Past-oriented product experience design

Brands have their eye on nostalgic products and experiences


By Hannah June, designer and researcher at Questtonó


Nostalgia in brands, products and experiences has been an undeniable trend. As we emerge from an era of minimalism, it feels like we’re in the midst of a resurgence of all things retro. From nostalgic brands to fashion, the millennial-driven, direct-to-consumer startup world is finally having a much needed burst of creativity – and it’s refreshing to say the least.

Nostalgia is nothing new to brands. It has the ability to create emotional connections to tangible things through our memories. Studies have shown that nostalgia is so powerful that it makes us feel warmer inside – especially when triggered by smell, touch, and music.

Society is craving this warm and fuzzy feeling as we cope with our always-on work, news, and online habits. It’s no surprise that social media has been proven to make us feel lonely – but now the trend of seeing #tbt’s has moved beyond the people we follow and is being widely used in ad campaigns.

There are countless instances of brands using nostalgia in products and experiences. Amazon released a toy catalogue during the 2018 holiday season that was reminiscent of toy catalogues in the 80’s, which deeply resonated with adults – many of whom are now parents.

It’s an interesting and effective tactic to build trust through familiarity. As Jeff Bezos’ public policy team is drafting legislature it hopes Congress will adopt around facial recognition laws, we flip through nostalgic products such as toy catalogues remembering what it was like to be a kid and avoid thinking about Black Mirror becoming our new reality.

But nostalgia has the potential to be more effective as a brand strategy than as solely a marketing tactic.

It can be a powerful way to create trust and loyalty between consumers and brands.

When we worked with a client on a new instant oatmeal brand in Brazil, we found through our initial research that parents often fed their children oatmeal because that’s what they ate as kids – it was the normal thing to give to your children for breakfast.

As we investigated this insight more, it became apparent that these parents wanted to recreate the feeling of home, love and comfort they experienced as children when their parents made the same meal, but their needs had evolved to dialogue with today’s tensions.

They used instant oatmeal because it was affordable, convenient and mostly because it is a meal they know and trust. It has been on their meals since their childhoods. By combining the nostalgic feelings parents had towards the food itself with the convenience of the product, we could answer if there was space for a new product in the market, referencing the stories and memories our lead users told.

Designers often fall into the trap of thinking that to be innovative, an idea has to be new or technologically advanced.

By integrating bits of nostalgia into new products and services, the familiarity overcomes the threat of the new and creates openness to future possibilities.

By incorporating the stories, beliefs, and memories we hold – whether our own or universal pasts – the merging of the old with the new breeds authentic experiences that dialogue with customers in a meaningful way.


Watch our mini-doc ‘How nostalgia is designed to influence you’: