How to hit ‘em right in the feels with nostalgia branding

how to hit ‘em right in the feels with nostalgia branding

Nostalgia is all around you. When you reminisce with friends about the way you met or look back on old photos, you’re soaking in nostalgia and all the positive connections you have with the days you’re looking back on. Brands know how good nostalgia feels and just how powerful a connector it can be. That’s why so many are harnessing the power of nostalgia branding, especially nostalgia branding targeted at two demographics: Millennials and Generation Z.
Why them? Why nostalgia? Why now?
A few reasons. One, thanks to social media, we’ve got an endless supply of nostalgia at our fingertips. Two, life from just before the modern internet revolutionized it feels so recent, yet so distant. And three, we’ve collectively been through a lot in the past few years. There’s something comforting in looking back at what we perceive to have been simpler times.
Take a look at these:
How do they make you feel? A bit nostalgic for the popular aesthetics of decades past, perhaps?
Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and you’ll find a ton of resources online about nostalgia marketing—even here on our blog. We’ve covered the 90s design trend, nostalgia in design and tips for creating vintage-inspired designs, as well as covering vintage-inspired trends in our yearly trend roundups. But this blog post isn’t about nostalgia marketing or general best practices for nostalgia-inspired design. In this post, we’re focusing on nostalgia branding.
Branding is not the same as marketing. Think of it as a subset of marketing—branding can certainly be a core component of a marketing strategy (and often is), and brand marketing is an effective strategy many companies use to connect with their audiences.
This is branding:
And this is marketing:
See the difference? Branding is design choices, whereas marketing is broader strategies crafted to connect with prospective buyers and drive sales.
And here’s a quick look at branding being used as a marketing tool:
In 2020, Nintendo and Amazon partnered to celebrate the Super Mario Brothers franchise’s 35th birthday by designing Nintendo-themed shipping boxes. During the month of November 2020, Amazon shoppers could randomly receive their packages in these specialty boxes, many of which had nostalgic designs depicting early games in the franchise.
A brand identity is a collection of designs and assets your organization uses to communicate its values, market position and offerings—in other words, its brand. The process of communicating a brand is known as branding. The key components of a brand identity include:
Take a look at how these designs incorporate multiple pieces of brand identities to effectively “do” branding:
Nostalgia branding is deliberately making design choices to evoke nostalgia in the audience.
Nostalgia branding works because nostalgia is cozy. It’s comforting. And when it comes to emotional appeal, nostalgia is low-hanging fruit.
Essentially, nostalgia branding is emotional design. And while it can work for any audience, it works particularly well for Millennials and Gen Z. These audiences gobble up nostalgia like Pacman gobbles up dots—even nostalgia for eras they didn’t personally experience.
It seems counterintuitive, right? How can you feel nostalgic for something you never actually experienced?
For Gen Z and their love of all things 90s, it’s not about reliving the past. Rather, it’s a vicarious nostalgia—a romanticized look at “simpler times” past, times where communication wasn’t instantaneous and the digital world was in its infancy. That—plus how easy it is to find and interact with 90s- and 2000s-era content online—makes nostalgia branding catnip for Zoomers.
Think about this: thanks to streaming, it’s easier to catch an episode of Friends today than it was during the show’s original run. 90s pop culture (and for that matter, just about all pop culture) is available on demand.
Lots of well-known brands have successfully used nostalgia branding in recent years to update their brand images and connect with audiences in new, fresh ways (despite the branding having an old-school look and feel!)
One of the most sweeping recent rebrands came from Burger King:
In their rebrand, Burger King reused designs from some of their past branding, but tweaked them a bit to keep them from looking dated. Keep that in mind if your nostalgic branding strategy involves reusing old logos, graphics or color palettes—it should feel like a callback to an earlier era, not a rehash.
Polaroid, another brand with a long history and an international presence, also recently rebranded as a way to freshen up the brand’s look and introduce their newest camera, the Polaroid Now:
See how both Burger King and Polaroid have completely reinvented themselves through new branding? That’s what a rebrand is. So if you’re tasked with reinventing your brand with a new, nostalgic look, reinvent it all the way. And if you’re starting from scratch, be mindful to extend the nostalgia to every single brand asset. Nostalgia branding isn’t always easy, and in fact, there are a few specific challenges you might find yourself facing.
If you’re a global brand, nostalgia branding can be tricky because your brand simply might not have existed in a specific market “back in the day.” So it might just look and feel weird. Similarly, even if you want to lean into nostalgic trends, people in different countries and even different regions had different experiences. So you might miss by creating nostalgia for a specific segment of your audience.
There are a few ways to get around this:
Similar to the point above, the nostalgia for your brand or certain trends might only exist within a certain demographic. If that’s still your core demographic, no big deal—but if it’s not, you risk making part of your audience feel like you’re prioritizing others or at best, just looking tone-deaf and cringe.
The image above comes from a branding project for a dessert shop that aims to be reminiscent of a classic Hong Kong coffee shop. Specifically, the goal was to make it feel accessible to both Hong Kong and Western audiences. Leaning into the classic coffee shop aesthetic the Hong Kong audiences knew, the designer opted for a name that’s easy for Westerners to pronounce and remember as well.
Think about who you need to reach when you’re determining whether you should even do nostalgia branding. For niche brands that have maintained the same audience over the years, nostalgia branding is a slam dunk. But if your audience has changed or grown—rebranding to embrace other trends might be more effective.
As we mentioned earlier, one of the latest trends in branding is using nostalgia to connect with Millennial and Gen Z consumers. They want nostalgia for their child and teen years—but they don’t want to be talked down to like they are children.
