of 12.8 million viewers each minute.This craving for the “good ole days” is so prevalent in pop culture at present, it sometimes appears that original ideas are no longer en vogue. In the US alone, the series reached 26.4 million unique viewers within a couple of days. On July 8, Netflix posted a tweet boasting that the series had been watched on over 40.7 million accounts across the streaming platform. Clearly, there is something about this show that has resonated deeply with American audiences, and in this author’s opinion, it wasn’t the writing.
When I posed the question to my Facebook audience as to whether or not I should watch the most recent season, nearly all the comments in favor of me doing so referenced nostalgia as part of the reasoning. This craving for the “good ole days” is so prevalent in pop culture at present, it sometimes appears that original ideas are no longer en vogue.
Over the last several years, the television and film industries seem almost entirely preoccupied with resurrecting older ideas. Reboots of old television shows have been extremely popular, with shows like Full House and Twilight Zone appealing to audiences who are eager to get one more taste of their youthful years. In fact, the former was just renewed for its fifth season, proving that it has most definitely struck a sentimental chord with viewers.
Likewise, Disney has jumped on this nostalgia bandwagon and now seems almost incapable of coming up with original ideas, dedicating much of its resources to remaking 1980s and 1990s animated classics into live-action feature films. Already, 2019 has seen the release of Aladdin, The Lion King, and Dumbo; two more, Lady and the Tramp and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, are scheduled to be released near the end of the year.
Buzzfeed has often relied on nostalgia to garner clicks with several different listicles featuring toys popular in the 1980s and the 1990s, not to mention its several articles with titles like “50 Things That'll Make '90s Kids Say, ‘Oh, I Completely Forgot About That.’"
This obsession with our past is not restricted to media. Even common household commodities have participated in this “throwback” culture.
But this obsession with our past is not restricted to media. Even common household commodities have participated in this “throwback” culture.
When I was in junior high, Surge was the soda sought after by anyone who was cool and in search of an intense caffeine rush. This trend only lasted a few years, and eventually, Surge was discontinued. You can imagine my surprise, then, when on a recent trip to the convenience store, I saw cans of Surge sitting next to Sprite and Coke. Pepsi even recently resurrected “Crystal Pepsi,” a special flavor release popular in the 1990s that had since been taken off shelves.
Other brands, like General Mills cereal, contributed to this rising trend by introducing, or reintroducing, “retro” packaging of its most popular cereals, like Cheerios, Trix, and Lucky Charms. And just like Stranger Things and Fuller House, these vintage reboots have found high favor with consumers eager to pay money for a short trip back to their youths.
And this trip down memory lane doesn’t just make consumers feel good, it pays off for the companies, as well.
Tapping into Nostalgia
In 1975, Miller Lite did the impossible when it found success pedaling diet beer to the male-dominated American beer market. While it was the first of its kind, eventually, other beer brands jumped on the bandwagon and began making their own light beers. With more options available, it wasn’t long before Miller Lite lost its edge in the congested marketplace for diet beer.
Miller Lite began to see steep declines in sales, and in 2008, when Miller Lite and Coors Light joined forces for the joint venture “MillerCoors,” Miller had to face the fact that it wasn’t even its own brand’s top-selling beer anymore, capitulating that title to Coors. Yet in 2014, something quite extraordinary happened that saved Miller Lite from a premature death.
In the second half of 2014, after the retro label was brought back, Miller Lite sold 43 million more cans than it did in 2013.
Miller Lite decided to bring back its original packaging, selling the beer in its retro-style white can, as opposed to the new blue can, for a limited time. This call to the past may have only been meant as a short-term promotion, but it threw the beer a lifeline when it needed it most. Sales for Miller Lite began to climb quickly. In fact, the growth was so strong that the company began to use the original white logo on all Miller Lite products, including glass bottles and coasters. In the second half of 2014, after the retro label was brought back, Miller Lite sold 43 million more cans than it did in 2013. Miller Lite’s market share increased from 6.2 percent to 7.5 percent in a single year, Fortune reported—an increase of 20 percent.
Research conducted on the nostalgia market found that “In 2012 alone, nostalgia was cited as a top trend in products such as toys, food and even Oscar-winning movies.” Researchers found it highly probable that “someone might be more likely to buy something when they are feeling nostalgic,” making it a useful marketing tool. While this is most certainly true, it is about a lot more than just marketing. There is something about nostalgia that the human psyche craves.
Delicate but Potent
Surge, Full House, Aladdin, and the other products and media mentioned were popular or hold some sentimental value to those raised in the 80s and 90s. While Gen Z is the new up and coming generation, Millennials and younger Gen Xers still make up the bulk of the American consumer base, and these are the people who are eager to purchase relics from their past.
While this might explain why certain products or media calling back to the 80s or 90s, like Stranger Things, have become so popular, it still doesn’t explain why human beings have this deep longing to return, however briefly, to the past.
In the closing episode of the first season of the show Mad Men, which takes place in the 1960s, John Hamm’s character, advertising and creative genius Don Draper, demonstrates what a powerful tool nostalgia is in a famous monologue.
Draper is assigned with creating and pitching an ad campaign to Kodak for their “new” automatic slide projector. Oozing with the charm so inherent to Draper’s character, he gives a speech that is so touching it earned the episode critical acclaim and several award nominations.
Prefacing his presentation to Kodak, he says:
Well, technology is a glittering lure. But there's the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash—if they have a sentimental bond with the product.
My first job, I was in-house at a fur company, with this old pro copywriter. Greek, named Teddy. And Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is "new." Creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of... calamine lotion. But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product: nostalgia. It's delicate... but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound." It's a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.
Speaking specifically of the slide projector that lets consumers revisit their most cherished past memories with the click of a button, Draper says:
This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again … It lets us travel the way a child travels—around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.
Nostalgia Is a Luxury Item
In many ways, the boom of the nostalgia market has served as a time machine, letting young adults go back to a “simpler time” when they were not burdened by adulting. A time when, in their minds at least, they didn’t have so many worries: their career, the economy, property taxes, or supporting a family. They could just be—as only a child or adolescent can.
This ability to capture a piece of our past is a manifestation of just how important subjective value is in the marketplace.
It’s really not about the movie, the toy, or product being sold; it’s about the stories and the memories these relics stir within each individual consumer. Each time we choose to buy something nostalgic, we are purchasing the ability to experience a tiny morsel of our childhood again. And this ability to capture a piece of our past is a manifestation of just how important subjective value is in the marketplace.
Nostalgic purchases are, by and large, not made out of necessity. But as consumers living in one of the most economically prosperous countries in the world, we have the luxury of making our purchasing decisions based on our emotional responses to a product rather than just our needs alone. And this has allowed the nostalgia market to flourish while also giving consumers exactly the kind of reminiscent experience they longed for.