The Future of Nostalgia

Posted on November 2, 2009 by Kevin Bannon

Marian recently wrote about millennials, also referred to as Generation Y, in assessing the modern workplace (and how millennials compare there with baby boomers). I’ve learned that I could be either an old member of Generation Y or a young member of its predecessor, Generation X. I was born in the gray area, on the cusp. No matter my label, I’m (relatively) young enough to be immersed in modern pop culture but also old enough to have seen it evolve a few times.

People my age live a rather charmed life in today’s society. We’re able to walk the line between the generation that has grown up in the midst of the increasingly virtual and fast-paced culture of the past two decades, and we’ve also known a time when all that didn’t exist. I find it an odd concept to face, but we’re probably the last of our kind in that respect. The generation that’s just now entering the working world (and all that will follow) will know a totally different existence. But for now, my peers and I can enjoy seeing ourselves reflected in pop culture in many ways.

Here’s an example: We (Generation X/Y “cuspers”) are about the same age as the average advertising copywriter, which might explain why those surreal Geico commercials seem (at least somewhat) humorous and memorable to us but annoy and infuriate people our parent’s age or older. Likewise, most television writers are probably our age, so it’s no wonder there are about 35 shows programmed in my DVR—they’re probably all written by people like me, with a similar sense of humor and aesthetics.

My age group can also uniquely appreciate products that both adapt to the advancements we see today and speak to an earlier time when life was simpler and technology didn’t sneak into our lives at every waking moment.

My first camera was a Polaroid 600, and I grew up listening to my parents’ vinyl records. Clearly, technology has advanced in both arenas; I now use a Sony high-speed digital camera or my iPhone to take pictures. And I listen to a range of music on CDs (already outdated) and, increasingly, digital files. I’ve recently seen nostalgia creep into both of these spaces, however. Smart companies have learned to embrace certain consumers’ seemingly conflicting desires for both advancement and nostalgia.

Take my iPhone: It has an application called ShakeItPhoto that lets me take Polaroid-esque digital photos. It has the fun factor and bright colors everyone loves about a Polaroid image, but it’s got the ease and convenience of the iPhone. For all the iPhone’s bells and whistles, its camera is somewhat lackluster. But with ShakeItPhoto, that simple camera becomes a much more appealing device. In a fascinating development, Polaroid, which long ago discontinued its instant cameras in pursuit of more digital-based business opportunities, recently decided to relaunch its instant-camera line. Coincidence? I think not.

Similarly, not long ago I returned to the softer, warmer sounds of vinyl albums. The vinyl resurgence is particularly prevalent in the independent music scene, where savvy record labels have learned to embrace their customers’ desire for portable digital music (which sadly is not often paid for) and provide the vinyl option for nostalgic audiophiles. Now, when someone purchases a so-called novelty vinyl album, the labels give a high-quality download of it, too. A small gesture, perhaps, but one that music fans have received with open arms.

This product phenomenon of mixing the old with the new is intriguing, and I imagine we’ll see more of it in the coming years, as my age group continues to operate in the cultural sweet spot where media and technology cater to us.

Certainly this won’t last forever, but in the meantime, it presents a unique marketing and promotion opportunity, for both prospective clients and our industry. Identifying possibilities for such potential combinations, as well as determining the appropriate strategy for promoting them, is a practice that could benefit products as wide-ranging as cars and magazines. It will be interesting to see what other companies opt to make nostalgia the next big thing.

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