Marketing Bootcamp

Blast From the Past: Nostalgia Becomes a Marketing Strategy

Blast From the Past: Nostalgia Becomes a Marketing Strategy

The efforts of (from left) Matt Winans, Evan Carr and Sean Sheridan helped convince Coca-Cola to bring ‘90s favorite Surge back from the dead.

Image credit: Marc Andrew Stephens
This story appears in the December 2014 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

“Fans thirsty for a taste of ’90s nostalgia …” begins Coca-Cola’s September announcement of the revival of Surge, a citrus-flavor soda that it discontinued 12 years ago.

The company reintroduced the drink at the behest of The Surge Movement, a Millennial-led online fan base that had spent years lobbying for its return. The group raised nearly $4,000 through Indiegogo to buy a billboard near Coca-Cola’s headquarters, created numerous YouTube videos and bombarded the company’s consumer hotline, among other efforts. The Surge Movement’s Facebook page now boasts more than 150,000 likes. 

Calvin Klein has also brought back ’90s hits. Earlier this year, the brand collaborated with luxury fashion store MyTheresa.com to reissue items from the collection that launched Kate Moss’ modeling career in 1994; the new denim pieces and sweats were crafted from the same fabrics the company used 20 years ago. Five of the 12 reissued styles, priced at about $100 to $375 each, sold out within roughly two months. 

It seems that Millennials are pining for their salad days of the ’90s, and brands are tapping into that nostalgia to connect with them. And why not? Millennials represent a quarter of the U.S. population, more than $200 billion in annual buying power and $500 billion in indirect spending (which considers their impact on other generations).

“We’re dealing with the savviest generation of consumers we’ve ever seen,” says Jeff Fromm, president of FutureCast, a Kansas City, Mo.-based marketing consulting firm, and co-author of Marketing to Millennials. “They influence people older than them, process lots of information from lots of sources, and … today they account for 21 to 25 percent of consumer discretionary purchases—and that’s going to increase as they get more earning power.” 

For brands, particularly iconic ones, marketing to Millennials poses a challenge because the group’s purchasing, communication and personal-interaction habits and prefer-ences differ significantly from those of earlier generations. The techniques that appealed to Baby Boomers and Gen Xers may not resonate with the enigmatic Millennial generation, which prefers brands that are “authentic, that create a sense of purpose and that are wildly differentiated,” Fromm says. “At the core, brands are trying to, in many cases, create engagement with consumers, and this [nostalgia marketing] is an engagement hook for them.”

It doesn’t hurt that nostalgia has proved effective at loosening consumers’ grips on their wallets. A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people who were asked to think about the past were willing to pay more for products than those who were asked to think about new or future memories; another experiment showed an increased willingness to give more money to others after recalling a nostalgic event. 

While brands like Coca-Cola and Calvin Klein are taking Millennials back by relaunching ’90s faves, others are using nostalgia to demonstrate how they’ve changed. One of the most popular examples is Microsoft’s Internet Explorer video, dubbed “Child of the 90s.” It begins, “You might not remember us, but we met in the ’90s,” then reminds Millennial viewers of happier days, with references to childhood favorites like virtual pets (“the only thing buzzing in your pocket”) and the tabletop game Hungry Hungry Hippos. 

The clip concludes with, “You grew up; so did we,” and invites viewers to reconnect with Explorer. The 2013 viral hit struck a chord with Millennials, reaching more than 7 million views on YouTube within five days; it’s now approaching 50 million views. 

“Social media marketing is dead,” Fromm says. “Millennials are sharing content that engages them, and if nostalgia helps fuel that engagement, then it will be a winner.”