Nostalgia Marketing Reaches People on an Emotional Level
Psychologists have long known that nostalgia influences human hearts and minds in powerful, positive ways. And fast-food marketers paid attention, recycling fun, iconic slogans, images, toys or mascots in campaigns to woo customers. They’ve done it before and they’re doing it again.
But before surveying some of the ongoing phases of nostalgia-based fast-food branding, here’s a look at what nostalgia is and why it’s such an important marketing tool.
Why Nostalgia Works
Psychologist Krystine Batcho, Ph.D., says the word nostalgia was coined more than 300 years ago as designating homesickness, but has evolved to mean “the notion of longing for or missing aspects of a person’s personal lived past,” It motivates us and connects us to others and is “a very healthy pro-social emotion,” Batcho says in an American Psychological Association podcast.
Nostalgia is a particularly potent trigger for millennials (born between 1981 and 1996), Lauren Friedman writes on Forbes.com. “Reliving positive memories and beloved icons from the past feels good. Alongside hectic work schedules, unrelenting responsibilities and more, fond memories make us smile — and that leaves us open to brand messaging,” says Friedman, a specialist in social media, content marketing and millennials.
“When we feel or care for something, we’re much more likely to act. Share a compelling blast from the past with a millennial, and you’re likely to reach them on an emotional level — the holy grail of brand marketing,” Friedman adds. “Associating brand messaging with positive references from the ’90s, ’80s — and even the ’70s — humanizes brands, forging meaningful connections between the past and present.”
In a Psychology Today blog, David Ludden, Ph.D., delivers a good overview, saying that experiments have found “that nostalgia is experienced as an overwhelmingly positive emotion [that] raises self-esteem and optimism for the future.” For marketers, that means nostalgia puts you in a happy place that may entice you to buy a Happy Meal. Or a pie from Pizza Hut, a bucket of KFC chicken or a Burger King Whopper.
Nostalgia in Restaurants’ DNA
Sonic’s carhops are a huge part of its shtick. Johnny Rocket locations have the ye-olde-malt-shoppe appeal of longtime sitcom favorite Leave It to Beaver. Wendy’s will forever have its pigtailed mascot. Ronald McDonald’s future with the burger giant seems assured.
KFC un-retired its Colonel Sanders character, even dressing up celebrities such as Reba McEntire in the Southern gent’s garb as an ad gimmick that proved popular and memorable. (But KFC gave its “finger-lickin’ good” phrase a rest during the pandemic because of hygiene sensitivities, according to TheDailyMeal.com.)
How about the signage at Arby’s? Its famous cowboy-hat shape, which has undergone many evolutions, has a playful quality that harkens back to the days when TV westerns reigned supreme.
Famous Wording That Returned
Memorable phrasing is always good fodder for nostalgia. Burger King reprised its “Have It Your Way” jingle as part of its ongoing “You Rule” ad campaign. The catchy rhyming tune that first aired on TV in the 1970s has spawned BK fans’ own vocalizations on social media nowadays. The company encouraged them by offering a karaoke version of the tune on TikTok and Spotify. Fans’ versions of the song have enjoyed mega-sharing online, some from the marketing team of the fast-food restaurant franchise.
Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” query – a part of pop-culture history since 1984 – returned this year with tweaks. During the Daytona 500 auto race in February, driver Noah Gragson’s No. 42 Camaro was wrapped with Wendy’s branding: the red-haired mascot in racing headgear and a Dave’s Double cheeseburger on the hood beneath a caption “THE BEEF,” per an Ad Age report. The fast-food company also enlisted NBA star Reggie Miller to say “Square’s the beef,” a reference to the shape of Wendy’s hamburger patties, in commercials airing in advance of this year’s NCAA March Madness basketball tournament.
Fast-food franchises do encores on menu items, too, often due to popular demand. Customers’ pleas prompted Taco Bell to bring back its Volcano Menu for a while starting June 29, according to EatThis.com. Taco Bell also welcomed back its Mexican Pizza, which took its first bows in 1985, as a permanent menu offering in September 2022. That same month, Wendy’s brought back its Pretzel Bacon Pub Burger.
In spring of 2023, KFC again began offering its Double Down chicken sandwich; the menu item debuted in 2010 and had made a return visit in 2014. The Big New Yorker pizza rejoined Pizza Hut’s offerings briefly this year after fans had clamored for it for two decades.
Burger King’s Stackers also had their comeback early this year; the menu item had launched more than 15 years ago. And last year Subway revitalized its club sandwich with a new wrinkle: Angus choice roast beef would be a newcomer to the ingredients.
Nostalgia from McDonald’s
McDonald’s Hamburglar mascot went back on the prowl this year. In April he promoted food enhancements such as “meltier” cheese, juicier patties, softer buns, and extra sauce on Big Macs. McDonald’s gave another a call-back to Hamburglar and two other mascots last fall when it promoted its Cactus Plant Flea Market box, a Happy Meal incarnation for adults. The combo was made up of a collectible toy figurine (Birdie, Grimace or Hamburglar), Chicken McNuggets or a Big Mac, fries, and a drink. McDonald’s leadership said the promotion was a smash hit among diners who loved their Happy Meals as youngsters in the ’80s and ’90s.
Grimace made another comeback recently. According to Ad Age, the loveable purple blob is featured in a new campaign promoting the Grimace Birthday Meal, which includes a berry-flavored purple milkshake. “McDonald’s nearly 70-year legacy allows us to have real equity in nostalgia,” JJ Healan, vice president of U.S. marketing, brand, content, and culture, wrote in an email. “The fandom around our McDonaldland characters is a perfect example of that.”
Nostalgia Marketing Trends
Many branding icons have disappeared, of course, as documented in a Buzzfeed post. The writer noted the funky seating in McDonald’s, which was shaped like burgers and a package of the restaurant’s French fries, as well as the once-ubiquitous faux-wood tile floors in both McDonald’s and Subway shops.
While Burger King once upon a time went granular in branding with its crown-shaped chicken nuggets, other franchises took a go-big-or-go-home approach. Their buildings’ quirky silhouettes announced the brand – Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Denny’s, for instance.
The future will determine whether any of these will come back…