Nostalgia is a comforting temptation for consumers and brands, explains Trajectory’s Tom Johnson, but there is greater opportunity to be found by looking ahead.

The pull of nostalgia is powerful. It’s one reason why the Coca-Cola ‘holidays are coming’ Christmas advert is among the nation’s favourites, and part of the appeal of Burger King’s new logo, which revels in whopper-centric Americana. It’s a big part of why Disney keeps creating live action remakes of beloved animations, and why 30- and 40-somethings really love Stranger Things.

But nostalgia is also a trap. The short-lived supermarket chain Jack’s was launched, by Tesco, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. It promised a stripped back product line, no fuss packaging and a simple in-store experience. The floors were polished concrete rather than tiles, because tiles are what modern supermarkets have. It was designed to look like a throwback, and that is exactly why people hated it. It peaked at 13 stores and was closed in 2022, five years after launch.

Right now, nostalgia is especially tempting. In fact, the UK is in a particularly nostalgic mood. As part of Trajectory’s consumer sentiment barometer, the Optimism Index, we measure nostalgia every month. We ask a representative sample of UK adults whether or not they think life is better or worse than it was 50 years ago for people like them. Right now, the majority of people say right now is worse than it would have been in the 1970s.

Clearly, that’s a subjective point of view. Most people either weren’t alive or wouldn’t remember what life was like 50 years ago and those that do will be influenced by imperfect memories. In fact, that’s exactly how nostalgia works: imperfect memories and present state emotions combine to create favourable views of the past. It’s why we’re much more positive about a holiday a few weeks after we get back then we are the day we return; the stresses of travelling and minor inconveniences of the trip are too fresh in our minds immediately after we get in from the airport. It’s only after a few days that the more miserable memories drift away.

It’s also not even really about the past. Nostalgia doesn’t tell us much about the past, it’s useful because it does tell us a huge amount about the present and future.

We use nostalgia as something of a comfort blanket. In one experiment, researchers gave two groups of people different news stories: one group saw really negative, depressing stories, the other saw really positive uplifting stories. The groups then completed an exercise rating how much they missed aspects of their past. The group that had seen the depressing news stories were much more nostalgic. We wrap ourselves in nostalgia when we want to escape the present.

This makes nostalgia a tempting, but dangerous, approach for brands. Right now – in times of high inflation, war in Europe, creaking public services – optimism is in short supply and nostalgia is abundant. There’s a lot to escape at the moment. But it isn’t viable. 

There’s one story that often crops up that seems to confirm the value of nostalgia. It concerns younger generations ‘discovering’ old media formats and raving about them. In March this year we got a vinyl version of this story – based on RIAA data, many outlets, including the BBC, splashed on how vinyl was the leading physical music format for the first time in 30 years, selling 8m more units than CDs. But buried further down the articles – and certainly nowhere near the headline – was the rather more relevant news that streaming now accounts for 84% of recorded music revenues. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of younger adults have never used a record player and listen to most music through streaming services, because it’s easier, cheaper and gives you access to more. It’s the future that’s winning, even if the headline is about the past.

For many brands, nostalgia can be tempting but will leave you looking stale and negative, a brand stuck in the past rather than looking to the future. At times when the future looks bleak, it’s particularly important to be bold, and strike a forward looking, optimistic tone.