Nostalgia is in the air: Five differences between nostalgic and legacy brands, and which strategy is right for you

Liubov Timofeeva, brand analyst
Carolina Caputo, brand strategist

Nostalgia is very lucrative: according to studies, nostalgia makes it easier for customers to part with their money. Moreover, nostalgic moods grow in times of economic recession, which makes the millennial generation—the main target of marketing efforts—most susceptible to it. As global brands like Spotify or Microsoft create spots that reminisce about the best of times, and Netflix launches one show after another set in the 1980s, nostalgic marketing becomes a powerful trend.

What does this nostalgia wave mean for branding? Are there brands based entirely on the feeling of nostalgia, and is it the best way to give value to a brand’s history? Here at Landor Milan, we often work with brands that possess a significant historical heritage and we help define ways to strengthen it. Not every brand with a history chooses to use nostalgia as a differentiator, but those who do can be divided into two groups: nostalgic brands and legacy brands. We’ve defined five major differences between these two, and what a brand can learn from both. 

History: Is it real or is it invented?

Legacy brands have a proven history of at least one generation.

Nostalgic brands can be recently established yet project the feeling and cultural codes of past decades or even centuries.

Not all brands that sport old-school aesthetics are actually historical brands. One example of this is the Detroit-based design brand Shinola. Established in 2011, the company bought the name from a struggling local century-old shoe shop—and quickly turned it into a beloved millennial brand that offers minimalistic accessories with a vintage, nostalgic and artisanal flair. Compare it with legacy brand Hermès, born in 1837 as an artisanal harness workshop, which has stayed true to its name and aesthetics ever since.

Another example of a brand not having an actual history that carries a story is Frankie & Benny’s, a popular restaurant chain of New York Italian food in the United Kingdom. The company opened its first location in 1995, yet its fictional story begins in 1924 with an Italian immigrant boy named Frankie and his American friend Benny. Restaurant interiors are 1950s style with a collection of black-and-white photographs that accentuate the faux nostalgic feeling. Given the fact that Frankie & Benny’s has opened over 250 locations, this approach clearly works.

Let’s look at a legacy Italian dining brand: Pasticceria Marchesi. Established in 1824, it’s the second oldest pastry shop in Milan. In 2014, Prada bought 80 percent of the heritage shop and opened a second location that serves exactly the same products. A true legacy brand doesn’t need to prove its heritage at every touchpoint. This new location has a modern, elegant, instagrammable interior design and is frequently graced by the visits of fashion influencers.

Time period: One or many?

Legacy brands have a wide array of historical influences.

Nostalgic brands are tied to the imagery of one particular time period.

Nostalgia is a feeling that is tied to a particular period of the past. This can be the childhood memories of customers; hence the explosion of ’80s- and ’90s-inspired fashion brands. But it can also be something these customers have never experienced personally, like ’50s chic or a vague sense of medieval chivalry, a phenomenon that Entrepreneur magazine calls “fauxtalgia.”

The image of a rallying Harley-Davidson gang, for example, will inevitably send us back to the rebellious, gritty and poetic ’70s. On the other hand, Italian legacy brand Ducati (established in 1926) chose regular competition in MotoGP races as a way to confirm its glory, showcasing a long string of victories and famous pilots throughout the decades to convince the target customer of its superiority.

Benefit Cosmetics (established in 1976) lives by its pinup aesthetics that are consistent across all brand communications and touchpoints, and evokes the feeling of nostalgia for the elegance and rampant femininity of times past. Instead, Max Factor (1909) collaborated with beauty icons from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna and has the whole Hollywood Museum to confirm its legacy.

Innovation: Is it in the content or the access?

Legacy brands innovate their content (their product or service) in order to stay avant-garde.

Nostalgic brands innovate access to their content, deeming their product or service already perfect.

