Smells Like Gen Z Nostalgia

The following was previously published in an earlier edition of Marketing Insider.

Nostalgia is almost always a good bet if you’re a brand. After all, a significant slice of your consumer base is likely to recall the world of their childhood with a hazy fondness, and as marketers know, pushing those memory receptors can be a powerful source of energy for a brand to tap. That’s provided it’s done the right way.

Currently, the 1990s are having a moment, driven primarily by Gen Z, who are literally nostalgic for any time before theirs. These folks aren't reliving their misspent youth, like older millennials and Gen Xers might be, but instead are crushing hard on the era’s design, fashions, music and pop culture.

Look around the media landscape of 2022, and ‘90s nostalgia is everywhere. Television shows like “Friends” and “Seinfeld” remain as in-demand on streaming as they were when they first were on now seemingly quaint network television. Meanwhile, other ‘90s shows like “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (now just “Bel-Air”) and “Sex and the City” (reinvented as "And Just Like That") have all been successfully rebooted for both original and new audiences.



Heading out to a concert this summer? Your choices include Rage Against The Machine, Alanis Morissette and Snoop Dog (who, we can all agree, has proven himself a man of every era).

It’s not surprising that Gen Z, coming of age during a global pandemic, in an era of constant volatility and anxiety, has embraced the emotional safety and social connectivity that nostalgia promises. It’s also not surprising the cultural landscape is awash in a slew of rebrands and campaigns hearkening back to a simpler yesteryear.

Think Magic Spoon, a cereal brand high in protein and low carbs mimicking the taste of millennial and Gen Z’s childhood favorites. Similarly,
Geico, with its “Scoop, There It Is” ad (featuring a play on the 1994 song “Whomp, There It Is”) became a viral hit last year. A slew of other brands have successfully resurrected mascots, classic tunes, retro versions of products and more, all in an effort to connect with throwback-thirsty consumers.

It’s especially powerful  when well-executed, modern nostalgia embraces the best of the past, but layers in today’s expectations around diversity, inclusivity, and purpose. Brands are always evolving, but they need not dispense with their histories if they make those histories (that is, their stories) relevant to today’s Gen Z consumers. These consumers expect digital fluency, transparency, and a clear proposition that inspires consumer desire and loyalty.

How should brands navigate nostalgia to inform their 2022 and beyond marketing efforts?

  • Connect deeply: Brands shouldn’t simply mine their product and design archives, but rather tap into this longer-lasting form of nostalgia inspired by today's desire for comfort and creative inspiration.
  • Walk the tightrope: Balance the appeal of the past with a need to resonate with a modern mindset and modern expectations.
  • Stay on top of social: Gen Z formulates nostalgia through social media, from the return of Tumblr to TikTok’s nostalgia engine. Brands must listen closely to keep pace.
  • Build on special occasions: Brands benefit from nostalgia marketing when campaigns revolve around certain events such as anniversaries or TV/film reboots.

Given Gen Z’s, as well as older generations’, appetite for nostalgia during a time of continued uncertainty and the supersonic acceleration of today’s nostalgic hype cycles (again, thank you, TikTok), I expect cultural rewinds to persist for the near future. And that, as my 1990s self would say, is pretty “fly.”

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