At the ripe old age of five, there was nothing I wanted more than a hot pink Motorola Razr. While I enjoyed playing Snake and found great satisfaction in pressing in phone numbers to call relatives on the brick Nokias my parents owned, they just didn’t have the same chic factor as the Razr did, with its flip-open functions, camera, and variety of attachable phone charms. To quell my incessant nagging, my parents did eventually get me a hot pink Barbie toy flip phone (on which I couldn’t make calls or play Snake, but it did light up and play music, redeeming it just a little), and after a short while I forgot all about my want for a Motorola Razr and moved onto bigger and better things.
I had largely forgotten about my Razr dreams until 2019, when news of foldable smartphones started emerging. I was immediately taken with the idea. There was something novel about it; both nostalgic and exciting – I mean, a smartphone that can fold in half? That deserved serious kudos. Despite numerous initial issues arising in the reviews of these foldable smartphones, it cannot be denied that marketing through the nostalgic ‘return’ of the flip phone had reached quite a large consumer audience. And it’s a tactic that’s used now more than ever.
It’s easy to understand why. In an era of uncertainty, unease, and imminent climate disaster, there’s a certain comfort in looking back on simpler and more predictable times. In the digital era, the past is always present. We are exposed to nostalgia daily, through social media platforms, in books, film, music, and TV. Marketing through nostalgia works so well because we’re so entrenched in it. And businesses know this all too well.
If I do a quick Google search of ‘nostalgia marketing’, the results are geared toward implementing it to grow businesses and brands. Most articles speak of nostalgia marketing building a sense of trust by tapping into familiar and positive concepts for specific audience demographics. The aim here is to introduce new audience markets to products, while also facilitating a sense of reminiscence in older generations.
A review of trends across the past year highlights the effectiveness of this marketing tactic. The 2022 YouTube Culture & Trends Report found that 82% of Gen Z watch content in order to feel nostalgic. A quick peruse of Google Trends finds that searches relating to Kate Bush spiked when the fourth season of Stranger Things was streaming, as did searches to purchase Tamagotchi at the time of release of the new Tamagotchi Uni, and finding Super Mario Bros games when the movie arrived in cinemas.
However, while there is evidently joy in revisiting past favourites and memories, these waves of interest do quickly recede. The market is constantly churning out new products, and with the help of social media, consumers are consuming at even faster rates. Previously, trends tended to operate via the ‘20-year-rule’, referring to the concept that popular trends leave the public eye and remerge in popularity within 20 years. With the advent of social media, the rule is basically now obsolete. Microtrends are a constant presence on TikTok, where looks and aesthetics are grouped together in an approximation of what can only be described as a video-based Pinterest board that are bound to come in and out of fashion in rapid succession. Previously, the traditional five stage life cycle of a fashion trend – starting with its introduction, then leading to a rise, peak, decline and obsolescence – tended to last for at least a few years, but now? This whole cycle is condensed, lasting for a few months, if not a few weeks. The same can be said for technology, music, and film.
It seems obvious that the shorter length of these trend cycles can be linked to issues of overconsumption. Everything and anything is constantly accessible, available to buy within minutes no matter whether we need them or not. Businesses push new technologies, fashion, and entertainment forward to fuel the rapid nature of micro-trends and do so by pulling on the emotional connections formed by nostalgia-led marketing. It’s a past-obsessed pop culture mess of our own making. Longevity is no longer, or has perhaps never been, the aim. Accessibility to past cultural artefacts has resulted in obsession. Ironically, it’s a stark difference from the past.