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nostalgia in branding: the truth is somewhere out there

You're in a basement pub whose walls are decorated with beer caps and faded bandanas. A powerful bike with a scratched bumper flaunts at the bar counter, on which, it seems, the dust of the sultry highway has barely had time to settle. Do you recognize the atmosphere? Nostalgia, or something similar, can be “programmed” by a brand that has developed an entire marketing strategy for it and spent a fortune on its implementation. But this is not always the case. Longread of one of the largest branding agencies Landor will dot the i's and cross the t's.

Nostalgia is very cost-effective: studies show that nostalgia makes it easier for consumers to part with their money. What's more, nostalgic sentiment is on the rise during times of economic crisis, making the millennial generation - the main target of all marketers - the most susceptible to this phenomenon. As global brands like Spotify or Microsoft produce videos that remind of better times, and as Netflix launches series of the 1980s one after the other, nostalgic marketing is becoming a powerful trend.

What does such a nostalgic wave bring for branding? Are there brands that only play on the feeling of nostalgia, and is this the best way to add value to a brand? At Landor Milan, we often work with companies with strong historical heritage and help find ways to enhance it. Not every such brand bets on nostalgia to rebuild, but those who do can be divided into two groups: nostalgic brands and brands with history. We have identified five main differences and the benefits of each of them.

History: is it real or fictional?

Brands with history have a real history of at least one generation.

Nostalgic brands, though newly created, manage to appeal to the sensibilities and cultural codes of decades, if not centuries.

In fact, not all brands that showcase the old school aesthetic are brands with a history. For example, design agency Shinola from Detroit. Launched in 2011, the company bought the name from a century-old local burgeoning shoe store and quickly turned it into a millennial-favorite brand that offers minimalist accessories with a vintage, nostalgic twist and handcrafted pieces. The same cannot be said for the Hermès brand, which appeared in 1837 as a handicraft workshop for the production of horse harness, and which since then has remained true to its name and style.

Another example of a brand without a real story but with a legend is Frankie & Benny's, a popular restaurant chain in the United Kingdom that serves American-Italian cuisine. The company opened its first restaurant in 1995, but their fictional history dates back to 1924 with an immigrant boy named Frankie and his American friend Benny. The interior of the restaurant is made in the style of the 1950s and is decorated with a collection of black and white photographs that evoke pseudo-nostalgic feelings. Given that Frankie & Benny's already has 250 locations, this approach definitely works.

Take a look at an Italian food brand: Pasticceria Marchesi. Founded in 1824, it is the second oldest patisserie in Milan. In 2014, Prada acquired 80 percent of the store and opened a second location that offers exactly the same products. A true brand with a story does not need to prove its heritage at every point of interaction with the consumer. The new patisserie is decorated in a modern, elegant, Instagrammable style, and fashion influencers often delight with their visit.

Time span: one and several?

Brands with history are influenced by many historical events.

Nostalgic brands are associated with images of a certain period of time.

Nostalgia is a feeling associated with a certain period in the past. It can be childhood memories of buyers; hence the boom of fashion brands from the 80s and 90s. But it can also be something that consumers have never personally experienced, such as the chic of the 50s or the atmosphere of medieval chivalry - Entrepreneur magazine calls this phenomenon "false nostalgia."

The image of a close-knit Harley-Davidson gang, for example, inevitably refers us to the rebellious, uncompromising and poetic 70s. On the other hand, the Italian brand with a history of Ducati (founded in 1926) has chosen regular MotoGP racing as a way to assert its greatness, showcasing many victories and illustrious drivers and cementing the brand's excellence in the minds of consumers.

Benefit Cosmetics (established in 1976) is alive with pin-up style, which is carried through all channels of communication and evokes a sense of nostalgia for the elegance and voluptuous femininity of yesteryear. By comparison, Max Factor (introduced in 1909) has collaborated with beauty icons from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna and has the entire Hollywood Museum to back its legacy.

Innovation: content or access?

Brands with history innovate their content (product or service) to stay ahead of the curve.

Nostalgic brands update access to their content, implying that their product or service is a priori perfect.

Brands with history are redefining themselves, their products and communications over and over again, always striving to find the most accurate expression of their unchanging, authentic essence. Nostalgic brands can be just as inventive and innovative, but they are updating access, not the content itself. Think back to how Pokémon Go reinvented the gameplay and the way you interact with Pokémon, but left the characters themselves unchanged.

