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Recasting the Past

Using Nostalgia to Create an Audience Connection

By Hannah Landers

“What is the charm that makes old things so sweet?”

Although novelist Sarah Doudney penned this phrase in her 19th century poem “Between the Lights,” it is a question never more relevant as it is in the 21st century, which is witnessing the return of everything from New Coke to the Palm Pilot—largely thanks to nostalgic marketing campaigns.

This marketing focuses on the positive parts of the past—the colorful, animated characters that felt like friends on Saturday morning TV, or the taste of a favorite after-school snack—while leaving out all the knock-down, drag-out fights over the remote with siblings, or the cavities that needed to be drilled after all of those Dunkaroos.

Dunder Mifflinite Andy Bernard put it best: “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”

More than simply a yearning for a simpler, carefree time, however, nostalgia marketing hits consumers’ desire to define themselves. Many people form their identities in their late teens or early 20s, so everything from the style of clothing, to what was on TV, to the music that was blasting from everyone’s Walkmans becomes a crucial part of the way people think about who they are.

Which is why it’s all the more disappointing when a brand falls short of sparking those bittersweet feelings with a nostalgia-driven marketing campaign, often assuming that a familiar name or label is enough to get audiences to fork over their hard-earned cash—and their priceless brand loyalty. Only when a brand builds an authentic connection with the reference in question, both between its own messaging and the interests of its audience, can the campaign truly strike a chord.

“You might not remember us, but we met in the ‘90s.” So opens the narration in one of Microsoft’s most talked about campaigns: its attempt to revitalize and once again popularize the Internet Explorer web browser, with a focus on millennials in particular. What follows is a veritable visual smorgasbord of all things neon and what was, at the time, newly technological. There are snap bracelets and floppy disks, Lisa Frank and fanny packs—even Oregon Trail and Pogs.

The voiceover narration throughout the ad is focused on the idea of remembering the good old days that nostalgia marketing attempts to cash in on: “Life moved a little slower. … You really had nothing to lose. … The future was bright.” The ad even identifies Internet Explorer as a fellow millennial at the very beginning of the video spot, attempting to personify the web browser as a fellow Lunchables connoisseur and Tamagotchi addict with the ultimate goal of “reframing” Internet Explorer’s relationship with younger generations.

Since the ad’s release in January 2013, it has garnered millions of views, and was nominated for a Webby Award in the “Best Online Commercial” category. Usage of Internet Explorer, however, which had already been on a slow decline for years, continued to peter out in the months following the release of the ad. Shortly after, Microsoft announced that it was discontinuing updates and support for older versions of the browser, followed by a complete abandon of Internet Explorer in favor of Microsoft Edge, a web browser that was released alongside Windows 10. The retro Internet Explorer spot sparked interest and attention, but it was shallow and short-lived, largely because Microsoft failed to build an authentic connection between its nostalgic references and its own brand.

Microsoft’s self-stated mission to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more” is in stark contrast to the message of nostalgic simplicity inherent in the video spot. The ad dwells on all of the tech, clothing, and other products that made the ‘90s a great time to be young, without building a meaningful connection to who the brand is today, aside from the parting line: “You grew up. So did we,” over the image of a Microsoft Tablet. Text on the screen then invites the watcher to “Reconnect with the new Internet Explorer,” without further explanation as to why the fondness of the past might be meaningful today.

Rather than using these ‘90s callbacks as a foundation to construct a vision for the future, Microsoft was content to let viewers languish in these childhood memories without a clear path forward. In fact, the invitation at the end of the video is in direct opposition to the content in the rest of the ad. Sure, Internet Explorer understands and appreciates the things that millennials grew up on, but there is little in this ad to indicate that Internet Explorer or Microsoft has an understanding of the modern millennial—and that their wants, needs, and aspirations don’t include returning to Geocities.

Why connect with a new Internet Explorer if the best it can offer is a memory of its former self? Microsoft built an effective emotional connection with its audience, but squandered it by failing to leverage it into a compelling narrative that could go beyond a dated browser that powered hours of chat room conversations and primitive internet surfing.

The video was little more than the equivalent of so many “Things Only REAL 90s Kids Will Remember” listicles, to be watched and shared—most likely on Chrome or Safari—and then forgotten.

