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Going Retro The Right Way

Nostalgia can make for strong marketing messages, but it’s a flimsy foundation for lasting brand loyalty

By Kaylyn Sidle

There it is. That checkout-aisle bubblegum you vividly remember begging for as a child. It’s back? And those shoes that stylishly carried you through high school. How could you forget about the shot of terrible liquor that brings flashbacks of your college dorm room? And oh, man, they’re bringing back flip phones? 

There’s obvious power in human memories. People find comfort in nostalgia. It can be a deep emotional connection between brands and consumers, and many organizations invest just as much in reviving older brands as they do in predicting new trends. The movie industry alone shows how profitable this practice can be. And how fraught. 

Nostalgia provides a reason to re-engage with a brand. But real success requires there to be something more substantial to engage with past that initial connection. Whatever they were in the past, retro products must find modern relevance to customer pain points, and must build messaging around that relevance. 

Brands must remember what made a product popular in the first place, and if that purpose is no longer relevant, they must pivot in an authentic way to re-engage their once-loyal consumers. Whether new or making a comeback, a brand must have a compelling story to show consumers why they should care about it. No amount of “remember when” can sustain a product long term.  Nostalgia, while powerful, is fleeting. (Just ask any major fashion brand why looks only return for a few seasons at a time.) 

Resurrecting a brand based solely on memories makes sure your product never moves past the “fad” stage. PepsiCo learned this lesson when it responded to consumer calls for the return of Crystal Pepsi. Originally launched in 1993, the clear cola was initially intended to offer a different taste profile than other cola brands, with its clear liquid reinforcing lighter taste and caffeine-free selling points. But after launch, market tests showed the formulation needed to change in order to perfect a winning taste. That was taking time, and in the meantime, Pepsi was left focusing its messaging on the novelty of its coloration in ad copy such as ““You’ve never seen a taste like this.” With no clear purpose beyond this novelty, Crystal Pepsi vanished from store shelves a year after launch.  

Nostalgia was enough to bring it back as a limited run product in 2015, but PepsiCo couldn’t build a market stable enough to make Crystal Pepsi a full-time addition to its product line, as it couldn’t make people care beyond the point of nostalgia. Its comeback messaging was, again, strictly product focused. Pepsi even brought back “You’ve never seen a taste like this.” According to David Novak, a former executive at Pepsi who’s been credited with dreaming up the idea back in the 1990s, “it could have been more than just a novelty …. It was probably the best idea I’ve ever had—and the most poorly executed.” Without offering modern consumers a reason to care about this product beyond their fascination with novelty, Crystal Pepsi has languished through a series of limited-run revivals. The market has not grown past those who engage solely on nostalgia.  

Some brands, however, do know how to translate nostalgia into something more meaningful. Take Polaroid, for example, which is seeing a revival in the modern age of high-tech photography.  

Instant cameras first became popular in the 1950’s. Polaroid’s selling point was novel with its click-shake-and-see photos, but it also offered a solution to existing customer pain points: people no longer needed to send film away to a developer or invest in their own dark room. Pictures were ready within minutes. Photography had become easier for everyone. Advertisements for the popular camera included phrases like: “World’s simplest,” and “It develops in minutes.”  

But what was revolutionary at the time became outdated in the 1990’s when the first digital camera, the Dycam Model 1, was introduced to consumers. The new technology took the photography world by storm. Not only were digital photos instantly viewable, but cameras could now hold hundreds of shots that could be transferred to other devices. By 2012, Samsung estimated that 2.5 billion people had some kind of digital camera. That shift ultimately led to the Polaroid Corporation filing for bankruptcy in 2001, following a steep drop in stock price from $50 in 1998, to just $0.28 on its last day.  

Now, people carry incredibly advanced digital cameras in their pockets as a standard smartphone feature. Not only can every photographer (amateur or otherwise) see their photos immediately, but they can store near-infinite shots in the cloud and scroll through, edit, and share them with ease. With all the benefits of this modern technology, some may wonder why Polaroid is making its comeback.  

But in 2017, a team of Dutch entrepreneurs and Polaroid experts known as The Impossible Project saw potential for this retro brand and purchased it for $70 million. Polaroid relaunched its staple instant camera with an entirely new purpose that remains true to its original brand: ““We create beautiful tools to capture the meaningful moments in life.

Polaroid reworked its message to focus on moments that shouldn’t be disposable. At a time when people can take an infinite number of photos of anything they see (and likely never really look at many of those pics again), Polaroid grabs moments locked in time, captured as-is, and made permanent in the palm of your hand as a tangible representation of that moment. 

Ozlem Birkalan, Polaroid’s brand director, said: “In this disposable culture we live in, Polaroid now stands for the meaning that it brings, in that you can capture and keep looking at it forever.” 

While many other photo brands are making nostalgia plays by offering old-fashioned filters in apps, Polaroid is avoiding many of those remember when-isms by saying that the process of a one-click capture offers a surprise, organic element with messaging such as “Point, shoot, and keep. Our new autofocus camera makes it easy to catch life as you live it.” Granted, the “simple” point-and-shoot camera now has modern features like a flash-adjusting light sensor and better battery life, but its instant film is positioned to capture unforgettable moments that don’t require any edits to be remembered dearly.  

Not every resurrected product needs to pivot its purpose to use nostalgia effectively. Volkswagen, for example, understood this with the reintroduction of its iconic camper vans. It’s carrying forward its original brand promise but with new features that attract its same consumers.  

The Volkswagen bus is often remembered with surfboards strapped to the top, cruising down the California coast. Its extensive history has always stood for freedom and wanderlust, specifically in the post-war protest culture of the 1960s. Arguably, VW vans were the foundation of the popular #vanlife culture in modern times. The bus has always represented establishing independence and venturing out into life itself.  

The iconic vehicle was discontinued nearly a decade ago when its vintage design no longer met modern safety standards. But Volkswagen recently announced the introduction of a new VW bus, the “I.D. Buzz,” that on the surface  looks like a straight nostalgia play; its design is similar to the old bus with the same split-toned exterior and iconic VW logo leading the way. Its marketing materials even show it on a coastal highway, surf boards at the ready.  

But the overall message behind the design speaks to something more foundational. Just like the original, the I.D. Buzz is about the freedom to explore. It’s designed for customization, including rotating seats and storage spaces meant to make living out of a bus just a little easier. Of course, modern nomads have more modern needs, so the new bus offers touchscreen navigation to take them even further afield. But with every design choice and piece of consumer messaging, VW hopes to inspire people to embrace authentic and adventurous lifestyles—the same mission it’s carried since the 1950s. 

Both Polaroid and VW want to reforge connections with their customers through emotion and memory—a strong strategy that smartly moves their products’ selling points beyond features and benefits. They’re banking on the strong cultural imprints their products made to reinvigorate them after an absence. But both recognize that nostalgia is just a starting point. These organizations have committed to a purpose that carries their customer experience beyond old memories and makes something relevant and necessary for modern times.  

To endure, a brand must connect with its customers around shared values and solutions to today’s problems. Without a strong reason to engage beyond nostalgia, consumers will see through empty brand offerings a clearly as they would through clear cola.

Kaylyn is a brand storyteller at Woden. Want to stay connected? Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.