How to hit ‘em right in the feels with nostalgia branding

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All around you, nostalgia is everywhere. When you reminisce with friends about the way you met or look back on old photos, you’re soaking in nostalgia and all the positive connections you have with the days you’re looking back on. The power of nostalgia is a strong connector and brands understand how it feels. That’s why so many are harnessing the power of nostalgia branding, especially nostalgia branding targeted at two demographics: Millennials and Generation Z.
Why? What is the point of nostalgia? Why not now?
Here are some reasons. One, thanks to social media, we’ve got an endless supply of nostalgia at our fingertips. The second is that life before the advent of social media feels both distant and recent. And three, we’ve collectively been through a lot in the past few years. There’s something comforting in looking back at what we perceive to have been simpler times.

Nostalgia branding defined

These are some of the best:

What do you think they make your feel? Maybe a bit nostalgic for popular aesthetics from decades ago?
Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and you’ll find a ton of resources online about nostalgia marketing—even here on our blog. We’ve covered the 90s design trend, nostalgia in design and tips for creating vintage-inspired designs, as well as covering vintage-inspired trends in our yearly trend roundups. But this blog post isn’t about nostalgia marketing or general best practices for nostalgia-inspired design. In this post, we’re focusing on nostalgia branding.
It is not marketing. Think of it as a subset of marketing—branding can certainly be a core component of a marketing strategy (and often is), and brand marketing is an effective strategy many companies use to connect with their audiences.
This is branding.

Marketing is all about this:

What is the difference? The difference is obvious. Branding refers to design decisions, while marketing is broad strategies that connect buyers with potential customers and increase sales.
And here’s a quick look at branding being used as a marketing tool:
Source: Nintendo Everything
In 2020, Nintendo and Amazon partnered to celebrate the Super Mario Brothers franchise’s 35th birthday by designing Nintendo-themed shipping boxes. Amazon subscribers could receive packages randomly in specialty boxes that featured designs from early Super Mario Bros games.

The components of nostalgia branding

A brand identity is a collection of designs and assets your organization uses to communicate its values, market position and offerings—in other words, its brand. Branding is the process of communicating a brand. These are the key elements of branding identity:

  • Logo
  • Website design
  • Font
  • Color palette
  • Graphics
  • Packaging design (if you offer tangible products)
  • Photo by Ellia townsend via Behance
    Take a look at how these designs incorporate multiple pieces of brand identities to effectively “do” branding:
    Give ‘em all the nostalgia at once! Product packaging design by DiscoverticBranding isn’t just one design choice; it’s design choices working together to craft a coherent picture. Logo design by DC DesignBR
    Design choices that evoke nostalgia are known as Nostalgia branding.

    What nostalgia branding does work

    Because nostalgia is comforting, nostalgia branding works. It’s comforting. It’s comforting.
    Julia Fernandes designed the logo and brand guidelines
    The essence of nostalgia branding is emotion design. While it is possible for all audiences, it’s especially effective for Millennials or Gen Z. These audiences gobble up nostalgia like Pacman gobbles up dots—even nostalgia for eras they didn’t personally experience.
    You might find it counterintuitive. It seems counterintuitive, right?
    For Gen Z and their love of all things 90s, it’s not about reliving the past. Rather, it’s a vicarious nostalgia—a romanticized look at “simpler times” past, times where communication wasn’t instantaneous and the digital world was in its infancy. That—plus how easy it is to find and interact with 90s- and 2000s-era content online—makes nostalgia branding catnip for Zoomers.
    Think about this: thanks to streaming, it’s easier to catch an episode of Friends today than it was during the show’s original run. You can stream 90s pop culture, and almost all of pop culture for that matter.

    Some examples of nostalgic branding success

    Numerous well-known brands have used nostalgia branding successfully in recent years in order to up-level their brand image and connect with customers in fresh, new ways.
    Burger King was the recent most significant rebranding.
    Image from Insider
    Image via Insider
    Burger King rebranded using designs that they had used in the past, while updating them to avoid them looking outdated. Keep that in mind if your nostalgic branding strategy involves reusing old logos, graphics or color palettes—it should feel like a callback to an earlier era, not a rehash.
    Polaroid, another brand with a long history and an international presence, also recently rebranded as a way to freshen up the brand’s look and introduce their newest camera, the Polaroid Now:

    You can see how Burger King and Polaroid completely reinvented their brands through new branding. That’s what a rebrand is. So if you’re tasked with reinventing your brand with a new, nostalgic look, reinvent it all the way. And if you’re starting from scratch, be mindful to extend the nostalgia to every single brand asset. Nostalgia branding isn’t always easy, and in fact, there are a few specific challenges you might find yourself facing.

