Creative & Tech Social Media

‘Aspirational Nostalgia’ & Marketing in the Real World

September 12, 2013

Whole Foods, the supermarket chain known — at least to marketers — for designing a shopping experience that taps into our evolutionary past as hunter-gatherers, is tapping into a different bit of our past. They’re going to start selling vinyl LPs.

Although this reflects a purchase trend among Millennials, I see it as an example of a much larger phenomenon I call ‘aspirational nostalgia’ – or the desire to look fondly back at things never actually experienced. This article takes a look at how marketers can meet this consumer want with authentic experiences that dissolve the lines between digital and the real world.

Creating a sense of nostalgia – even when the initial memory may have never actually existed – is a storytelling tactic that marketers have been employing for years. Tapping into a common, relatable moment in time can move consumers to feel an emotional ‘something’ that builds a stronger connection to your brand.

While fabricated feelings were effective in more traditional advertising, and especially in television, today’s multidimensional marketing landscape has given brands an unprecedented opportunity to create real memories based on real experiences.

The Allure of Made-up Memories

We can recall things we’ve experienced or learned – that’s the definition of memory. And it’s easier to remember things that have an emotional or personal meaning. That’s why we remember the song that was playing the day we fell in love, but struggle to remember the times-tables.

Nostalgia is a fond remembrance of the past and perhaps a desire to return to it, especially if it was a positive, happy, and meaningful memory. But consider this: Scientists have recently created memories of things that never happened – in a mouse for now, but “Total Recall” may not be too far away.

And perhaps that’s not as weird as it sounds, since real memories aren’t recordings of the past. They’re more an interpretation of the past, based on real events but with an overlay of interpreted meaning and what we wish had really happened.

So if memories can be faked and are influenced by interpretation and wishes, it makes sense that we may manufacture fond memories of things we wish had happened. Then those emotional nostalgic feelings would serve as evidence of having had that particular wish fulfilled. And we like having our wishes fulfilled.

This is “aspirational nostalgia” – wanting to be nostalgic for things we never actually experienced, and acting as though we are, in fact, nostalgic. We like that because those things would have been meaningful if only they’d actually happened. And we need meaning to be happy in our lives.

How technology fuels aspirational nostalgia

This theory of ‘aspirational nostalgia’ might explain the misty eyes that people who grew up on mp3 files have for vinyl records now. They grew up without them, but believe they were great, and so act like “the kind of person who” would have grown up with them if they could have. Same with the Instagram filters that add a sepia, Polaroid, or Kodachrome mood to our images.

Although every generation adopts and adapts the styles and posturing of earlier generations, I think what we’re seeing is an increase in passionate desire for meaning, not just a desire for artifacts of the past.

To some degree this might be explained as a reaction to the very cool and ironic distancing adopted by many people, a postured lack of caring, of emotional mediation and mitigation.  Our connection technologies become a distancing mechanism, not just enabling connection across geographic distance but also enabling disconnection from the physical world.

In fact, a study funded by the Nature Conservancy reported that a 38 percent drop in visits to national parks over the last 10 years was attributable to the rise in media coverage – after all, there’s no reason to get dirty if you can “experience” the out-of-doors from the cleanliness and comfort of your couch.

Why authentic experiences will become critical to marketing

When we take the Experience with a capital-E out of an experience, there’s not much there to create meaning. And as humans, our job is to make meaning out of the world so we can become who we are – we are not fully human when we’re disconnected from meaning.

Hummingbirds and butterflies will preferentially choose artificial sweeteners over flower nectar, but they soon starve to death. And we tend to forget philosopher Alfred Korzybski’s admonition that “the map is not the territory” – we lose ourselves in the representation of reality, not reality itself. Media designed with the goal of increasing engagement with everyday life can help us refocus on what it means to be human, to be alive, and to be world citizens. It should not provide Splenda for the social nutrition we need to live.

As marketers, we need to recognize this, that a full experience provides more than gamified access to a coupon, and that the divide between the “digital world” and the “real world” is false – in fact, the real world = the physical world + the digital world.

Integrated media needs to be more than mixing digital and traditional media. Our marketing needs to provide authentic experiences – that means multisensory, connected to the physical world, emotionally engaging, meaningful (or at least providing the architecture around which to build meaning).

When we strive to overcome ironic distancing and the disintermediation of experience, we provide the anchors that keep people connected to the world and to themselves. If we do this right, our brands and our marketing can help people fulfill their own promise in the present, with no need to manufacture a more fulfilling past.

Cover photo via Flickr