Originally posted July 2019, updated August 2022.
For the four people who haven’t seen Netflix’s Stranger Things yet, here’s what you need to know: this pulpy sci-fi-meets-mystery-drama taps into nostalgic memories of the ’80s to create a perfect blend of past and present that enthralls millions of viewers – and marketers.
Not only did season three of the streaming sensation, break the 2019 Netflix record for the most-watched series; having more than 40.7 million global household accounts tuned into the show during its first weekend. But with the viewer anticipation of season four, the season is one of two Netflix shows to have over 1 billion hours viewed within the first month (Maglio, 2022). And with consumers spending an estimated $122 billion a year on entertainment-linked merchandise, it’s no wonder brands were lining up to capitalize on the neon-clad cash cow. According to the New York Times, Stranger Things has incorporated dozens of much-loved ’80s brands on-screen and has partnered with 75 different brands off-screen to fully-immerse its audience in the gnarly world of Hawkins, Indiana.
So, why are brands turning to relics of the past to generate future profit? The answer can be found in the unprecedented success of Stranger Things and the overall trend of “throwback” products and entertainment, all forms of nostalgia marketing, proliferating today.
What is Nostalgia Marketing?
We can’t talk about why nostalgia marketing is popular without first discussing what it actually is. In an article for Forbes, Laura Freedman defines nostalgia marketing as “tapping into positive cultural memories from previous decades [to] drive energy to modern campaigns.” Essentially, this boils down to the content creators of today capitalizing on our fondness of the past to create products and experiences that appeal to audiences’ sentimentality.
Why is Nostalgia Marketing—And Stranger Things—So Popular?
Simply put, when something can create an emotional connection with us, we are much more likely to act. And few things make us more emotional than nostalgia. According to researchers at the University of Southampton, reliving positive memories from the past can help us counteract loneliness, boredom, and anxiety. Nostalgia elicits positive emotions, and marketing strategies that align with consumer emotion have been proven time and time again to be successful. In fact, even as an adult, 80% of decision-making derives from emotional appeal rather than logical rationalization.
But why is Stranger Things – and ’80s nostalgia in general – so popular right now? The answer can be found in media criticism’s concept of the thirty-year cycle. The thirty-year cycle is the idea that when it comes to nostalgia, trends tend to recycle themselves every twenty to thirty years.
In the ’90s, for example, there was a lot of media reflecting nostalgia for the ’60s and ’70s with movies like Austin Powers, Forrest Gump, and Dazed and Confused stealing the hearts and wallets of audiences everywhere. Nowadays, people who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s are in their prime purchasing years. These Millennials have disposable income and rose-colored glasses for their childhoods—all of which smart brands are ready to capitalize on. This is why there has been such a resurgence of ’80s and ’90s culture; most Millennials have experienced the technological revolution in its entirety, from the rise of the Internet and social media to virtual and augmented reality becoming a standard part of everyday life. And for those Millennials closer to Gen Z raised with the Internet, the easy access to pop-culture artifacts from before they were born makes them feel nostalgic about ’80s and ’90s culture as though they lived through it themselves. Because of this drastic departure from the “good old days,” coupled with the influence of the thirty-year cycle, Millennials are now indulging in nostalgia more than ever.
How Can I Use Nostalgia Marketing?
Hearing how effective nostalgia marketing can be, you might be tempted to break out your Polaroid camera, take a photo of a New Coke and call it a day. But before you throw on your shoulder pads and get a perm, here are four things to keep in mind when planning and executing a nostalgia marketing campaign—courtesy of Stranger Things.
Make Nostalgia Visible, Creative, and Engaging
From a Stranger Things Lightbulb Message Maker to Hasbro Gaming’s new “Trivial Pursuit: Back to The 80’s Edition”, which incorporates Stranger Things-themed questions in addition to topics like technology, pop culture, music, sports, and more, it’s clear that a creative blend of old and new enables us to interact with our nostalgia in tangible ways. Thinking about how your company can pair nostalgia with interactivity may provide you the engagement boost you’re craving!
Use Social Media to Channel Nostalgia
When it first premiered, Stranger Things operated on a shoestring marketing budget. Yet through social marketing tactics, such as partnering with the live-streaming service Twitch and social networking sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, the show grew its audience. Try creating novel nostalgia-based social media campaigns or capitalizing on pre-existing nostalgia social trends such as #ThrowbackThursday (#TBT) to gain traction online. When done well, social campaigns can boost your site’s traffic and generate more leads.
Get the Best of Both Worlds: Blend the Past with the Present
Ahead of season three, Stranger Things partnered with Major League Baseball. The show made 13 appearances at ballparks across the country, offering Stranger Things-themed MLB apparel and merchandise, as well as an immersive experience where attendees could visit the haunting yet intriguing “Upside Down.” Bringing the eighties to a modern-day setting was a fantastic way to give the past a fresh, modern look.
Don’t have the budget to rent out a baseball stadium for your brand? Stranger Things also released a virtual reality / 360 degrees video on the free-to-upload platform YouTube that let viewers immerse themselves in nostalgia. This proves that you don’t need to spend a lot of dough to spread your brand of nostalgia to the masses. Use the free tools you have at your disposal to modernize nostalgia.
Details, Details, Details!
While it’s fine to mix modern elements into your nostalgia campaign, triple-check the littlest details to ensure consumers will know precisely what emotions and memories you’re trying to elicit. After all, you don’t want them thinking you’re bringing back the ’70s or the ’00s when your goal was the ’80s. Attention to detail—and authenticity in those details—is crucial.
In all of its promotional images and set photos released on social media, Stranger Things’ top-notch set design shines through. It’s clear that the show spares no detail to fully immerse the audience in this bygone era. From one character’s Trapper Keeper binder to the La-Z boy sofas in the protagonists’ living rooms, each element of the show’s set works together to create a cohesive—and genuine—picture of an earlier time.
While some things – especially mullets and leg warmers – are better off being lost to time, Stranger Things proves that nostalgia marketing can provide brands a long-lasting, natural, genuine way to connect with audiences. By allowing them to reminisce about their childhoods, you don’t just remind them of beatific times—you become a symbol of those happy memories. Nostalgia marketing makes for stronger customer-company relationships, and, to paraphrase Eleven, we think that’s pretty bitchin’.
Want to incorporate nostalgia marketing into your overall strategy? MOSAIC is here to help! With the strategy chops to outwit the Mind Flayer, our team is ready to tackle all of your branding, marketing, and creative needs.