How TikTok and Gen Z are driving the new nostalgia in advertising

​With the heaviness of today’s news cycle, audiences are craving more humor, more lightheartedness and, ultimately, more comfort, according to Eileen Zhao, strategy director at Fred & Farid Los Angeles.

Eileen Zhao,
Fred & Farid

“When we’re surrounded by political unrest, financial uncertainty and rising global tensions, the past can definitely feel brighter and also safer than what we’re experiencing today. For people, especially Gen Zers, the future may seem bleak. But pulling from the past might just be the optimism and hope that’s needed to get through the day,”

Zhao referenced brands like MLB, Disney+ and newcomer Vacation Inc.—a brand anchored in ’80s beach culture—as well as Silk’s Nextmilk campaign as shining examples.

‘Nowstalgia’: The new retro

The general climate of uncertainty not only has left people pining for the past, but also longing for a sense of connectedness, having spent much of the past few years isolated from one another.

Jones Krahl,
Deloitte Digital

“Arguably, when you play on nostalgia, you’re bringing people back to a simpler time, and the familiar comfort that comes with a shared experience with your peers,” said Jones Krahl, Deloitte Digital’s co-head of creative brand and advertising, along with Milton Correa. “While playing into nostalgia isn’t new, putting your own spin on nostalgia has become increasingly popular,” Correa added.

Milton Correa,
Deloitte Digital

“It’s about striking the balance of creating a campaign that people want to be a part of that brings them back to their younger years, but with a fresh twist,” said Correa. “The secret to successful nostalgic campaigns is to pay respect and homage while being mindful of appropriation.”

Correa referenced the agency’s work last year with British pop star Rick Astley for CSAA Insurance Group, bringing the singer back for the 35th anniversary of “Never Gonna Give You Up”—while simultaneously paying homage to the Rickrolling meme from the early aughts—in a campaign complete with a bit.ly link in the sky and mysterious QR codes on billboards across 17 markets.

Indeed, the way nostalgia is figuring into advertising today involves equal parts old and new, creating a new take on nostalgia marketing brought on by our highly social world.

Chris Reinhard,
Motive

“Ubiquitous social sharing and an ability for any consumer to tap into any classic trend has created something more pliable than what’s traditionally been referred to as retro,” said Chris Reinhard, senior VP and group creative director at Motive. “Consumers now have the freedom to align themselves with an infinite number of ideals, visual cues or historical references that suit their personalities and values.”

According to Fabio Brigido, creative director and head of art at MullenLowe, there is a difference between simply digging into nostalgia and creating something new from it.

Fabio Brigido,
MullenLowe

“Trying to simply repeat the past or blindly return to it is very different from revisiting aspects of a brand’s roots in search of authenticity,” he said. “The rebrand for Burger King by JKR does it so well; yes, it does revisit the past, but with an eye on the present and future through flat colors, simplicity and expressive typography.”

The new nostalgia also is interesting in not just how it builds on the past but also those consumers it appeals to, with an audience in the generations who experienced the original material as well as new generations.

Maxim Kabakov,
UM Worldwide

“This younger cohort is engaging with nostalgic content, but using platforms like TikTok to re-create and share older trends among peers,” said Maxim Kabakov, VP and group partner for strategy at UM Worldwide. “Given that the internet has democratized access to nostalgia, and the speed at which culture spreads on TikTok, we’re seeing the nostalgia cycle becoming shorter, with some Gen Zers currently expressing ‘lockdown nostalgia’ for the early 2020s. In the future, expect to see even more of a collapse between nostalgia and the present. Something that happened only a few months ago could be ripe for ‘nowstalgia.’”

The effectiveness of nostalgia marketing

Periods of dominant trends leaning toward the new and modern eventually give way to a return to the traditional and familiar.

Kevin Lau, Mocean

“In general, we get cyclical waves of throwback marketing on roughly a 20-year cycle, so we’ll start to see an uptick in nostalgic and more ornate logos and designs in the near future,” said Kevin Lau, Mocean’s executive creative director. “Nostalgia becomes the way to introduce new markets to products while also pushing the memory button on the older generation, now old enough to reminisce about perhaps a simpler time.”