Faking the past can be as good as the real thing
My family was on vacation in Maine, and we were hungry. It was late and few joints were open, but we found an Applebee’s. Not the best choice for vegetarians. I took in the décor as I deftly dodged the bacon bits in my salad. There were photos of actor Patrick Dempsey and pitcher Bill Swift, and movie posters with John Travolta and Judd Nelson. There were jerseys from the local high school teams. And everywhere you looked there were framed color photocopies of Maine memorabilia—anything remotely linked to the “pine tree state.” The implication was that Applebee’s and Maine have been joined at the hip for generations.
Applebee’s is from Georgia and is only going on thirty years old, but they are doing an excellent job of burrowing their way into local memories using nostalgia triggers.
I’ve already talked about the powerful positive aspects of nostalgia, but what is important here is that you don’t even have to refer to nostalgia specific to your organization’s past to create that good-old-days feeling. When leveraging the past for marketing purposes, companies usually look to their own history. As Applebee’s points out, you don’t have to be that limited. You also can take advantage of history that is not directly related to you.
Your brain rewards you for remembering
Ok. Tapping into a specific generation’s (or cohort’s) past produces a stronger effect, but you can still get a lot of younger folk dreamy over the 1940s and ’50s. You need not have directly experienced the original sources of nostalgia to be affected by it. The key is to make the nostalgia a game. Like Jeopardy, the brain rewards us for right answers, but instead of money we get a wee dollop o’ dopamine. Putting up a panoply of fake nostalgia is brilliant on Applebee’s part. It got my family thinking. It became a game of guessing exactly how these people were related to Maine. We had fun, and I actually walked away feeling a link between the restaurant and the state.
They are not alone. Restaurant chains T.G.I. Friday’s and Ruby Tuesday are doing the same. Scott Schershel, vice president of Interior Spaces Inc., an art vendor for Ruby Tuesday, says, “We would contact local museums and archival societies to find old photos and other stuff related to the area” to add local flavor.
Bad looks better over time
You don’t have to worry so much about getting all the details correct. The nostalgic mind self-selects for positivity, because it promotes good health. So even things we once didn’t like often look better over time. Or sound better. I hated Van Halen and Neil Young in high school; now I love them. Perhaps I’ve acquired better taste, but I bet my change of heart has more to do with the nostalgic feelings evoked from those rock icons with bad hair.
What’s the new kid to do?
True, it can be much easier to leverage an existing positive memory than to create a new one. But even a newfangled business can take advantage of the good old days. You don’t have to be literal, and you don’t have to have lived through the ’60s to feel them. You can evoke that decade with the typeface Cooper Black and bright colors, the right sound track, and a faded Kodachrome photo. Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland calls this “legislated nostalgia.”
Pepsi and Coke do this well too, often evoking their own real history—the evolution of Pepsi’s bottle and can—and as effectively evoking a faux reality by using Britney Spears in a new commercial evoking past generations’ dress and music. Either way, the message is the same: no matter who you are or where you’ve been, we were there by your side.
In the end, customers want the same thing as marketers: a connection. Your marketing future might be in the past.