How should brands portray nostalgia?

Emotional connection impacts the way we feel


by Maria Júlia Brito, designer

The Lion King is back in movie theaters, Netflix’s Stranger Things gets record ratings and all kinds of clothes, packaging, advertising, and brands have found the perfect strategy to target our weak point: the existential crisis that humans face through the passage of time and its main symptom – nostalgia.]

Why is nostalgia so strong

Nostalgia is a complex feeling. It can be felt as a longing to get back to the way things were, even if it never existed. Svetlana Boym (2007) classifies it as a desire for different times, whether it’s from our youth or from another decade that we may or may not have lived.

This strategy has a special effect on my generation of millennials. We live and breathe technological advances. We experienced the transition from analog to digital. From purchasing in local markets to service on demand. From sending paper notes to emojis and DM’s.

Growing up in a world of change makes millennials and Generation Z more insecure towards the future. Trust in the economy, the media and the government is significantly dropping and our complicated relationship with social media magnifies our concern towards privacy and data, not to mention the ever-present environmental crisis our generation has been tasked to deal with.

In this context, nostalgia acts out as a defense mechanism in times of drastic change.

Nostalgia combats loneliness, boredom, and anxiety, and in a way, makes social bonds easier. Taking your mind back to the past isn’t just a fun way to connect to other times. Studies suggest that nostalgia inspires consumers to spend their money because they feel immediate feedback in the form of happy memories and comfort. It’s easier to consume something we already know.

But nostalgia with no attempt at reflection becomes a pointless visual trend.

Borrowing references from the past makes sense when that past actually exists. According to creative director Dan Witchell, nostalgia is “a smart use of a company’s resources and a subtle rebound to its roots. Examining its past is an opportunity to rediscover things that were forgotten that are ready to be reinvented”.


But solely simulating the image of past decades can be a lazy resource that takes advantage of society’s nostalgic feelings.

Chris Griffin, director of the Brand’s Museum in London, believes that just introducing people to brands, advertising and packaging is not enough, you also have to present the context in which these images were developed. “You can see how packages from times of war had a very different look due to restrictions in material and paint; there’s also the looks of the ’50s, highly influenced by America. There’s much to learn in many levels”.

While reflecting on nostalgia beyond visual references, we can find values from different times, such as the close relationship between people, tradition, the processing time, the technology available and authenticity. This brings us to creative and ethical challenges towards the world and our means of production. Through these challenges, we can understand the past while still keeping in mind where these references come from without furthering ourselves from contemporary questions.

We bumped into this here at Questtonó in the making of a new project for Tônica Antarctica, Brazil’s first tonic water. Launched in 1914, it is a best-selling brand, however, its long lifespan called for a contemporary reinvention.

During an extensive research process, we spoke to young adults and found out that learning how to taste and appreciate bitterness is part of a deeper personal movement in which personal interests change as adult life begins. Tough moments aren’t a source of pain but rather an opportunity for growth and learning.

The idea is synthesized by the tagline “bitterness transforms us”, associating Tônica’s distinctive flavor to this specific cultural tension on people’s lives. The strategy provided a ground for us to create a new visual identity that at the same time respects Tônica’s tradition and speaks to contemporary life.

Fantasizing about the past based on our present needs has an impact on the future we create. In order to borrow from the design of the past successfully, we first need to comprehend it and also understand how it dialogues with the world that we live in.

Creative director Tony Brook believes there is an immense opportunity for designing more radical and contemporary visual identities. The faster technology changes, the more opportunities we have to express ourselves.

If the future seems too dystopian, nostalgia allows us to reinvent tradition while projecting a new future.

It is a way to ease the thought that the good old days will never come back. Nostalgia is not anti-innovation, nor is it opposed to tradition, rather it is a contemporary characteristic of our society.