Marketing Nostalgia and Music
Hours before boarding a plane for Bamako in 1989, I purchased the B-52s’ then-newest album, Cosmic Thing. I listened to it all the way to Mali, and I listened to for the next two years as I worked in the sub-Sahel of West Africa. Meanwhile, the B-52s supplied the fitting soundtrack with songs like “Follow Your Bliss” and “Roam.” When I met the woman who became my wife, we moved in together to the tune of “Loveshack.”
I will remember this music for the rest of my life. That is not just a sentimental comment; there is a powerful connection between musical memories and a person’s coming of age.
Indeed, of all types of memories, music is the most powerful. Researchers have found that even after all other ways of communicating have shut down, such as in those with dementia, people still recall and respond to music. Music memory is stronger than verbal memory because music, unlike language, is not located in a specific area of the brain. It is processed throughout many parts.
And of all music memories, music that was popular when a person was a teen and young adult is the easiest to recall. That’s because those years are such a powerful time in developing autonomy: heading off into the world, learning to drive, and finding love. I’ve already warned my boys that they will have Slipknot and Avenged Sevenfold rattling around their noggins for decades.
Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist at University of California–Davis, explains, “What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye.”
Just a few bars of the right music can set a tone, making nostalgic music a powerful marketing tool.
Music as Time Machine
Virgin Airlines did an excellent job of appropriating Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” for their twenty-fifth-anniversary ad campaign. In fact, this campaign has been so successful that it prompted the band to make a comeback.
Know to Whom Who You are Singing
Understand your audience, and what songs will appeal to them. But be careful that you are not so focused that you turn off one audience while appealing to another. (Golden oldies may appeal to one cohort, but simply sound old-fashioned to another.) Be careful what you choose. Vitamin-maker Centrum has received grief with their strip tease “Silver” campaign video that aimed to make viewers feel young, but instead makes them feel even older.
Make it Your Own
The adage is that everything in marketing is recycled. True, old ideas can be re-used effectively, but they usually work best when given a new twist. For its sixtieth birthday, Adidas used The Four Seasons’ 1967 hit “Beggin” in their campaign, but gave it a house party twist. The song is remixed by DJ Pilooski, and the scene includes David Beckham, Katy Perry, Missy Elliott, and others. These revamped songs say, “we’ve been around, but we aren’t old.”
Some argue that as music tastes fragment and there are fewer collective musical memories in a generation, this type of nostalgia marketing will fade. That seems a premature obituary to me. As long as music remains a door into human emotions, marketers will find a use for it.