Mulan, the live-action Disney remake was released to Disney+ this week and I was as excited for a new Disney release as a 36-year-old as I was as a 14-year-old in 1998 when the original animated version was first released. Perhaps even more so. 

Revisiting old friends in the form of memories and sentiments is like comfort food. It not only gives us a feeling of community and familiarity but transports us back to a simpler time. A feeling exasperated given the year that has been 2020. That all too familiar feeling of longing for a past time or place is referred to as nostalgia. 

In etymology, the word ‘nostalgia’ comprises of the ancient Greek compound meaning ‘homecoming’ and ‘ache’ and was described as a medical condition by the 17th-century medical student who coined the term when he tried to describe the anxieties he witnessed within a Swiss mercenary who was fighting away from home. Likened to a medical condition, nostalgia has great effect, not only within the brain and the body but in the wallet too. Which is no wonder why Disney continues to reboot old favourites, from Beauty and the Beast, to the Lion King and now Mulan.

It’s not just entertainment giants that are smart to leverage the art of nostalgia. While visiting family on the Sunshine Coast over Christmas I came across a box of childhood toys, diaries, and random paraphernalia that has been locked up for the better part of 30 years. Amongst the letter-books and ponytail trimmings, I came across several mouldy Happy Meal toys, once prize possessions now landfill. It was only at the end of last year McDonald’s released their new happy meal range and one that was deeply familiar. It was a collective homage to the most popular Happy Meal toys from the past 40 years.

The original Transformer rage of Happy Meal toys, released in 1989 and agin in 2019.

Now I don’t need much encouragement to sneak in a Happy Meal but when I learned that they were re-releasing one of my all-time favourites, the transformer cheeseburger toy, brought me right back to 1989 when it was first released. For me, it was the era that meant frequent birthday parties at the fast-food giant. Those were the days, ice cream cakes at 11am, kitchen tours with pickle fights and hide and seek games in the commercial freezers. Ahh the days before OH&S, what a time to be alive.

The good ol’ days where blowing on a communal cake was considered etiquette not a health risk.

In the last few years, there have been countless remakes of classics. In 2019 Motorola rereleased the RZR – the flip phone de jour from the early 2000s that had us saying ‘Hello Moto’ well after. In 2018 Tourism Australia brought back Crocodile Dundee for its star-studded satirical reboot of the 80’s classic. Monkey Magic made it to the big screen in 2018 even Pizza Hut resurrected ‘Dougie in 2019.

Diarmid Heidenreich was Australia’s favourite delivery man from 1993-1996. He made his comeback for Pizza Hut in 2019.

But why appeal to the past when you can appeal to the future? After all, is the best not yet to come? Any marketer worth their salt understands the importance of pandering to emotions to elicit engagement from their audience. But those who understand how to leverage nostalgia can plug into a cyclical rhythm that will return returns again and again. It is called nostalgia marketing. To first understand how it can provide a return we first need to understand why encouraging us to reflect is so impactful and why reflecting on our past is done so with rose coloured glasses. 

There’s a reason that we look at the past with wistfully. It is because our memories are affected by what’s known as the ‘fading effect’ bias or more commonly as rosy retrospective or the colloquial, rose coloured glasses. The fading affect bias is a psychological phenomenon in which memories associated with negative emotions tend to be forgotten more quickly than those associated with positive emotions. 

This means that when we reflect on an experience in the past, our brains will prioritise positive memories over negative ones and if you’re a brand marketer this is important because it allows you the opportunity to access existing positive sentiments without having to earn them all over again. In other words, the legwork is already done. As a bonus, not only will nostalgia trigger a positive feeling it will trigger a familiar one. And a familiar message will put your audience at ease as it is already known, already safe, and already trusted.

Disney’s heroine Mulan, the original animated version released in 19998 and again in 2020.

Let’s look back at the timings of some of the examples outlined earlier to understand more; The Disney classics, Beauty and the Beast, originally released in 1991 and again in the live-action format in 2017 – 26 years in between. The Lion King, originally released in 1994 and again in 2019, 25 years in between. Mulan, 1998 and again in 2020, 22 years between the two.

The timing of these re-releases is no coincidence. The period in which nostalgia churns happens around the 20-30-year mark. It is what’s called the nostalgia pendulum. And this is what marketers are using the generate meaningful and reoccurring revenue streams as well as generating generational spending.  The reason for this 20-30 -year swing is due to the fact that those who were consuming culture 30 years ago as children are now a market of now cashed-up consumers hungry for that nostalgia for their childhood. Which means that brands who can tap into that will be rewarded. It’s like a 30-year free-kick. It’s also the reason that nostalgic trends seem to pop up every 20-30 years beyond move remakes and across fashion and music.

The once heavy consumers of culture in their youth are now influential and at the helm of opportunities to create culture as adults. And these cultural creators are influenced by the recollection and memories of their childhood. Which, due to the fading affect bias or rose-coloured glasses – ensure they are positive ones.

Nostalgia serves an important human function beyond providing a feeling of comfort and familiarity. It serves to validate our past experiences and gives us hope for the times we are in. Something incredibly useful in a year like 2020.

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