Take a look at the example above. It evokes nostalgia by recreating a beloved part of childhood for many: waiting in line at an ice cream truck and looking up at the driver to tell them what you want. It’s taking a childhood experience and elevating it for adults, not shoving kiddie favorites at them with a message like “remember this? You used to love it. Buy it now.”
Defining what is and isn’t pandering in concrete terms can be challenging because in some situations, there’s more room to be “on the nose” with your branding than there is in others. When it comes to nostalgia branding, you can avoid pandering by keeping the branding true to your actual brand, rather than relying on hackneyed themes and imagery. See how in the example above, the ice cream brand plays with vintage aesthetics, but doesn’t feel like it’s been yanked directly out of the 20th century?
The last challenge is determining whether nostalgia branding is actually the best choice for your brand. Ask yourself the following question:
Crafting a nostalgia-focused branding campaign without any reason behind it might result in some cool-looking assets in the short-term, but it won’t have that lasting impact that any memorable (ie, nostalgia-inducing) image or concept has. And if by answering these questions, you determine that there really isn’t a strong reason for your brand to embrace nostalgia, it’s probably best to take your branding in another direction. Create something that’s uniquely now that you can potentially revisit as a nostalgic rebrand in 20 years.
Pick an era and stick with it. A 60s-inspired logo with a 90s-inspired website will just have people wondering what the heck you’re trying to do. Maybe your brand has a rich, decades-long history to pull from—if that’s the case, that’s awesome! But it would be counterproductive to try and work that entire history into your nostalgia-based branding campaign. Instead, think back to exactly why you want to do nostalgia right now and who makes up the primary audience you’re targeting with it. That can help you zero in on which era to focus on in your branding.
Alternatively, you can consider different key points in your brand’s history to determine the right era to get nostalgic about. Maybe you want to recreate how your brand looked when you first launched as a way to celebrate a milestone anniversary. Or maybe there was a pivotal point in your history—a key merger, a new leader at the helm, expanding into a new market, developing your most iconic product—and this is the period you want to evoke nostalgia for.
Don’t just drop a retro logo into an otherwise modern brand identity. Craft an entire brand identity around your nostalgia branding campaign—and write the story of why you opted to do it.
A brand identity can be relatively simple, consisting of just a logo and some fonts, or it can be a fleshed-out, comprehensive guide to how your brand looks and feels. How complex your brand identity needs to be depends on a few factors, like how many products you offer and which kinds of advertising you do. But whether your brand identity is just a few design choices or a whole book, maintain brand consistency by giving the whole thing a nostalgic look and feel.
Is your nostalgia branding just for a specific product launch or a specified time frame, like an anniversary? Or is it indefinite? Determine that before you start making changes to your existing branding.
One thing about nostalgic branding is that it won’t ever get old…because it’s already old. So by choosing branding that intentionally looks dated, you can avoid it actually becoming dated when branding trends inevitably change. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great idea to pick a retro-inspired look and keep it forever—especially if you’re in an industry where being on the cutting edge is a key part of keeping your audience engaged, like medicine or tech. In these industries, nostalgia branding might be best reserved for fun product launches and benchmark anniversaries.
On the flip side, if nostalgia is why people engage with your brand (maybe you run a vintage shop, a record exchange, even a renovation company that specializes in older homes) choosing a nostalgic look for the long-term could be perfect. That doesn’t mean your branding has to be set in stone, though. Even if you maintain a retro-inspired look as part of your branding for the long haul, it’s important to revisit it every now and then and determine if you need a facelift or slight shift in the verbiage you use.
When millennials get nostalgic about VHS tapes, they aren’t getting nostalgic about tracking, having to rewind the tape, or having the tape get wound up around the VCR’s heads and pulled out of the cassette, potentially destroyed forever. Similarly, our nostalgia for the early days of the internet isn’t nostalgia for slow load times, annoying modem noises or millions of popups crashing your browser.
Your nostalgia branding should focus on the positives, not the negatives. Lean into the look and feel of the era you’re aiming to make your audience nostalgic for, but skip over the annoying parts. Take a look at how Nadiia Tymoschchenko achieved this in the social media templates she designed below. The design feels inspired by the internet of the early 2000s, but still fits into 2022. Then compare it to the image below, a screengrab from the actual internet of the early aughts:
See how the text is all squished together and the whole thing just looks blocky and awkward? Don’t do that.
People get very particular about their nostalgia…and if you get it wrong, they’ll notice. Take a look at this bit of nostalgia branding and see if you notice something that definitely didn’t exist in the 90s:
In case you aren’t up on your consoles, it’s the PS4 controller in her hands. It’s subtle, it’s not the focal point of the image, but it’s something anybody who was playing video games in the 90s will notice instantly. The key to successful nostalgia branding is making it feel authentic. If you aren’t 100 percent sure of the details you need to achieve this, do your research and ask people who were there.
When you’re designing a nostalgia-inspired brand identity, work with a designer who not only has experience working with brands, but experience working with all the little details that make retro-inspired brand identities work. Any brand identity needs attention to detail, but nostalgic ones need a slightly different kind of attention to detail: the details that make viewers feel warm and fuzzy for times past. You aren’t creating something out of nothing; you’re creating something with cues from established trends and pieces of cultural zeitgeists past.

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Our newsletter is for everyone who loves design! Let us know if you’re a freelance designer (or not) so we can share the most relevant content for you.
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