Why are brands with a nostalgic touch successful?

Global and Strategic Marketing Research Centre

Dr Martin Heinberg is a Lecturer in Marketing at Leeds University Business School. His current research interests include: brand management, advertising effectiveness, the country of origin effect, and consumer behaviour in emerging markets.
Professor Constantine Katsikeas is the Arnold Ziff Research Chair and Professor of Marketing and International Management, and the Founder and Director of the Global and Strategic Marketing Research Centre at Leeds University Business School. His research interests are in: global marketing and exporting, sales management, cross-border relationships, strategic alliances, and competitive strategy.

This blog post is based on the article 'How nostalgic brand positioning shapes brand equality: differences between emerging and developed markets', published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.

Heinberg katsikeas

And how do differences between emerging and developed markets affect this success?

Nostalgic brand positioning

Amidst the current economic and political unrest, consumers tend to view the past as a happier and less complicated time. Some brands have taken advantage of this trend and have created a sense of nostalgia to evoke positive feelings in consumers by creating associations with the past.

Even if brands are fairly new, some are able to create an artificial nostalgic feeling in consumers. For example, Moleskine, founded in 1997, markets itself as the heir of the legendary notebooks of influential creatives such as Hemingway and Picasso. Fashion brand Hollister uses logos and labels related to the year 1922, even though the company was founded 78 years later.

This nostalgic brand positioning can have a big impact on brand equity (value added to a product by its brand name ie beyond actual product features) and can open up immense market potential. Disney, for example, has successfully employed the nostalgia factor to broaden its demographic target group, and now generates 20-25% of its total revenue from products for adults, eg, by selling its own bridal wear.

Nostalgic brand relationship links

Our research is the first to present a holistic picture of the different links that explain why a nostalgic brand positioning enhances brand equity, while previous studies have investigated the strands individually. These three strands are:

  • Emotional attachment­ – This refers to the affective connection consumers have formed with brands. It has been shown that emotional attachments to brands mirror social attachments to people. As such, brands with a nostalgic touch remind consumers of past social connections. For example, nostalgic car design can evoke feelings of safety due to childhood memories of family life.
  • Local symbolism – The original meaning of nostalgia goes back to a form of depression of homesick soldiers serving abroad. We show that the notion of home is also one reason why nostalgic products are successful. The reason is that past memories are often connected to localness, which is valued in the challenging environment of globalization. With this, we echo past findings that have connected the preference for domestic products to consumers’ nostalgia proneness.
  • Brand authenticity – Nostalgic positioned brands are successful because they appear more authentic. The effect is caused by the long history, which is often connected to nostalgic products. A long history in turn creates perceptions of consistency and enhances trust. In addition, psychological research has shown that nostalgic memories are perceived as more authentic than positive or ordinary memories because of their bittersweet affective nature.

The effectiveness of these three links of brand relationships depends on country differences between emerging and developed markets, and brand innovativeness.

Differences between emerging and developed markets

Differences between emerging and developed markets can change the nature of the nostalgic brand relationship links.

Previous research has built conflicting arguments. Some researchers have suggested that nostalgia has a weaker effect on consumers in emerging markets because they are more optimistic about the future than those in developed markets and thus less likely to believe the past was better than the present. Others have argued that emerging market consumers feel more pressure in the present and so imagine life in the past as simpler and better, which would increase their likelihood for nostalgia proneness.

Our results show that the links through emotional attachment and local symbolism are weaker in emerging markets than developed markets. Our argument builds on high levels of competition in emerging markets and constantly evolving consideration sets of consumers as disposable incomes in emerging markets rise and consumers climb up the premium ladder of products. In addition, their memories of the local past are less fond than the ones of developed country consumers because the childhood of today’s emerging market consumers is often associated with local poverty and hardship, where local brands were often inferior to foreign ones.  

Brand innovativeness

Previous research produced conflicting findings regarding brand innovativeness. Technological innovations may contribute to a resurgence of nostalgic products such as the VW Beetle, and updating older products to more contemporary standards is key for successful retro branding. However, experimental research has shown that in some cases, consumers do not appreciate large changes to a brand they have nostalgic feelings for, eg, big changes to shape and colour of LEGO blocks can diminish LEGO’s nostalgic appeal. As such, brand innovativeness can actually harm nostalgic brand positioning.

Our results show that the influence of brand innovativeness depends on the context, in particular the level of development of the particular market. We did not witness a positive effect of brand innovativeness in developed markets for nostalgic positioned brands; on the contrary, brand innovativeness slightly hurts the local symbolism link. In emerging markets, however, brand innovativeness can diminish the disadvantages nostalgic positioned products face when compared to developed markets.

What do marketing managers need to know?

Marketing managers face the challenge of needing to create an emotional hook for consumers in an increasingly digital and impersonal world. Although nostalgic brand positioning is a popular marketing strategy, managers need to be aware of how the country setting can affect consumers’ responses to brand nostalgia.

  • Nostalgic positioned brands have a unique set of benefits, which is different from other brand positioning strategies. The set includes enhanced emotional attachment of consumers, the local symbolism of the brand, and brand authenticity.
  • In developed markets, innovations need to be introduced very carefully. For example, innovations should be limited to performance innovations and firms should refrain from design innovations. In addition, innovations need to be adapted to the local country context.
  • In emerging markets, innovations can facilitate the links of nostalgic brand positioning to brand equity and increase the competitive edge of nostalgic products.
  • Advertising campaigns should be built around a story of development and momentum of nostalgic brands and managers need to pay particular attention to avoiding any traps that could raise less pleasurable memories of the past of emerging market consumers.

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Email: research.lubs@leeds.ac.uk
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.