The pull of the past: how to respond?

We’re hearing a lot in our research these days about people looking back with affection, nostalgia and yearning for days gone by – when life was better – and wishing things were like they used to be then.

Not surprising, really, given times are tough for many.

So how can brands respond?

It’s tempting to think (and consumers often suggest) that the answer is to bring back the old pack and the old ads, or make them more ‘retro’ in some way.

While this can be powerful (notably for Cadbury UK in its 200th year), our view is that it’s not just about putting on the clothing of the past. In fact, we think that most of the time it’s not actually about the past at all – because it’s not the past that people want.

Our insight on this oft-recurring theme is that what people are missing is the emotional benefits they associate with the past and wish they could get back. And the opportunity for brands is to bring those benefits to life in the present, and also bear them very closely in mind when choosing the brand values and qualities to move towards in the future.

Moreover, being drawn to the past isn’t always about missing it. As Lucid’s semiotics and cultural analysis expert Dr Nick Gadsby observes:

“It’s interesting to note that younger people are interested in past media (TV shows, music, films, etc), but strictly speaking this isn’t nostalgia because nostalgia is about loss and they never had these things to begin with. What younger people are really looking for here are experiences that are different to (and better than) the present, and they’re finding them in the past. And for them, things from the past are also experienced as ‘new’”

Again, it’s an emotional benefit they’re after, rather than to be taken back in time.

That benefit is likely to be something that reflects values / feelings people feel aren’t available (or as available) in the present, such as:

  • Simplicity and tangibility, or comfort or security:  We hear a lot of yearning for times when life felt simpler compared the overwhelm of our overloaded, overstimulated, stressful lives
  • Serendipity and freedom or magic and excitement: We see this in people’s longing for how Christmas, Easter and the summer holidays used to feel in their childhoods, or ‘back in the day’.
  • Community and connection: Psychologists and social historians have written about how, in the 60s and 70s, we saw nostalgia for the war years – because despite the uncertainty, stress and grief, there was also a sense of community and solidarity. We’re seeing something similar now, too, in ‘Covid Nostalgia’; with people viewing the pandemic fondly as a time of togetherness, and by contrast feeling a little lost for what holds us together now – particularly at a time of global economic and political unrest, and when families are often physically far apart and emotionally disconnected, even in their own homes (screen-watching instead of talking etc).
  • Or simple joy and fun that we feel isn’t as available now. We see this in people harking back to funny ads from the past, and brands that were brave and brought them joy and laughter. A powerful dynamic to harness.

As Tim Wildschutt (psychology professor at Southampton University) writes, nostalgia is an important way we manage loneliness and anxiety – by selectively recalling and elaborating positive memories vs negative memories. So it’s a normal thing for people to do in times of stress and doesn’t mean people actually want to go back in time.

Whatever the missing feeling is, the important thing for brands is first defining that emotional core, and then identifying the signs, symbols, stories and other vehicles that can carry it into the present and the future, incorporating that into the thinking around comms, social, packaging and the brand’s forward planning and innovation strategy.

Semiotics and cultural analysis can be very powerful aids to this process alongside qual, which is why Lucid often combines both using our seamless, integrated ‘double helix’ approach to get more emotional insight from people and create a clearer way forward for brands in a really practical way

Either way, it’s about finding the emotion, and not about rolling back the clock.

To hear more or discuss, do get in touch by emailing or calling +44 7710 946493