A close friend of mine, drives the Land Rover Defender 110 as many do in Britain and a majority of these Defenders are over 20 years old. What’s more- he lives and breathes Land Rover. He religiously buys vintage Land Rover posters, car parts and accessories on Ebay, which intrigued me while I pursued the MSc. Brand Leadership. What is it with this fascination- is it nostalgia, as popularly defined by academics as the “bittersweet longing for the past”? What’s with all the money spent on collectibles while in his situation he finds it difficult to pay his heating and electric bills. From what I learnt on my masters and later in my dissertation research, the answer probably lay in the very first toy his mother bought him as a baby- a ‘blue’ matchbox series Land Rover Defender (absolutely inappropriate given the choking hazard). It still sits in his living room today. And exactly the same colour, type and specifications as the toy, is a Land Rover parked in his driveway as well. But here I should add that it was four years after he bought the Defender that my friend happened to dig out the toy only by chance one fine day, which he had forgotten about, while rummaging through his old stuff. Might I also add his favourite colour is, blue.
Okay, let’s give it the benefit of doubt- possibly coincidence is what I thought as well. So what if his favourite colour is blue? And, so what if his first toy while only a few weeks old was a Land Rover. This is where I found interest for my Master’s dissertation research on the implications of, and application of Nostalgia in brand communications. As a part of my research, I finished reading Martin Lindstrom’s ‘Brandwashed’ and what I found was an insight into his behaviour. Backed by research and his own experience, Lindstrom notes that “not only are very young children aware of brands, but we cling to brands we liked as children well into our adult lives”. This is of course a well-known and easily comprehensible fact. But how does it work?
Your Grandpa may be less nostalgic than you are
As it turns out from my research which supports some conflicting previous research, age has nothing to do with it, and the assumption that the older you get the more nostalgically prone you are likely to be, is simply not true. Age is merely a psychographic variable, in fact the things we like to do, our interests in life, how we dress and the opinion we hold etc. are a much better indicator of our age than merely the number of years from birth. However, age does assume significance when we consider the effect of a biological phenomenon known as “imprinting” observed in mammals and animals. It refers to a “critical period early in life” where we develop a concept of our identity which then continues well into our adult-hood. At least animals and birds are wired to automatically imprint on the mother and which gives them the concept of their identity. Martin Lindstrom refers to several experiments which have produced scientifically proven evidence of a distinct affinity or fascination in children/teens towards items or objects exposed to during a narrowly defined early period in life. Wailing toddlers were found to calm down as they entered a shopping mall for the first time, which the mother would frequently visit during her pregnancy. What calmed them down? It was the music that plays at the shopping centre. Fascination for Dr. Pepper among teens and adults has been found higher amongst those whose mothers would frequently drink Dr. Pepper during pregnancy. These can be found in the chapter titled “Buy Buy Baby- when companies start marketing to us in the womb” in Lindstroms book.
More than what meets the eye
But that isn’t all there is to it. Digging deeper into my research it emerged that two critical factors underpin imprinting in humans i.e. how frequently these objects are experienced during the critical period, and the time gap between when the object was frequently experienced and today. The latter however may work only upto a certain age after which memory degradation in humans begins to limit it. These are likely to be why a floppy disk probably will be a 3D model of the ‘save’ icon to an 11 year old but not to me, I am 26 years old.
Global village and all that..
My research investigated the case of Microsoft Internet Explorer and their award-winning campaign ‘Child of the 90s’. The campaign was targeted primarily at the western audiences and from my survey responses I found why so. Respondents from Asia and Africa did not experience anywhere close to the high levels of nostalgic feelings as did their counterparts in UK and North America. This was because of the flashbacks from the 90s depicted in the campaign. The former set of survey respondents did not experience the same nostalgic cues during their critical years due to cultural differences. I am Indian and I never had Cheese and Ham sandwiches for lunch at school. This implies that marketers unfortunately cannot use the cookie-cutter approach to nostalgia in brand communications across all markets around the world.
Cultural variations are also not limited to what was experienced during the critical years. As an example, Japan saw a period where male youngsters challenged the preconceived notions of masculinity because they did not aim to be like their father. They wanted to defy the rule that men belong in high labour jobs and the unwavering dedication to such cultural norms led them through severe periods of hardships during the economic crises. Will nostalgia as the “bittersweet longing for the past” then work in Japan? Marketers must therefore observe cultural variations and closely seek to understand what it is that defines an individual’s recollection of a critical period in their lives. The needs for Marketers is to understand the psychographic just as much as the demographic variables, if not more, in order to devise the most effective brand communications when nostalgia is the concept of choice.
*Weep* I’m nostalgic but I still don’t like you
Another conclusion I arrived at from my research findings was that it is not merely invoked nostalgia that drives our assessment of a brand, but rather the feelings experienced as a result of feeling nostalgia such as happiness, cheer, amusement and sadness. Since imprinting effects and cultural variations are important, the implication here is that nostalgia-inducing cues in advertising campaigns thus must be pre-tested for the feelings they are likely to invoke and to what extent.
All said and done, nostalgia remains a very powerful tool with marketers and advertisers but they must use it cautiously. It is more often than not that wrong assumptions form the very base of creative campaign planning. Before you put your money in, find out who your audience was during their prime years and what they most fondly did or liked then. That should be your rule, not the assumptions or misconceptions one is likely to make about age and their proneness to nostalgia.