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Nostalgia-Based Promotions: Past Perfect

By Cynthia L. Ironson

Don't doubt nostalgia's power as a promotional hook. Done right, it's strong enough to get the attention of virtually any generation.

By now you've probably noticed that retro is hot. Surely you've seen the GAP commercial where young people dressed in khakis gleefully swing dance to Louis Prima's "Jump, Jive, & Wail." Other companies are also using nostalgia in their advertising. Burger King Corp.'s TV spots use the old (mostly 60's & 70's) songs to help whet viewers' appetites. Chevrolet trotted out an old 50's jingle sung by Dinah Shore, "See the USA in your Chevrolet." Mountain Dew does nostalgia too: a recent commercial features old-looking black-and-white footage of a man in a suit parachuting off a cliff. The commercial ends with 90's looking Dew drinkers calling the clip "a classic."

But nostalgia reaches into other sectors, too. It's propelling people to movies like "Blast from the Past" and big screen remakes of 60's TV shows like "My Favorite Martian", "The Avengers", and "Mission Impossible." Young adults are drinking martinis again. 1940's and 50's fashions are all the rage. It seems everything from stamps to cereal boxes, cars to promotional products, is being designed with nostalgia in mind.

Why Now?
Experts say the resurgence of images and impressions of bygone decades is occurring for several reasons. One major cause is the changeover to a new millennium, says James R. Rosenfield, CEO of Rosenfield & Associates, a San Diego, CA based firm specializing in consumer trends, psychology, and direct marketing.

Less technical, more comfortable times stand in stark contrast to all things millennial. "Technology anxiety is very much in the forefront," notes Rosenfield.

Sure, nostalgic fads are fun, capturing people's interests and gobbling up their free time. But there's more to it than that. "The fads are drinking martinis, old furniture, swing dancing," explains David Stillman, co-founder of BridgeWorks, a consulting company specializing in generational differences in the workplace and marketing to generations. "The trend is the feeling behind it."

Take, for example, the renowned popularity of swing. It appeals to dancers and music lovers of different ages for different reasons. Traditionalists and seniors (people in their early 50's and above) like it because they lived it. Older baby boomers (mid-30's to early 50's) remember it from early childhood. And, curiously, Generation X-ers (late teens to mid-30's) have co-opted the look and sound, making them a part of their current lifestyle.

But why are Gen-Xers dancing to music their grandparents listened to on tube-model radios? Why are young guys going to swing clubs in fedoras, wing tips, zoot suits and suspenders, and gals showing up in Mary Janes, stockings and dresses?

Stillman, a Gen-Xer himself, says swing has a clean, fun, easy feeling that appeals to his contemporaries who feel they've been unfairly slapped with a "slacker" (translation: irresponsible) image. "(Swing) has got this whole essence of purity," he says, noting that it's not as likely to attract criticism.

For all these reasons and more, the positive feeling inspired by nostalgic images, impressions, and products can be used to create strong promotions for your company. You can put together a nostalgia-themed campaign or mailing using a vast array of memorable products.

Nostalgia's Power
The plethora of promotional products with a retro look, sound and feel - clocks, calendars, telephones, radios, music compilations, drinkware, ceramics, wearables, packaging and more - can energize promotions and maximize an ad message when used successfully. For example, a carefully chosen product and imprint can show a company's "back-to-basics" focus on service, increase involvement or response from a specific age group, showcase your firm's history in the industry or position a new product as an instant "classic."

Rosenfield says that basic psychological responses are evoked by nostalgic promotions and products, regardless of the recipient's age: "The whole thing about nostalgia is it needs to symbolize simplicity and authenticity." That means you need to be careful not to mix your messages. A 1950's product with a 1940's imprint or theme may do more harm than good. People are very protective of their memories, and when something doesn't fit, they notice.

This is a bit less critical when you're targeting younger audiences. Their take on nostalgia tends to be more selective - they cherry-pick various elements, producing an eclectic mix that may or may not reflect historical reality. In ironic take on the past can work well with Gen-Xers. "Generation X has done a great job being ironic and earnest at the same time," Rosenfield points out. "I mean, a 27-year-old wearing a fedora?"

But while some might find it odd, the Gen-Xer attraction is a classic example of nostalgia flexing it's muscles. For them, it isn't a return to the good old days, it's finding something unique and new in the past, says Ann A. Fishman of Generational-Targeted Marketing Corp.

A speaker and consultant on how to market to five generations of Americans, she notes that Gen-Xers (she also calls them "street-smart survivors") have created new "generational patterns" for themselves, which include going back to patterns of comfort. Example: Many Gen-Xers grew up in divorced families ,and even many living with two parents saw the breakdown of traditional values and the rise of violence on television and in reality. "To them (the 40's and 50's) symbolize going back to basic values," says Fishman.

Promotional Possibilities
Counselor Don Sanders and his wife Susan recently wrote a book called "The American Drive-In Movie Theater", a nostalgic homage to drive-in architecture, artwork, marquees, lights, snackbars, playgrounds - the whole drive-in experience.