    The challenges of nostalgia branding

    It’s not always global

    If you’re a global brand, nostalgia branding can be tricky because your brand simply might not have existed in a specific market “back in the day.” So it might just look and feel weird. You might also find that people from different parts of the world have different memories. It is possible to miss out on a particular segment by creating nostalgic content for them.
    Images courtesy of Behance.
    You have a few options to avoid this.

  • You can go with “safe” images and aesthetics, like the designer chose for the image above. Just about anywhere in the world, no matter how old you are, you’ll recognize that old-school tv and landline telephone. There’s nothing niche about this ad; it simply pulls together a retro-inspired font, a few vintage props and a nearly universal sense of nostalgia for enjoying a bowl of cereal. Whether you’re 20 or 60, you “get” this image.
  • Different markets can have different branding. You can also play with nostalgia.
  • Or, if the nostalgic branding is commemorating a landmark anniversary for your brand, you can brand the branding as “getting back to our roots” and introducing consumers in markets that came later to your brand’s original look and feel. This can be an enjoyable way to introduce your audience to parts your brand that might not have been seen previously.
  • It’s not always inclusive

    As with the previous point, nostalgia for your brand and certain trends may only be present in a particular demographic. If that’s still your core demographic, no big deal—but if it’s not, you risk making part of your audience feel like you’re prioritizing others or at best, just looking tone-deaf and cringe.
    Behance Image: Justin Yap
    This image is from a branding campaign for a dessert shop. It aims to look like a Hong Kong classic coffee shop. It was designed to be accessible for Westerners as well as Hong Kongers. Leaning into the classic coffee shop aesthetic the Hong Kong audiences knew, the designer opted for a name that’s easy for Westerners to pronounce and remember as well.
    Think about who you need to reach when you’re determining whether you should even do nostalgia branding. Nostalgia branding works well for niche brands with a consistent audience. But if your audience has changed or grown—rebranding to embrace other trends might be more effective.

    Without pandering, connecting

    One of the newest branding trends is to use nostalgia to communicate with Millennial and Gen Z buyers, as we have mentioned. They want nostalgia for their child and teen years—but they don’t want to be talked down to like they are children.
    NIN Design – Logo design and Website Design
    Look at this example. This example evokes nostalgia because it reenacts a favorite part of childhood: standing in line for ice cream trucks and asking the driver what you would like. It’s taking a childhood experience and elevating it for adults, not shoving kiddie favorites at them with a message like “remember this? This is what you used to love. Buy it now.”
    Defining what is and isn’t pandering in concrete terms can be challenging because in some situations, there’s more room to be “on the nose” with your branding than there is in others. Avoid pandering when it comes to nostalgia branding. Instead of relying upon clichéd imagery and themes, keep the branding consistent with your brand. See how in the example above, the ice cream brand plays with vintage aesthetics, but doesn’t feel like it’s been yanked directly out of the 20th century?

    What’s the point?

    Next, consider whether nostalgia branding makes sense for you. The following questions should be asked:

  • What are your goals for connecting with people?
  • Is there anything your audience wants and needs from brands such as yours,
  • What are your pain points?
  • Weariness with today’s world?
  • Feeling old and missing one’s youth?
  • Easier, simpler times for your audience (and/or your industry?)
  • Crafting a nostalgia-focused branding campaign without any reason behind it might result in some cool-looking assets in the short-term, but it won’t have that lasting impact that any memorable (ie, nostalgia-inducing) image or concept has. And if by answering these questions, you determine that there really isn’t a strong reason for your brand to embrace nostalgia, it’s probably best to take your branding in another direction. Create something that’s uniquely now that you can potentially revisit as a nostalgic rebrand in 20 years.

