Retro products traditionally pop up every few decades. Now, a post-pandemic world is speeding up the nostalgia cycle.

the holiday season is always awash with nostalgia: both emotional and physical reminders that stoke memories of all kinds. Beyond the intangible, however, nostalgia often also finds its way into foil-wrapped boxes filled with toys and products inspired by the past.

Nostalgia – a longing or yearning for the past – has power over consumers, who eagerly snap up wares re-issued in vintage packaging, or new takes on childhood favourites. Brands seize the rose-coloured yearning of memory to elicit strong feelings and positive associations, and ultimately move products off shelves.

If this strategy is implemented well, companies can see big returns: in one 2014 study, researchers found consumers are more likely to spend money on brands that evoke nostalgia. To tap into that emotional centre, brands often wait at least a couple decades to develop new versions of past products, whether toys, clothes, media or anything else: industry analysts say nostalgia marketing generally runs on a 20-to-30-year cycle.  

Think, for instance, about the current resurgence of fashion from the early noughties, including low-slung jeans and platform sandals. Food also often becomes trendy again: Good Humor recently re-released the Vanilla Viennetta ice cream cake to the US market, which was discontinued in the 90s (it never left shelves in the UK). Even Pepsi’s new logo, introduced in March 2023, harkens back to the company’s 90s design. Media, too, hits the nostalgia sweet spot (for better or worse, at times): next year, iconic film Mean Girls is getting a reboot, 20 years later.

This timeline is no business accident. The careful product re-introduction cycle gives enough time for the children who experienced the memories to now become adults with purchasing power.

Slews of the nostalgic products currently on shelves and screens appeal to millennials who recall them from their own childhood and teen years in the 1990s and early 2000s. Now, these millennial consumers are free to satisfy these nostalgic urges with their wallets – and many also have children with whom they want to share the nostalgia experience. Gen Z are also beginning to age into their own “Y2K nostalgia” period.Beloved 90s toy Furby was re-released in 2023

Beloved 90s toy Furby was re-released in 2023

Liz Juusola, executive strategy director at branding firm Red Antler, based in Brooklyn, harnessed the power of nostalgia when working with toymaker Hasbro on the re-launch of the iconic Furby toy this summer, originally released in 1998.

“It’s a loveably strange toy that sparks nostalgia for so many parents,” she says. “But we also made it relevant for kids today by turning Furby into an eccentric, out-of-this-world popstar who encourages kids to explore self-expression. It feels really true to the original brand, and simultaneously brings it into a modern context.”

While the two-to-three-decade cycle is still at work in bringing nostalgic products to shelves, this window may be narrowing. Some experts say modern circumstances may have rewired people’s perception of time and the function nostalgia serves in their lives. 

First, there is the pandemic-era effect. “With Covid, and the lockdowns, and social distancing, it was like we were trapped in a time warp. People became nostalgic for things that happened just last week, or just last month, or just last year,” says Krystine Batcho, a professor at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York.

Batcho says that during lockdowns, people were nostalgic for things they’d been able to do right up until that moment, whether it was seeing a movie in a theatre, or getting lunch with a friend. And when we look back through the lens of nostalgia, recollections are often embellished: “we make the past in our minds a little better than it really was”.Fashion often comes back around, like 2000s-era platform sandals (Credit: Alamy)

Fashion often comes back around, like 2000s-era platform sandals (Credit: Alamy)

Juusola agrees the upheaval of the past few years have made people increasingly susceptible to nostalgia, sparking a longing for events or products from a much shorter period than before. But she also says a generation raised on instant communication and visual technology has likely altered the collective concept of nostalgia away from a thing of the distant past. 

“Social media means everything is accessible,” she says. “You don’t have to dig through an attic. Content from the last few decades, and even before, is everywhere and so easily remixed.”

One company that jumped on nostalgia in seemingly record time is Netflix. In September, the same day the streaming giant retired their mail-order DVD business, they introduced a sleeping bag that mimics the look and design of the signature red envelopes that launched the company.

Batcho says the 20-to-30-year cycle will likely continue to be the mainstay in marketing and cultural-trend resurgences, but that these changes may have also made people’s nostalgia windows more personal, too.

“When you think about measuring nostalgia, I don’t think it’s about timing,” she says. “A lot of research shows that nostalgia is very often triggered by a feeling of a difference in the present and missing something from the past, whether it was two months ago, two years ago or 50 years ago.”

As brands rush to serve our newly hyper-nostalgic minds, nostalgia marketing may be entering a new phase: “nowstalgia”.

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