Is nostalgia killing or breathing new life into creativity?

We ask a host of marketers where they stand on the issue

Whenever we run any articles or pieces around nostalgia as a magazine, they tend to do very well. Clearly, love for the ’90s and 2000s is not going away any time soon. And yet, is our pining for this bygone era being overdone, in media and marketing? If we have to ask this question then it might be, but we thought we’d quiz our network anyway, to see what they think.

Anny Havercroft — Head of Global Business Marketing, SEA and Global Marketing Solutions, APAC at TikTok

Anny Havercroft

The best creativity is emotive, and nostalgia can certainly be a shortcut to powerful emotions built on familiarity, our formative years or just a hunkering for simpler times. So for marketers, getting it right can help create emotional scaffolding and shortcut to meaningful connection with consumers. A staggering 91bn views of #nostalgia on TikTok globally in the past twelve months attest to its magnetic pull, surpassing the likes of #BeautyTok (49bn) and #FoodTok (38bn). Regardless of whether it’s familiar or whether it’s new, giving the community an equal seat at the table can elevate creativity and originality. TikTok’s What’s Next 2024 Trend Report highlights ‘storytelling unhinged’ as a trend force, where community collaboration is reinventing traditional story arcs. This gives rise to disruptive narrative formats that inspire audiences to join in on the fun.

Lemarl Freckleton — Art Director at Contented

Lemarl Freckleton

Oh, most definitely killing, and I think I’m guilty of it as well. As an industry, and especially in sport, we’ve become very lazy in general. We often mirror campaigns that have done well because, well, why wouldn’t you? Clients often ask ‘Can’t we just make something like this?’ But I’m not 100 per cent sure what’s causing it — it could be various factors. Maybe the pressure to perform in an ever-changing digital world? Or just lack of innovation in that space? It could just be that we have run out of ways to say things. But what I’m finding is that resorting to nostalgia is hurting us. It’s become a crutch. It’s as if the brief comes in and people see the target audience straddling two generations and instantly think ‘ah well, the answer is nostalgia’. When we move away from that I think we will all be better for it. Yes, nostalgia as a tool can help in delivering a message, but I’m personally going to choose innovation.

David Craft — Strategy Director at Fearless Union

David Craft

Never mind the commercial effectiveness of using established brand mascots — nostalgia is a powerful emotional force. Psychology says that nostalgia grounds us and helps build resilience in difficult times. With wars raging, economies flagging and democracies creaking, things are pretty difficult out there, so a good dose of nostalgia might be just what we need. Creatively speaking, nostalgia writes a tight brief. We know the tool, now what can we do with it? One of the greatest challenges is to make an old thing feel new, relevant and powerful without losing its essence and appeal, and great challenges are creativity catalysts not creativity killers. Reintroducing Peperami’s Animal required a delicate balancing act: holding onto his familiarity whilst ensuring his antics resonated with contemporary consumers. In many ways it would’ve been easier to start from scratch, but to paraphrase the old quote, the hardest things are things most worth doing. 

Kyle Matthew Duckitt — Head of Cultural Strategy (Riot and Nike) at BBH Asia Pacific

Kyle Matthew Duckitt

Ultimately, the issue here is not about nostalgia at all. What we, as marketers, advertisers and the like should be focused on is this: what are we really trying to say? What is our point of view and why should someone care about it? Once we have the answers it becomes about finding the best vehicle to bring that to life. How can we take what we want to say and find the most interesting, entertaining, and relevant way to communicate that message? Now, if using something nostalgic helps to land what you’re trying to say, then great, use it. But never let the method lead the message. Because if that happens, we’ve really lost it.

Jonathan Izzard — Strategy Director at Wonder

Jonathan Izzard

As Don Draper put it in his single biggest pull-it-out-the-bag moment, nostalgia is “delicate but potent…a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone, [that] takes us to a place where we ache to go again. That’s why Gladiators’ return to Saturday night schedules has worked so well. It reminds the previous generation of a time when Saturday night telly really was a family affair, and rekindling the warmth of that experience with their own clans. Is it creative or original? No. Does it matter? Not really. This is an issue when it comes to storytelling, however. While Lord and Miller’s 21 Jump Street showed that nostalgia and creativity can make very comfortable bedfellows, the list of failed Hollywood call-back projects is long — from Baywatch to The Dukes of Hazzard. A reminder that the emotional pull of nostalgia can risk it becoming a lazy substitute (rather than a powerful stimulus) for creativity, requiring Draper’s subtle hand rather than the brute force bludgeoning of the South Park ‘member berries‘.

Patricia Lefebure — Executive Creative Director at eight&four

Patricia Lefebure

Nostalgia in advertising? It’s about balance. Overdo it and your content might seem outdated and make your message feel stale. But when used just right nostalgia becomes a powerful tool, connecting with audiences through shared memories and creating meaningful engagement. It’s about more than just reminiscing. It’s about leveraging those familiar feelings to inspire new and exciting ideas. This approach helps keep your brand relatable, transforming nostalgia into an asset that enhances your message and resonates with audiences universally. The real challenge for advertisers is to harness nostalgia not as a safety net (which happens too often), but as a springboard for emotionally resonant storytelling.