    Make nostalgia branding work for your company

    Don’t mix and match eras

    Stick with one era. A 60s-inspired logo with a 90s-inspired website will just have people wondering what the heck you’re trying to do. Maybe your brand has a rich, decades-long history to pull from—if that’s the case, that’s awesome! However, it’d be counterproductive to include all that history in your nostalgia-based brand campaign. Instead, think back to exactly why you want to do nostalgia right now and who makes up the primary audience you’re targeting with it. This can allow you to pinpoint the era that should be highlighted in your brand.
    It would be bizarre to have an antique letterpress logo printed on these cups. Cup design by AlSoDigital
    Alternatively, you can consider different key points in your brand’s history to determine the right era to get nostalgic about. Perhaps you are looking to recreate the look of your brand when it was first created to commemorate a significant anniversary. Or maybe there was a pivotal point in your history—a key merger, a new leader at the helm, expanding into a new market, developing your most iconic product—and this is the period you want to evoke nostalgia for.

    Create a brand that is nostalgic

    The colors, the shapes, the fonts…an entire brand identity in one image. Kamilla Oblakova designed the product packaging
    Don’t just drop a retro logo into an otherwise modern brand identity. Craft an entire brand identity around your nostalgia branding campaign—and write the story of why you opted to do it.
    You can have a simple brand identity that consists of a logo with some fonts or you can create a comprehensive, detailed guide for how your brand feels and looks. The complexity of your brand identity depends on several factors such as the number of products that you sell and what advertising methods you use. You can maintain brand consistency, no matter what your brand identity looks like.

    Define a time frame for your nostalgic branding

    Are you branding your nostalgic products for one specific launch? Or do they last for an entire year, such as an anniversary? Is it permanent? Before you make any changes to existing branding, be sure to determine this.
    For Nintendo, nostalgia branding made sense for specific ads—but not a company-wide strategy. Spiralytics image
    One thing about nostalgic branding is that it won’t ever get old…because it’s already old. By choosing branding that is deliberately outdated, it will be less likely to become out of date as branding trends change. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great idea to pick a retro-inspired look and keep it forever—especially if you’re in an industry where being on the cutting edge is a key part of keeping your audience engaged, like medicine or tech. This industry might prefer nostalgia branding for new product launches and milestone anniversaries.
    If nostalgia is what people are drawn to your brand, such as a retro shop or record exchange or a company that renovates older homes, then a nostalgic design for the long-term might be the best option. That doesn’t mean your branding has to be set in stone, though. Even if you maintain a retro-inspired look as part of your branding for the long haul, it’s important to revisit it every now and then and determine if you need a facelift or slight shift in the verbiage you use.

    Make sure to highlight the highlights

    When millennials get nostalgic about VHS tapes, they aren’t getting nostalgic about tracking, having to rewind the tape, or having the tape get wound up around the VCR’s heads and pulled out of the cassette, potentially destroyed forever. Similarly, our nostalgia for the early days of the internet isn’t nostalgia for slow load times, annoying modem noises or millions of popups crashing your browser.
    Nostalgia branding should be positive and not negative. Lean into the look and feel of the era you’re aiming to make your audience nostalgic for, but skip over the annoying parts. Below, you can see how Nadiia Tmoschchenko managed to achieve this with the social media templates that she created. While the design is heavily inspired by the internet in the 2000s, it still feels right at home in 2022. Next, compare the design to the screenshot below. This screengrab is from the real internet of the early 2000s.

    You can see how all the text has been squished together, making it look awkward and blocky. Don’t do that.

    …and get it right

    People get very particular about their nostalgia…and if you get it wrong, they’ll notice. Take a look at this bit of nostalgia branding and see if you notice something that definitely didn’t exist in the 90s:
    Karla Saavedra via Behance
    In case you aren’t up on your consoles, it’s the PS4 controller in her hands. It’s subtle, it’s not the focal point of the image, but it’s something anybody who was playing video games in the 90s will notice instantly. A brand that feels authentic is key to nostalgia branding success. If you aren’t 100 percent sure of the details you need to achieve this, do your research and ask people who were there.

    Get it back to the brand identity expert

    When you’re designing a nostalgia-inspired brand identity, work with a designer who not only has experience working with brands, but experience working with all the little details that make retro-inspired brand identities work. Every brand identity requires attention to detail. But nostalgic identities need an entirely different level of detail. They must be sensitive to those details that bring back memories. You aren’t creating something out of nothing; you’re creating something with cues from established trends and pieces of cultural zeitgeists past.

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