Advertising is in love with the new, but so often overlooks the past at its own peril, argues Mike Teasdale.

I’ve always been a fan of the past, even before I became part of it.

One of my favourite sources of inspiration is brand archaeology, the digging into archives and the revisiting of past communications activity to discover why a brand is where it is and how it might move forward.

When I worked on margarine for Unilever, I did some thinking for a heart health spread in Germany that was struggling with poor taste perceptions despite performing well in blind tests. I reviewed a lot of research data, but it wasn’t until I watched all their TV ads from the last 50 years that the pfennig dropped.

They had pretty much always presented themselves as heart health medicine that happens to be food rather than tasty food that happens to have heart health benefits. In visual/verbal terms, they tended to show heart health while talking taste rather than showing taste while talking heart health. Those couple of hours watching the historic reel unlocked a new creative start point that when executed resulted in improved taste perceptions.

This month, I thought I would write about the benefits of unlocking the past.

Don’t worry, it’s not a piece about ageism in advertising. I haven’t had my mid-afternoon nap yet, so I don’t have the energy to rail against that.

No, this is a piece about nostalgia marketing.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the term. It’s about tapping into the past in order to build trust for the future. Think about it, what better way to convince your audience that you’re worthy of their money than to associate your brand with something from the past that evokes a positive emotional response.

Academic studies (probably done by researchers with grey hair, or even no hair) show that nostalgia is a compelling tool for engagement. Nostalgia strategies allow people to ignore the stress of responsibility in the present by reliving fond memories.

In an age dominated by impersonal digital connections, nostalgia allows brands to leverage positive and comforting feelings. Surrounding your brand with emotion amplifies its level of mental availability because the stickiest memories are formed not from facts but from emotional responses. It’s all about stirring visceral reactions in people and nostalgia does that very effectively.

Great Western Railway advertising in the UK features Enid Blyton’s “The Famous Five”. It’s designed to inspire exploration through rail travel, and it does so by taking consumers back to their childhoods and fostering a sense of nostalgic adventure. It’s visually distinctive and it strikes a quintessentially British emotional chord. Clever stuff from those creative smugglers at adam&eveDDB.

When the sparkling orange juice drink Orangina relaunched in the UK in 2015 it returned to its historic visual and experiential equities: the bulb-shaped glass bottle with its pebbly texture and the distinctive 'shake to wake' ritual. They cleverly evoked these equities in new graphic design, including its PET and can formats. I started buying it again because it reminded me of being a kid and drinking it on holidays at the seaside. Job done.

Even if your brand has no history you can still reach for the past to embrace the symbols of times you’ve never experienced. Think of Hendrick’s Gin and its distinctive Victorian imagery. Very effective, especially for a brand that has a history stretching all the way back to… 1999.

This kind of ‘fauxstalgia’ is powerful stuff. A YouGov survey in the UK showed that if time travel were to become possible, twice as many people would prefer to go backwards to the past rather than forwards to the future. And while people are more likely to reminisce as they get older, younger people are highly likely to spend time thinking fondly of the past. In fact, Millennials are the generation most likely to ‘almost always’ do so, according to that YouGov survey.

So, is looking back the way forward? Well it can’t be the sole pillar of a brand’s persona. Nostalgia must be infused with other emotional and rational brand attributes and benefits to effectively activate consumer purchasing.

Also, nostalgia can counteract other desired brand attributes. Many companies work hard to promote their innovation credentials and while nostalgia can promote leadership by touting a brand’s legacy, a look backwards can potentially contradict other brand attributes. It’s critical for a company’s brand management (particularly companies with a portfolio of brands) to avoid conflicting messages between nostalgia-driven product lines and those fueled by innovation.

But, with history forever being created, there will always be potential for nostalgia marketing, especially as populations continue to age. There’s always demand for authenticity and originality, and the past can be perceived as cool.

Except, it seems, in ad agency HR departments.