Is 2024 the year of [new] nostalgia in marketing?

Nostalgic Marketing

Maren Viker | Strategy Analyst

Lately, every time I open up my social media apps I see countless posts recalling simpler times — before a global pandemic, before an omnipresent internet, and before many of the crises that fill the daily news ticker. Is it just my algorithm throwing it back to the early aughts? No — it seems like everyone’s feed is filled with posts like this that pine for times past. These popular posts are tapping into a phenomenon experiencing a renaissance right now in media and culture: Nostalgia.

2023 was a big year for nostalgia in media. The popularity of games like Hogwarts Legacy and movies like Mean Girls and Barbie encouraged people to investigate the recent past and reflect upon when they first encountered these characters. We’re also seeing more young people discovering throwback tracks with with the help of social media — supporting artists like Laufey and Steven Sanchez that give new voice to older sounds. But why all the hype over times gone by?

For many, the late 1990s-early 2000s felt like a hopeful time, filled with the possibility of a more connected society (before we knew electronic devices would be occupying everyone’s free time). It seemed like things were changing for the better. It’s no wonder that people are returning to these times for inspiration and comfort in the face of everything today.

Nostalgia is not a recent phenomenon; examples of humans looking wistfully to the past for comfort and guidance stretch back to ancient Rome and beyond. Studies show that negative stimuli and emotions, particularly loneliness, were the most frequent triggers for nostalgic thoughts. When negative triggers abound, it’s no wonder people turned to nostalgia, then and now. When engaging in nostalgic reflection those negative feelings give way to more positive ones and, “people report a stronger sense of belongingness…they describe their lives as more meaningful.”

Nostalgia isn’t new, but something new is happening: The nostalgia boomerang is getting shorter. As I was scrolling yesterday, I was struck when a young content creator said they wished they were a kid in 2014. The video clip flicked through heavily filtered images that were visually iconic to the early days of Instagram. It surprised me that people were already nostalgic for a time that felt like 10 minutes ago.

But then I thought about all that’s happened over the course of the last decade, how different life looks, and it makes sense. Since 2014, we’ve experienced enough cultural shifts and negative triggers to last a lifetime — which is why the late 90s and early/mid 2000s feel like a lifetime ago. Think back to how it felt in 2008 when your mom lost her job, or in 2012 when the news of the Sandy Hook shooting broke, or 2020 when the pandemic changed life as we knew it. On their own, those times were enough to make me want to escape the present. Now, imagine the oppressive power of all those events combined.

While the nostalgia arc can be jarringly short, we’re also seeing nostalgia that looks even further back to the 1950s and beyond. Take for example the “trad wife” culture present across social media. This phenomenon generally includes women embracing what they consider to be “traditional gender roles” and trying to access a way of life they see as less online, more “natural”. Between influencers like Nara Smith and Hannah Neeleman of “Ballerina Farm” assuming varying levels of the homesteading, homemaking life, there is a constant stream of content that yearns for a time before many modern conveniences. This retrospective look goes beyond “trad wives” and sees many turning to traditional handicrafts like crochet and knitting to pass the time, or mature design aesthetics like the “coastal grandmother” trend that incorporates traditional elements.

While both expressions of nostalgia are different, they have something in common. Neither expression of nostalgia is a copy and paste of past times onto today. Consumers cherry-pick the elements that feel right for them. Many taking part in the “trad wife” culture use modern tech inventions like social media to promote their lifestyle. Y2K fashion is another key example. A modern-day person dressing for the Y2K aesthetic would likely be unrecognizable to someone from 2003, leaving behind skirts over jeans and trading “heroin-chic” for body positivity. Instead, nostalgia’s purpose is to take inspiration from the past to carry forward into the future.

This is not to say that all nostalgia is well-intentioned. Some people’s “inspiration” from the past involves carrying forward outdated ideas that perpetuate prejudice and cause real harm to people.

Another notable consideration is that young people are the ones driving this fascination with the past. Right now, 90s and early 2000s throwbacks are deeply resonating with Millennial and Gen Z groups, whether or not they were alive to witness their chosen cultural reference first-hand. It’s no wonder these eras are experiencing a cultural renaissance, because together, the people that love them are fueling the economy. Millennials and Gen Zers are more likely to spend money on themselves than any other age group, so it makes sense that their preferences rise to the top of cultural awareness. Popularity of cultural moments is often dictated by those who have time and money to devote, so it’s key to appeal to whatever moment a consumer group has a preference towards, or whatever reference is the right amount of nostalgic for them.

Nostalgia rests on the premise that the past is more comforting than the present. With the U.S. heading into an election year, consumers feeling the squeeze of inflation, and the internet making it seem like you’ll never keep up, that can feel all too true. But in a world that feels fragmented, nostalgia may be part of finding balance.

Psychologists know that nostalgia makes people feel more connected to the present and helps them find meaning and belonging. By fostering nostalgia that inspires, brands and individuals can draw on the past to help drive people forward. There is opportunity for those who can identify the most resonant “nuggets” of nostalgia. Brands who create opportunity for us to look fondly to the past and help forge a more meaningful relationship to the world around, will gain a special place in consumers’ hearts. Nostalgia is a gold mine that deserves to be tapped responsibly, and the brands who do it well will find lasting success.

If you’re ready to start thinking about how your brand can best tap into trends like this, we’d love to chat. Contact us here.