Over its half-century history, Starbucks has evolved from a coffee and equipment retailer in one city (Seattle) to a global provider of new practices: this brand has a unique coffee history, decorative coffee roasters and merch, its own community and events, a music label and mobile application. Starbucks products and brand expression are constantly evolving while remaining true to the company's heritage.

On the contrary, Hard Rock Cafes have firmly built their specific style and nostalgic mood into the brand, while constantly developing access - namely, the number and scale of new establishments around the world.

Levi's remains relevant and fresh in brand touchpoints and in its communication, but its signature designs have not changed for generations. Gucci, along with many iconic fashion houses, is reinventing itself with each new creative director, constantly seeking out-of-the-box ways to express the brand's DNA.

The role of the past for the brand: proof or product?

Brands with history use their past as evidence of high quality products.

For nostalgic brands, the past is the product, and the brand itself gives you the opportunity to touch it.

As brands with history are constantly reinventing themselves, they use their history to prove their expertise. In this way, they gain consumer confidence and maintain brand style, especially when launching new activities, outlets or products. Nostalgic brands bring the past to the fore; their products serve as a portal to past times.

The Campari Group's heritage is what adds credibility to their new venture, the Campari Academy, a training center for bartenders and mixologists. The Campari heritage inspires the brand, contributing to the continuous renewal of its powerful entrepreneurial culture and independent, pioneering spirit.

Italian beverage brand Tassoni has its own relationship with history. Having achieved success in the 1970s, the company went into oblivion, reminded of itself in the 90s and again achieved success. Today, Tassoni is considered a vintage brand, the embodiment of local traditions and an ideological alternative to the Coca-Cola brand. And this is without a single metamorphosis. Since the 70s, Tassoni has run the same commercial every summer, and the company's CEO claims that customers love this iconic ad so much that it simply cannot be changed, like the packaging and the drink's secret recipe.

Moleskine is another example of a product selling a bygone era. The brand was created in 1997, but from the very first day it refers to an earlier past: Hemingway's notebooks or literary cafes of the 19th century. Moleskine stands out due to its association with a bygone culture and an atmosphere of endless inspiration that justifies the relatively high price. But if we consider another stationery brand, Faber-Castell, it offers what is essentially high-quality stationery, with the brand's history mentioned only to highlight its superiority.

Durability: once or for all?

Nostalgic brands are learning to capitalize on the fact that the nature of nostalgia is temporary.

Brands with a history are future-proof and ready to innovate to stay relevant in the future.

Nostalgia is a feeling. It grows strong in turbulent times and can be awakened by images, tastes and places from the past. But after a while it passes, and life goes on. This is more of a one-time event than an everyday reality. Brands either try to catch this wave or rely on more mundane methods to differentiate their products.

Sears is a US supermarket chain founded in 1893 and closing in March 2019. The news set off a huge wave of nostalgia on social media as people shared childhood memories of the store. But since the store was so loved, why did it have to close? Obviously, nostalgia alone is not enough to maintain audience loyalty. The United Kingdom-based store brand John Lewis & Partners has a long history behind it and evokes many childhood memories for shoppers, but the brand is constantly updating its experience and communication to stay in the zeitgeist.

Another hugely successful example of the short-lived nature of nostalgia is Pokémon Go, which has allowed millions of its users to relive childhood memories. The excitement around them reached its peak in 2016, which brought the company a profit of over $1.8 billion, and then the nostalgia gradually faded. Take a classic game like Minecraft for comparison: people played it 10 years ago, and over 112 million continue to play it every month.

Nostalgia is a powerful tool, use it wisely.

By understanding the target audience and using the right timing, a brand or campaign can instantly evoke powerful emotions through nostalgia. But beyond that, it can render a brand obsolete, narrow audiences to a specific generation, limit opportunities for transformation, and make or break a brand’s position depending on changing sentiments.

In a certain industry, the use of nostalgia is limited. So, it can play against a car brand that is expected and required to innovate.

Nostalgia is the shortest but unstable path to customer confidence, so it must be combined with pragmatic competitive advantages and modern solutions. On the other hand, building a brand with a story requires long-term planning, as well as the desire to build trust step by step and constantly evolve.

In branding, both true heritage and nostalgia have their pros and cons. Whether your company is in need of a refresh or your brand is looking to kick-start a nostalgic wave, you must choose your approach carefully. And have a clear goal.

Source: landor.com.

Authors: Liubov Timofeeva, Carolina Caputo.

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