The science behind nostalgia, how brands can use it and why it works.

Posted by Cristina Balanzo on the 14th September, 2020
In a time when most marketing has tended to focus on the future, nostalgia transports us back to a simpler place where our current challenges do not matter and our memories serve as a comfort blanket and reminder of better times.

As part of a series of articles for Creative Moment, our sister agency Fever PR has been. In the third and final instalment, an interview with Walnut Unlimited’s Cristina de Balanzo, about the science behind nostalgia – specifically how it actually works and how creatives can use this knowledge to better connect with their audiences.

The conversation explores the affect that nostalgia has on the brain, its power compared to other primal emotions, the best ways to trigger the feeling, whether nostalgia actually makes us happy, and finally, how creatives can use this to create more impactful campaigns. We’ve shared the full article (also available via Creative Moment) below.

Thanks so much for chatting with us Cristina. I wanted to start by asking you to explain the impact that nostalgia has on the brain from a neurological perspective?

Nostalgia is a complex emotion that involves past-oriented cognition and a mixed affective signature. The emotion is often triggered by encountering a familiar smell, sound, or by an engaging in conversations with people or a situation that feels familiar.

In peer reviewed papers it’s been reported that nostalgic experiences activate several regions of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, limbic, paralimbic, and midbrain areas. People who listen to music that evokes nostalgia experience greater activity in the inferior frontal gyrus, substantia nigra, cerebellum, and insula than they do when listening to music that does not induce nostalgia. Hence there are many parts of the brain (more rational, emotional, and reptilian structures) that processes nostalgia in relation to specific content.

Other experiments ran with FMRI (Functional magnetic resonance imaging – a device similar to an MRI scanner) reported nostalgia as a recall of long-forgotten memories activated parts of the brain involved in novelty detection, and the brain being wired to respond positively to stimuli that are new and unfamiliar, the distant memories provided a double reward—both for familiarity and for novelty. (What Nostalgia Is and What It Does. Hepper, Ritchie, Sedikides, and Wildschut, 2012, Emotion)

How does the strength of nostalgizing (i.e. thinking nostalgic thoughts) compare to more primal emotions like fear, love, anger? Can it ever be as powerful as those emotions?

Fear, happiness and anger, as you said, are primary emotions which are almost automatic in terms of reaction and do not require our higher cognitive functions to act on, whereas nostalgia is a more complex, high order emotion that requires an appraisal involving more conscious memory retrieval and rewards systems when integrated with sensory information.

I think the power of nostalgia lies in its capacity to improve our mood, increase social connectedness, enhance positive self-regard, and provide existential meaning. It can act as a glue that can bring things and individuals together. It also has a social component of recognising something that was part of our past and celebrating it as well as ascribing value to it.

In a time when most marketing has tended to focus on the future, nostalgia transports us back to a simpler place where our current challenges do not matter and our memories serve as a comfort blanket and reminder of better times.

The outbreak of Covid-19 has turned the world upside down and left us with a massive need for connectedness and togetherness, so I think nostalgia, if it is well played, can be an effective tool to bring the world together.

Which external stimuli (sight, sound, smell etc.) are proven to be the most effective way to trigger nostalgic feelings and thoughts? Or is it better to try and combine these together?

Yes, our brains always work crossmodally, which means that they integrate more than one piece of sensory information at the same time, so it’s better to try to combine them. We don’t just experience food through taste, but with sight, sound, memories and indeed smell. So, we would always encourage creatives create work that targets more than one sense to enhance any experience or communication, as you will then have more chances to be effective and influence behaviour.

However, there is one sense, smell, that it is hardwired to emotion. It goes directly to our amygdala (limbic system) without any cortical activity. Smell is the first sense to fully develop as we grow up and has a huge impact on the memories we form so it makes sense that nostalgia could be easily activated through it. Our sense of smell has a big impact on our experiences, even if we are not aware of it, which then activates all the implicit values that are important when we communicate. We can also think about the paradigmatic examples of Marcel Proust in his book In Search of Time Lost when he crystallises the theory of memory and explains how the smell of a madeleine could trigger memories of his childhood.

Another nice quote about scent and its power is from Oliver Wendell Holmes Snr who said: “Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.”

