Exploring millennials and “early onset nostalgia”, and discussing how brands are clamoring for the nostalgic pie.

If you are under 36 years old: and you recall the launch of the first iPod, watched Jurassic Park on VHS, or have danced to the Macarena, you might be a millennial — like me. We also happen to be the largest generation of consumers on the planet.

The marketplace is flooded with products catered to meet the millennial’s “need to experience” versus “the need to own”. Netflix replaced DVDs. Spotify replaced CDs. Kindle replaced books. Uber replaced car ownership. Instagram replaced photo albums. Facebook replaced newspapers. Surely if there’s an app for that, there is no need for a separate product, right?

Not quite.

What’s old is becoming new again.

Just when it seems that apps are consolidating almost every conceivable product into our phones — printed book sales overtook ebook sales last year, vinyl sales hit a 25-year high, and film photography makes a comeback. The same is happening across pop culture and fashion.

Stranger Things, a sci-fi horror television series set in the 80s is Netflix’s third most watched original content. Vulture compiled a catalog of “50 Modern ’80 Songs” featuring mainstream and indie artistes such as Rihanna, and M83. Among fashion houses: FENDI is making 80s/90s sportswear cool again. Prada and Saint Laurent reimagines its collection for the 80s dancefloor. Louis Vuitton pays homage to the 80s at its Spring 2017 show. Most recently Gucci launched a vintage inspired Star Trek themed video for this year’s Fall Winter campaign incorporating motifs from the 50s and 60s.

A Case of “Early Onset Nostalgia”.

Millennials are experiencing “early onset nostalgia”, a premature sentimentality for a period or place set in the past. The phenomenon has been attributed to chronic political and economic uncertainty. After all millennials come of age in an era of rampant terrorism, rising unemployment, and well, Donald Trump.

Millennials grew up in the cusp of the analog to digital revolution. Things that we have used growing up are now obsolete: video cassette recorders, fax machines, telephone directories, encyclopaedias, pay phones, film cameras, floppy disks, the list goes on. What was relevant when we were 12 was either obsolete or on its way of becoming obsolete by the time we turned 22. Much development happened at breakneck speed that time felt so much longer ago than it actually was. Out of nowhere there is now life before digital, and life after digital.

Although nostalgia is typically seen as a coping mechanism during challenging times, it also serves to remind us that we all have our stories to tell. Neel Burton expressed this succinctly in The Meaning of Nostalgia:

Our everyday is humdrum, often even absurd. Nostalgia can lend us much-needed context, perspective, and direction, reminding and reassuring us that our life (and that of others) is not as banal as it may seem, that it is rooted in a narrative, and that there have been — and will once again be — meaningful moments and experiences.

Nostalgia can help you sell, if you do it right.

Brands that millennials grew up with such as PepsiMcDonald’s and Lego, took advantage of the narrative they share with millennials. Some were more successful than others. Nintendo has been most successful in leveraging nostalgia. The iconic gaming behemoth recently launched the NES Classic Edition which sold out instantly, and Pokemon Go which broke five Guinness World records, and still is the fastest mobile game to gross US$100 million. Unfortunately this was not the case for Microsoft whose final attempt to revitalize Internet Explorer in 2013 fell flat, the browser was eventually phased out early 2015.

Research suggests that nostalgia heightens feelings of connectedness and reduces our attachment to money. This makes sense since we are generally more generous with our family and friends than strangers for example. In short nostalgia can help you sell.

So how should brands approach nostalgia?

First, Understand Loewy’s Universal Theory of Cool.

Raymond Loewy is an American industrial engineer whose iconic designs pepper the globe and beyond, quite literally; he helped NASA designed the interior of one of its space stations. Loewy had a universal theory of cool called MAYA, which stands for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. He believes that people want to be seen as fashionable but not weird. His theory: if you want to sell something surprising, you make it familiar — conversely if you want to sell something familiar, make it surprising.

The Original NES vs the NES Classic Edition.

Therefore for brands to succeed commercially in the long term, it is not enough to just bring back a product from the past, or to relaunch an existing product in vintage packaging. It has to be both familiar and surprising. For example, Nintendo succeeded in relaunching its NES Classic Edition because they kept everything familiar about the console — but made it surprisingly smaller, in fact it’s so small you can literally fit it in the palm of your hand.

Gucci’s Pre-Fall 2017 Collection

Gucci’s Pre-Fall 2017 Collection. ‘Nuff said. Source: Vogue

Another great case study is Gucci. The fashion house was flailing for 10 years under the creative direction of Frida Giannini, who believed in “going back to the archives”, during which sales growth were a meagre 0.2 percent. When Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s now creative director took over the helm in 2015, he brought his romantic vision to the fashion house. He combined the familiar style of vintage with surprising whimsical twists. Today Gucci reports record sales numbers, in 2016 the brand’s full-year sales exceeded 4 billion euros for the first time.

But could nostalgia work for new brands?

Tapping into the Millennial “Cultural Repository”.

Modern internet began in 1983 but it was only in 1990 that the World Wide Web was invented, and took on the form that we are all familiar with today. Over time internet access became widely available and more affordable. In just 20 years global internet adoption has grown from 0.4% in 1995 to a staggering 49.5% in 2017. Inadvertently the Internet also became a rich cultural repository for the world’s 1.8 billion millennials who literally grew up with it.

Netflix Originals tapped into the millennial cultural repository in the development of television series: GLOWWet Hot American SummerStranger Things, and Girl Boss — set in the 80s/90s, the storylines take on today’s burning social issues such as feminism and racism which appeals to its largely millennial audienceMeykrs, a design boutique and online-retailer based in Singapore sells adorable Peng Kueh cushions and Gem Biscuit lamps inspired by nostalgic childhood snacks of millennial Singaporeans. Facebook stayed relevant with millennial users with On This Day, an in-app function that encourages users to revisit postings from a year to a decade ago, prompted by the recurring #throwback trend which originated on Instagram.

What does this all mean?

Millennials do not want to bring back the past per se. We want emotional reminders and to re-live feelings associated with nostalgia —

We want the narrative of our lives to be enriched with the past, so that the banality of our present could be coloured with meaning. In a future fraught with uncertainty, the past is the one thing we can be certain of.