Sophia Goerner — European Strategy Director at Innocean Europe

Sophia Goerner

Nostalgia has long been a favoured tool among marketers, adept at reconnecting brands with audiences at new life stages. It’s like a chance encounter with an old friend; the food of happy memories brings an involuntary smile. These ads resonate in a language tailored for my millennial soul. They speak of bygone days when shared experiences helped carve out our identities. Consider the latest Ferrero commercial for Hanuta, which showcases its packaging evolution. It’s a simple trigger that catapults you back to childhood. You can almost feel the gold foil wrapper with a bit of chocolate stuck to it — these details mattered. Fast forward to 2024 and I’m convinced nostalgia isn’t just revisiting the past; it’s reinventing it as neo-nostalgia. Technologies like VR and AR (paired with sonic branding) are enhancing this trend, morphing memories into multisensory experiences; ones even Gen Z can’t help but indulge. They might not remember the original era, but they’re eager to experience its revival. Take Walmart’s ‘Mean Girls’ ad or Fortnite’s nostalgic edition… they’re not merely replaying old tapes, they’re rejuvenating them with immersive tech, making history fresh and thrilling. Neo-nostalgia is reshaping the marketing playbook, blending the comfort of the past with the excitement of the future. Witnessing the trajectory of this old-meets-new has me convinced that it will breathe new life into creativity. 

Ross Taylor — Group Creative Director at Iris

Ross Taylor

Since the dawn of time brands have strived to build meaningful relationships with consumers. But today, the struggle for authentic connection is fierce. New culture tapping and culture-shaping brands that engage with the right audiences on the right platforms can see infamy overnight. I believe that for many brands with a legacy, nostalgia is their untapped superpower. It’s a shortcut into a high emotion, evocative feeling that offers an instant dopamine hit — the very thing that we know generates brand loyalty, connection, and love, and tests really well in research! Nostalgia doesn’t present a blocker, it’s a creative opportunity to leverage existing trust whilst unlocking new multi-generational audiences. We see this happen constantly in the music industry. The key is fresh perspective. How do you remix and leverage that nostalgia in a relevant way? Take Beyonce’s re-recording of Dolly P’s iconic Jolene – it’s a hit. A modern-day take on a song that resurrects so many historic memories for people but presented in the ‘now’. The same should apply to the ways that brands engage with their legacies.

Camilla Yates — Strategy Director at elvis

Camilla Yates

For nostalgia to hold any creative power, brands can’t just replicate what’s happened in the past. The power of nostalgia lies in the juxtaposition of today with yesterday, therefore nostalgia can only exist if the world continues to move on, and the past is used as inspiration to create more relevant and impactful ideas today. In this sense, nostalgia is just one of many sources of inspiration for creativity, rather than something that could kill it.

Matt Smith — Trends Manager at GWI

Matt Smith

Media is a key driver for all generations when it comes to nostalgia. Whether it’s movies, TV shows, or music, our research shows people crave familiarity in the media they consume. And somewhat counter-intuitively, it’s the younger generations that are the most nostalgic, with 50% of Gen Z and 47% of millennials feeling this way. That said, there’s a careful balance here. 56% of people feel there are already too many ‘unoriginal’ TV shows and movies available, and so it’s important not to rely on nostalgia in favour of creativity. Netflix nailed this with its ‘80s-set Stranger Things, and the Barbie movie proved immensely popular across generations. Outside of TV and film, nostalgia could be used by brands for their advertising, tapping into our emotions and memories and opening up our wallets at the same time. Used in the right way, nostalgia can breathe new life into creativity. There’s certainly demand for it.

Rachael Kendrick — Creative Director at Livity

Rachael Kendrick

Nostalgia has always been an element in creativity. Ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. We’ll always reference the past, or more importantly how the past makes us feel. But how does nostalgia function for our industry now, and how do we know when we’re wading into dangerous waters? It’s easy to forget that the internet is an archive. The past has never been more accessible to us, and resurfacing obscure gems is its own form of creativity. Just look at the virality of Laurie Anderson’s 1981 ‘O Superman’ on TikTok. But nostalgia can also be, well, lazy. Drawing on nostalgia is an easy win for both creatives and clients — but when you pluck the same emotional chord over and over, it loses its power. Sharp, interesting, smart creative takes courage — and simply invoking shared cozy memories is far from courageous. Nostalgia is a tool, and like any tool, it has to be used wisely.

Rob Kavanagh — ECD at OLIVER UK

Rob Kavanagh

Creative industries seek inspiration from nostalgia all the time. Just look at the circular nature of fashion or Pepsi’s and TSB’s recent vintage redesigns. Meanwhile, anything aimed at Gen Z or Alpha seems to necessitate Y2K IYKYK vibes right away. That’s where it gets tricky for advertising. One creative’s nostalgia is another’s pastiche. Or a stylish creative crutch that all too often hinders an ad’s first rule: to be noticed. Nostalgia-led work is fleeting, usually needing your audience to identify with the period you’re referencing to — and if they don’t, they’ll probably jog on. At a time when it’s never been easier to create (I’m looking at you GenAI, my friend), this exacerbates rule number one, above.

So is nostalgia killing creativity? More to the point, can it ever offer enduring brand-building value? Yes. Yes it can. When style and strategic substance do come together, nostalgia can create a compelling, disruptive, and successful campaign platform. Take Tesco’s Prices that will take you back – such a refreshing price discount campaign for their 100th. And when done well, they’re rightly compelling for the right audience.

Featured image: Pixabay / Pexels