Relying on the same medium, they suggest to others, the couple used embroidered low-profile baseball caps - a nostalgic style - to promote the book. "Now, the majority of the caps (used for promotional purposes) look that way," Sanders notes. "Specialties are just a way to show nostalgia in a harder form."

To help cut through the clutter of modern-day life, companies can use products that remind people of the past - before the advent of voicemail and computers, Sanders notes. For example, a replica of an old-fashioned phone can reinforce the message that a real person answers the phone when customers call a company. "It becomes a selling point," he says.

Nostalgic promotional products can also communicate a company's long-standing expertise and desire to serve customers. King Industries, Inc., a specialty chemical manufacturer, has used nostalgia in ad campaigns and trade show promotions to convey that it's a leading source of rust and corrosion inhibitors.

For its booth at the convention for the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers (tribology is the study of friction and wear), King rented a 1930's stretch Packard sedan and parked it in the exhibit hall. Nearby posters told attendees that the company was founded in 1935. Pre-show advertising, showing a similar car, read, "We've had a long-standing affair with the automobile." For filling out a lead sheet, attendees received miniature Packard delivery trucks, imprinted with the name of the company. The car was the hands-down hit of the show,says Bob Burke, King's marketing communications manager.

At another trade show, King employees, wearing lab coats and business suits, were photographed riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The pre-show advertisement played on the early 60's hit song, "Leader of the Pack." At the show, the staff wore black satin jackets embroidered with the company logo and the "Leader" theme. "Our objective was to position ourselves as a leader in these types of additives," Burke says. "We absolutely accomplished what we wanted to do."

How to Use Nostalgia
Virtually any company or organization can use nostalgic campaigns and promotions, including television networks, auto companies, financial institutions, computer concerns, insurance carriers, telecommunications firms and civic organizations, to name just a few.

A firm's brand history can provide the foundation for a memorable nostalgic promotion. About eight years ago, frankfurter-make Oscar Meyer Food Corp. brought back it's fleet of Weinermobiles, the company's hot-dog shaped vans that made their debut 60 years ago for special events. Fans go home with traditional imprinted Weinermobile whistles, which are slightly updated from the originals (the choking hazard was eliminated.)

Nostalgia can work well for cause-marketing, too. A retro poster, using equal touches of dark humor and sarcasm, helped Texans Against Gun Violence spread concern about the state's permissive laws regarding carrying concealed handguns. Part of the poster was a mock 1940's ad, including a drawing of a woman in typical period fashion standing in a bar, smiling, and holding a smoking gun. On the floor a few feet behind her is the man she shot. The caption reads, "Get rid of annoying men twice as fast!"

Retro items such as nostalgic radios, lunchboxes, phones, clocks, collectibles, writing instruments, music and more can all serve as impressive trade show handouts, sales incentives, gifts-with-purchase or event keepsakes, and can also take an ad message the extra mile. Promotional consultant Debbie Zitzmann adds snow globes, tins and cookie jars to the list of items that are hot with firms right now.

But again, when using nostalgia, remember that while the product itself can be critical, the feelings it evokes are just as important.

Ideas in Action
There's something about nostalgia-themed promotions that gives them added dimension - and that usually translates in to better results and promotional products that hold their value and mystique. Here are some more examples of promotions that scored big:

What made drivers stop at the same gas station again and again? Shell Oil Co's "Cruisin' Classics" promotion. For a period of six weeks in the summer, Shell station customers were offered a series of three different cassette tapes featuring "golden oldies" tunes. A new tape, priced at $1.99 and customized with the Shell logo and graphic of a classic car, was offered every two weeks. More than 4 million were distributed during the promotion. Best of all, 27 percent of drivers purchasing the tapes weren't regular Shell customers. And many who bought the first tape collected all three.

A nostalgic jingle translated into a successful promotion for Golden Grain Co., maker of Rice-A-Roni. The company wanted to better the brand's position, increase sales and further brand awareness. It accomplished all this with a specially designed musical kitchen timer, which played the product's theme from radio and television ads. Timers resembled miniature cable cars, featuring both the Rice-A-Roni advertising signs and another well-know slogan of the product, "Save a Potato." Thousands of people purchased their in-kitchen reminders of Rice-A-Roni by sending in product UPC codes.

Trade show managers dream of busy booths. What can draw people in to a display? Chevrolet Trucks used Hula Hoops, a fad from the 50's, to attract crowds and gain exposure for it's products at auto trade shows. At shows in five major U.S. cities, Chevy Trucks hired a professional hula hooper to perform on a specially elevated display. Hearing the beat of Chevy-themed music, attendees gravitated to the booth to see the performance. Volunteers (mostly kids) entered a contest to see who could hoop the longest. The winner kept the hula hoop, which was imprinted with the Chevy logo. At each show, a grand-prize winner was awarded with a logoed t-shirt bearing Chevy's "Heartbeat of America" slogan. Almost 50,000 hoops were distributed.

COPYRIGHT © 1999 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Cynthia L. Ironson

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