A few times recently I've felt that brief wave of sadness and longing in the pit of my stomach that signals a nostalgic episode. Something will trip a bunch of connected neurons and suddenly I'll be transported back in time, feeling for a split second like my then-self.

Nostalgia can be triggered by all the senses. Sometimes it's a smell wafting by (like the same cologne worn by the guy in the next dorm room in freshman year of college). Sometimes it's a song ("Don't You Forget About Me" by Simple Minds always puts me back into my best friend's blue Chevy Malibu on a hot June day just on the cusp of high school graduation).
A color can get me (the deep crushed purple of my favorite velour shirt in 6th grade). Or a taste can do it (candy necklaces bought for a nickel from the ice cream man). Even a touch (the rose petal softness of any baby's tummy can take me back to the wonder of being a new mom).
Yesterday the first thing that set off my nostalgia was an review of the Police reunion concert in the Wall Street Journal with an accompanying picture of drummer Stewart Copeland. I had a major crush on him in junior high, and even though he has glasses now and is 25 years older, looking at that picture transported me back into the awkward 13-year-old with the full-page LA Times ad for the Police concert at the Forum taped to my wall (I didn't actually go myself, but if I recall, the opening act was Oingo Boingo). I don't think the nostalgic pull was that I actually wanted to relive those junior high years (ugh! - would anyone willingly go through junior high again?). Maybe it's more that the picture reminded me of the good feelings I experienced when I looked at his picture back then.
The other thing that gave me the nostalgic twinge was Wil Wheaton's column recounting his own wistful feelings when revisiting the soundstage where they filmed Star Trek: The Next Generation. He certainly has much more of a connection with the show than I (he was Ensign Wesley Crusher, but now is a writer/blogger/geek-about-town), but being the sci-fi fangirl that I am, I've seen every TNG episode at least a few times.
As anyone who watches a good show over a long time knows, you develop an emotional connection with the characters. This show was exceptionally well-written and acted, and the deep emotions that fans felt for the show result in a nostalgic desire to reimmerse themselves in that world, as evidenced by Trekkie conventions, USS Enterprise role play sims in Second Life and Vegas reenactments.
What does all of this have to do with marketing?
Marketers have been using nostalgia as a way of pitching their products for as long as people have been talking about "the good old days." Look at how things like fashion and music keep coming around in cycles, fueled by generations buying the things they loved for their own children. I was just talking with a friend about how I owned all the Schoolhouse Rock videos for my kids, having grown up singing about the Constitution and adverbs on Saturday mornings. The new VW Beetle is successful specifically because of nostalgia for the old Bugs. Commercials for cars, soda, and financial services are borrowing licks from 70s rock. Cultural icons like Dennis Hopper, Kermit the Frog and Bob Dylan flack for retirement planning, hybrid cars and women's underwear.
Emotions imprinted during childhood and the teenage years are especially powerful, and by associating our products with those nostalgic memories, we can piggyback on them. First you need to know who your target audience is -- 20-year-olds will be nostalgic about very different things than 40-year-olds, and regional, ethnic and social class differences may exist as well.
You could do focus groups where you ask them to name the music, tastes, smells, celebrities, TV shows, etc that they remember fondly and the specific memories associated with them. Focus on the senses, because those are the key to tapping into those nostalgic emotions. You will find that certain things get most everyone nodding wistfully; when that happens, you'll know you're onto something.
How do you connect your product with that nostalgia? Depending on which senses are involved, you may have to be creative. You can use music, celebrity spokespeople (if they used to be hot but have not been for a while, you may even have a better chance of getting their participation), particular graphic styles or fonts, clothes and hairstyles, food or scented giveaways, plays on old catchphrases, or other approaches.
You do need to be careful, though, when you are messing around with things that people hold dear to their hearts. If they perceive you as tampering with their cherished icons or that the people associated with them have "sold out," you may generate a backlash.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to watch the the Krofft Superstars DVD I bought for my kids. Yeah, yeah, right...for my kids.

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Harnessing Nostalgia

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Nedra Kline Weinreich is the president and founder of the social marketing firm Weinreich Communications (www.social-marketing.com) and the author of Hands-On Social Marketing: A Step-by-Step Guide. Reach her at weinreich@social-marketing.com.