Nearly two years ago, I sat at home on the couch watching reruns of my old favorites—Friends, Gossip Girl, and The OC—reminiscing about simpler times and seeking comfort from my childhood bedroom. I watched my mom’s old favorites too, Pretty Woman and Dirty Dancing, wondering if the characters in these plotlines could ever imagine a world of social isolation—one where history split in two, designated pre- and post-pandemic. I made a mental note to ask for “The Rachel” at my next hair appointment, fancied myself a Phoebe Buffay, and wondered how a show or movie with such insensitive and tone-deaf humor would ever go over today.
Flash-forward a year and I’m watching the same shows and movies on a double-take. Favorites like Harry Potter and Friends re-air with tear-jerking reunions, while Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, How I Met Your Mother, and She’s All That debut modern twists on their namesakes. Bop or flop, it’s obvious that reboots are having a major moment, and this movement is reflective of the collective nostalgia of the times. Juicy Couture tracksuits, Y2K meme accounts, and styles of bygone decades walk off the screen and into the streets as Gen Z zeros in on nostalgia. As a pop-culture enthusiast and brand strategist, I can’t help but wonder why, how far it will go, and what we as brand partners can do about it.
With every economic downturn in America, we witness an uptick in nostalgia—a turning toward the familiar comforts of an imaginary past for a sense of ease in an unsteady world.
So it’s no wonder that Generation Z, a group born between 1997 and 2012, and Zennials, those who fall just between Gen Z and millennials, are crazy for nostalgia right now. Zennials were born in a time defined by the past—pre-pandemic, pre-9/11, pre-financial-crash. And yet, we find that much of what Gen Z is nostalgic for is in fact not a time they were even around for—the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s. Perhaps it’s fascination, the awe of fashion, or jealousy of what has been dubbed a “simpler time” before our present social-media-crazed, information-barraged age. Or perhaps it’s a coping mechanism, a response to being left to our own devices for too long, and an escape from the present. But one thing is for certain… while Gen Z’s eyes are on the past, its hearts are on our future.
The fascinating part of the young generation’s interest in decades past is that they pull inspiration and romanticization from time periods rife with social injustice. Ironically, this generation is more dedicated to social justice, racial and sexual equality, sustainability, and various other causes than any other. Perhaps what makes the nostalgia game so fun is that, unlike older generations, they get to experiment and play with expressive elements without living through the rest of it.
They grew up in the early 2000s—a time of booming access to information, thanks to the internet and the rise of social media. This access granted them greater knowledge of the world and insight into perspectives and experiences across the world other than their own—perspectives and experiences previously unknown to them. This taught them not only that they weren’t alone in their struggles but that others were undergoing similar challenges—leading to greater empathy and a sense of global social responsibility. It’s not uncommon these days for young people to know what is going on both down their street and across the globe—and to voice their opinions on it.
Brands looking to capture young consumers should lean into old-school elements through retro typefaces, color combinations, and gradients, as well as activating with campaigns and experiences that transport viewers to times past that cue comfort and familiarity. Spotify is a perfect example: They looked to the past—specifically at jazz album covers and posters from the 1960s. These were often printed in two colors, which saved the artists money. Spotify mimicked this classic “duotone” style and successfully crafted a flexible system that would tie all of their imagery together, creating software called “The Colorizer,” which allowed the company to brand imagery from across their 58 markets. This method drew inspiration from the past but did so in a modern and understated way.
While we can speak to the past in design and activation, we should talk to the future in messaging. As we know, the young generation is highly passionate and invested in social and moral causes. To do that, brands should go beyond just talking the talk, to walking the walk—informing themselves on the causes their young consumers care about and investing in them. Then, they can speak in a tone of voice that is reassuring, calming, and trusted, with messaging around hope, future, and action.
Take the cereal brand OffLimits, for example. They’ve pulled inspiration from simpler childhood days of fun-filled cereal, and then they made it healthy. They brought the brand to life through bold, retro expressions and cartoon-character ambassadors. The twist? Each flavor is represented by its respective cartoon character, who interacts with the others and represents moods and emotions like anxiety and depression. Each order comes with an activity sheet to work through while eating the cereal to relieve stress and anxiety. Through these characters, the brand is on a mission to destigmatize the conversation around mental health and illness—a topic historically considered off-limits—and to provide an artificial-ingredient-free, “offensively delicious” cereal.
At the end of the day, we can learn from the shift toward nostalgia that what consumers ultimately crave is comfort and security during times of transition and change. They want to know that everything is going to be better in the future, and they crave familiar forces to remind them of simpler times past. For brands looking to connect, they should look to the past for inspiration while shining hope on the future of Gen Z.