Part of these learnings that I just recapped about the sense of smell, are from my colleague Dr. Andy Myers, from Walnut Unlimited, who gave one of the keynotes at an event we held last year last year. In this particular event, we invited experts to talk about each of our senses, and we eventually came up with an important learning, none of the senses is more important than the others really, as they work really closely together to deliver how we experience and makes sense about the world around us. [See more about our work with scent here]

So if you want to leverage and trigger nostalgia, the most effective way would be through a combination of senses but providing a special focus on smell because of its inner relationship with emotion.

How can brands effectively use nostalgia in their campaigns?

We will always say that it is effective if your brand can really own it and your brand has an instrumental role to play. So, if your brand is able to be part of this past and use it to create a nice memory to the present, then it should work as effectively as both positive past experiences or autobiographical memories can to enhance a brand’s personal relevance. Campaigns using nostalgia need to connect with audiences at emotional level, be relevant with a brand’s tone of voice and to have a clear purpose i.e. not just using nostalgia for the sake of it. Nostalgia brings a sense of familiarity which is always a nice way to connect with your audience as it acts as a social glue.

We’ve talked about the upsides of nostalgia but let’s talk about the other side – can nostalgia make us feel sad?

Indeed, nostalgia has a mixture of affective signatures. So far, we have been talking about the positive side of nostalgia, but as almost anything else, it has the other side of the coin. It is a human truth that we all feel nostalgic sometimes, we might want to go back to a certain time or situation in our lives, something that’s already happened but the reality is that we can’t. It just lives in your memories and this brings with it a sense of suffering – a wistfulness over something that is gone now, something we had and then lost. It could be a person, an object or something we all used to do or to go to that will never be the same as it is gone now.

So we can say that there are two different kinds of nostalgia, one is a positive feeling, one that you can recreate and makes you feel better for what it was, a nice memory overall or it can also be a pain felt about something that cannot come back again and will never be even if you wish hard for it.

Is there any concrete evidence to suggest that we have warmer feelings about the past even though we may have been miserable at the time i.e. can nostalgia lie to our brain?

I think you’re referring to a type of cognitive bias called ‘Rosy retrospection’ which consists of remembering experiences from the past with warmer and more positive feelings than you had when you experienced them at the time. So, it is different to what we said about nostalgia as an emotional construct and not as a cognitive bias. However, what both do have in common is the memory’s role. When it comes to the ‘Rosy retrospection’ effect you are biased towards what you choose to remember – you don’t recall events like a recording machine would – you could say that we’re cognitive misers. We reconstruct the past, changing the facts and experiences we’ve had every time we remember them. This is why we can say that our memory is fragile and inaccurate, and we are able to see the past with rose-tinted spectacles which I would say it is well linked to our own self-esteem as well so it has its positives.

There’s also something called ‘Fading Affect bias’ which is the idea that we are more likely to forget memories that are negative than positive ones.  That’s why we tend to remember things in positive light e.g. you probably remember all the good bits about childhood, forgetting the bad bits. A study by Walker et al (2009) found that people are more likely to recall positive memories than negative ones, and another study by Kennedy et al (2004) found that the older you are the more positive memories you recall! 

Can challenger brands use nostalgia effectively or does it work better for heritage/more established brands?

I think any brand can honour creativity using nostalgia and spin it positively to bring more joy to the present and still being relevant to their brand values and meaning. At the end of the day, as with any creative territory, it’s all about how you use it, both executional and strategically, and translate it into your brand world to make sure that the brand has still its own tone of voice and values being portraited.

We are seeing a few creative executions from brands that focus on nostalgia in an attempt to build a stronger sense of emotional engagement. The first example that came to my mind is Hovis’ ‘Boy On The Bike’ ad and more recently we have seen most of John Lewis’ Christmas ads using it in one way or another. However, in other categories with no necessary heritage or long history, like the recent Cannes awarded campaign from Tourism Australia’s ‘Dundee’ campaign, we have seen how to use nostalgia effectively and even financial institutions like Halifax have been using Top Cat and The Flintstones. In this last case the key learning is to use it consistently throughout time, as then the world you develop with it becomes the way you are recognised and hence becomes your brand asset.

I don’t think it does necessary works better with more heritage brands, despite it being a more congruent territory than when it’s used by a new brand that did not exist in the past, but you can pivot this territory with a newer brand.

Meet the Author: Cristina Balanzo
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