With roots in the Greek word “algos,” meaning pain or grief, nostalgia is literally a “severe homesickness considered a disease.” There’s a real ache in revisiting some of the most treasured memories of the past—moments that, no matter how wonderful, one can never actually return to. This isn’t to say that these fond recollections of better days should simply be forgotten or ignored. They’re a powerful way to signal community: Shared nostalgia, as Microsoft induced, can engender real affinity. But a brand must pull the resonant threads of these stories into the future to make the impact more than the heart-strung equivalent of pressing a healing bruise.

Adobe embraced this approach in its 2016 nostalgia marketing campaign for its Photoshop Sketch application—beginning with a focus on an audience that came of age a bit before the ‘90s. In a series of videos that serve more as instructional aids than straightforward advertisements, soft-spoken, bearded painter Bob Ross walks viewers through everything from the right color selections and brush types to make a “happy little sky,” to how to share the finished artwork with friends.

The videos bear a striking similarity to The Joy of Painting, the much-beloved PBS series helmed by Ross that shepherded aspiring artists through various tutorials from 1983 to 1994. Opening with a burst of jazzy and jangly Muzak, the camera pans over a set of brushes, then tubes of paint, followed by an Apple Pencil on an iPad, on which is a drawing of a mountainous forest scene. The campaign’s title is then splashed across the screen in retro font: The Joy of Sketching with Bob Ross and Adobe Photoshop Sketch. The most striking difference in the video is the absence of Bob Ross, who passed away in 1995.

Adobe found a worthy replacement in artist and teacher Chad Cameron, who embodies Ross’s gentle yet passionate artistic mannerisms without jest; appropriately, Cameron used his childhood memories of Ross to inform his impression, right down to the clothes he wore and the type of easel he used.

The familiarity of these set pieces, the host, and the format gave context to viewers: They knew what to expect from each video, and felt safe and happy in tuning in, which is what inspired them to flock to the videos in the first place. Especially following the death of Bob Ross, there was a sense of melancholic delight in seeing his likeness on The Joy of Painting once again. Adobe wisely doesn’t dwell on this twinge, instead inviting viewers to experience something entirely new—Photoshop Sketch—with a beloved guide who reinterprets the feeling of nostalgia for modern creativity.

With its suite of creative tools for everything from marketing to design, Adobe has built its brand on the idea that “creativity is the catalyst for positive change.” This makes the brand’s choice to turn to Ross for a nostalgia marketing campaign all the more apt. Not only extremely calm, soothing, and even in his demeanor, Ross proved time and again to be a fount of encouragement and positivity on The Joy of Painting, famously referring to mistakes as “happy accidents,” among other affirmations.

“He really empowered viewers,” a photography professor from St. Joseph’s University remarked in an article about the painter in Artsy. “I made horrible Bob Ross paintings, but he did really make me feel like anything was possible.”

This empowerment expressed by Bob Ross and Adobe created the vital brand connection that served as the key to the success in Adobe’s Joy of Sketching campaign. Photoshop Sketch has an average 4.8-star rating from more than 25 thousand users on the App Store, and many comments speak to the creative possibilities of the app; more than one user has commented that he or she is still exploring the many different creative possibilities Sketch has to offer. One user in particular praised Sketch’s ability to bring her closer to her daughter as they draw and “expand [their] creativity” together—much the same was as if the two were seated in front of an episode of The Joy of Painting, a clean, white canvas in front of them and Ross’s dulcet voice in their ears.

Rather than simply relying on just any reference to art and creativity from the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, Adobe engaged its audience with a specific memory of their past, warmed them with the recollection of their childhood abilities, and subtly reinforced its brand mission to use creativity as a force for positivity. Adobe has a deep understanding of its brand and the story that brand is telling to its audience, which led the software company to the nostalgia marketing campaign that would most resonate with its audience and promote its product in an effective way.

Nostalgia helps people connect their pasts to their present experiences, reduces stress, and boosts overall mood. Nostalgia also acts as a powerful uniting force, making references and recalling moments in time that different groups or individuals may have experienced separately, but can now remember together. When this tactic is used correctly, it can establish the trust a brand needs to share a new story, something rooted in the ideas expressed in that bittersweet memory—one that moves those original ideas forward in a meaningful and authentic way.

What nostalgia can’t do, however, is act as the sole driving force behind a marketing campaign, whether that campaign is introducing a new product or simply reselling the audience on an older or updated one. Only those uses of nostalgia rooted in a deep understanding of a brand’s driving purpose and the story it’s telling to its audience can truly hit a nerve, and leave audiences with a yearning not for what once was, but what a brand can offer them today.

Hannah Landers is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at to discuss how we can help tell your story.