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    Navigating nostalgia for Gen-Z consumers

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    Nico Bryan, September 5, 2022.

    For many brands, marketing to Gen-Z is a daunting challenge. At a superficial level, these mysterious, digitally native descendants of Gen X are far removed from bygone eras: they’re more universally educated, ethnically diverse, and infamously more socially and environmentally progressive. And though it might be easier for many to ignore this wave of ‘wokeism’, ultimately, brands can’t afford to forgo these younger generations. As the Bank of America recently found, Gen-Z will generate 27% of the world’s income by 2030. So naturally, brands and marketing publications alike are scrambling to piece together the needs and wants of these seemingly puzzling young people.

    “Though it might be easier for many to ignore this wave of ‘wokeism’, ultimately, brands can’t afford to forgo these younger generations.”

    And so, during a period where Web3 and the metaverse are metastasizing across what feels like every screen in the world, why does it also feel like Gen-Z are so oddly obsessed with nostalgia? As noted by several marketing publications, #nostalgia on TikTok has over 44.2 billion views, Gen-Z is fascinated by Y2K fashion, and Stranger Things recently broke Netflix’s record for one-week viewing numbers with 7.3 billion minutes of streaming.

    Of course, it’s no secret that nostalgia is, and always has been, an influential instrument in marketing. A recent meta-analysis has found that finely tuned nostalgic messages have a positive effect on persuasion, not least if the brand/product plucks at the heartstrings of a consumer’s personal memories. Equally, consumers are more likely to part ways with money when nostalgia is somehow involved. And nostalgia is not new, either. Many of you reading this might recall the famous 1980s Levi’s 501 Launderette commercial, which harked back to the 1950s; it can’t just have been Nick Kamen’s good looks that invited an 800% spike in sales for the American denim company. Just as Gen-Z are imitating icons from the early 2000s, many teens in the 1980s were doing the same with the 1950s.

    The evidence here, then, suggests two things: first, that nostalgia is cyclical; and second, that using nostalgia is a no-brainer. But how come Gen-Z buy into brand nostalgia from eras they never experienced?

    The Stranger Things effect

    If we return to the streaming sensation, Stranger Things, we can reasonably speculate that the young cast alone, at least algorithmically, will attract a younger audience. But, perhaps more importantly, Stranger Things doesn’t depict realities of the 1980s (and yes, I know it’s a series about the supernatural). I mean to say that, with obvious odes to classics such as Alien or E.T, the ‘nostalgia’ in Stranger Things is not entirely reminiscent of reality, but rooted in the rose-tinted ideals which have echoed forward from that time, in this case 80s American Film and Entertainment. That is: good entertainment, cool retro outfits and a life of innocent simplicity, with a pinch of irony and political correctness added in. I’m speculating, but I would argue that this has allowed Stranger Things to successfully curate and communicate a series which centres around a bunch of bumbling walkie-talkie obsessed kids at a frequency that Gen-Z and Millennials alike can consume.

    Nostalgic marketing campaigns from household brands

    “Let’s face it, anyone, and I mean literally anyone, can find comfort in the humble cassette player, or a spark in a kickass synth score.”

    With this apparent growth in interest towards nostalgia, many of the strongest brands have realised they can benefit from buying into their past as well as their future. Purely through product placement in season 4 of Stranger Things alone, it is estimated that 140 brands benefitted from $25 million of free publicity. In season 3, Coca-Cola benefited from $1.5 million of exposure in the first three days of streaming; this year they also released Coco-Cola Creations, a soft drink ‘born in the metaverse.’ Burger King, another beneficiary of product placement in Stranger Things, is also taking a janus-faced approach to their marketing. Their new logo which, ironically, is seen in Stranger Things, couches BK in history and has been a ‘simple,’ ‘confident’ and crisp twist that has helped to re-ignite their flame grilled brand. At the same time, they’ve also become home to the Upside Down Whopper, in partnership with Stranger Things, and recently produced a ‘Keep it Real Meal’ NFT campaign. And finally, we can’t forget Nike. Their recent Seen it All video was an excellent example of how celebrating sports stars of the past, the present and the future is objectively cool to a curious Gen-Z audience. Because it’s not about choosing one era to fawn over, but about appreciating each, individually and collectively.

    In an attempt to attract Gen-Z, brands are caught up in a frenzy of futurism; social media and the maturation of the metaverse has seen brand execs downloading TikTok, taking a dip into Decentraland, or chasing a Battle Royale W on Fortnite. As important as this shift undoubtedly is, these recent months have proven to be a reminder that nostalgia is powerful – and good brands know how to harness both the future, and the past, to attract Gen-Z. Because let’s face it, anyone, and I mean literally anyone, can find comfort in the humble cassette player, or a spark in a kickass synth score.