Legacy brands are constantly reinventing themselves, their products and their language, always striving to find the most relevant expression of their unchanging, authentic core. Nostalgic brands can be just as inventive and innovative—but what they update is the access, not the content itself. Think of how Pokémon Go completely reinvented the gameplay and the method of interaction with the pokemons but didn’t touch the characters themselves.

Over the course of its half-century history, Starbucks transitioned from a coffee and equipment seller in one city (Seattle) to a global provider of experiences: it has a unique coffee experience, scenic roasters and merch, community and events, a music record label and an app. Starbucks’ offers and the brand’s self-expression tools are constantly evolving while staying true to the company’s legacy.

Instead, Hard Rock Cafe has a specific style and a nostalgic mood hardwired into its brand, while the access—the quantity and scale of new venues all over the world—is constantly evolving.

Levi’s stays modern and fresh in its store experience and communication, but its signature models stay the same through the generations. Gucci, along with many other legacy fashion houses, reinvents itself with every new creative director, constantly searching for uncommon ways to express the brand’s DNA.

The role of a brand’s past: Is it the proof or the product?

Legacy brands use their past as proof of the high quality of their offering.

For nostalgic brands, the past is a product in itself and the offering provides an opportunity to experience it.

As legacy brands tend to constantly reinvent themselves, they use their history as proof of their expertise in order to gain customers’ trust and maintain the brand identity, especially when launching new activities, ventures or products. Nostalgic brands give the past front seat; their products function as portals to the good times.

The legacy of Campari Group is what gives credibility to its newer venture Campari Academy, a training center that offers education for bartenders and mixologists. Campari’s history lends inspiration to the company, furthering its ambition to constantly reinvent a strong entrepreneurial culture and independent, forward-looking spirit. 

The Italian beverage brand Tassoni has a different relationship with history. After its success in the 1970s, the brand fell into oblivion, was rediscovered in the late ’90s and exploded again. It’s now seen as vintage, a symbol of local tradition and an ideological alternative to the likes of Coca-Cola. All without making a single change. Every summer since the ’70s Tassoni has aired the same TV spot, and the company CEO argues that the clients have such affection for this iconic ad that it should never change, along with the packaging and the secret recipe of the drink. .

Moleskine is another example of a product that is selling former times. The brand was created in 1997, but since the beginning has been citing an earlier past: the notebooks of Hemingway or the literary cafés of the XIX century. Moleskine stands out because of this connection to a past culture and an air of timeless inspiration that justifies the relatively premium price. But if we take another stationery brand, Faber-Castell, what we buy is essentially high-quality stationery, with history mentioned only to validate its excellence.

Durability: For now or forever?

Nostalgic brands learn to capitalize on the temporary nature of nostalgia.

Legacy brands count for the long run and are ready to reinvent themselves to stay relevant in the future.

Nostalgia is a feeling. It grows stronger in times of unrest and can be evoked by images, tastes, and places of the past. But after a while, it fades away and life goes on. It’s more of a one-time event than a part of everyday reality. Brands either try to ride this wave or rely on more down-to-earth ways to differentiate their products.

Sears is a U.S. chain of department stores founded in 1893 that announced its closure in March 2019. This news launched a huge nostalgia wave on social media, as people were recalling their childhood memories of the store. But if they loved the store so much, why did it have to close? Apparently, nostalgia alone is not enough to keep customers’ loyalty. The legacy U.K. department store John Lewis & Partners has a long history and a host of childhood memories attached to it as well, but the brand keeps updating its experience and communication in order to stay relevant.

Another enormously successful example of the volatile nature of nostalgia is Pokémon Go, which allowed millions of users to relive some of their childhood. The hype over it peaked in 2016, bringing the company more than $1.8 billion in revenues, and then it quietly faded away. Compare this with such hype-resistant classics as Minecraft: people played it 10 years ago, and over 112 million continue to play it every month.

Nostalgia is a powerful tool—use it with care.

With an understanding of the target audience and good timing, the use of nostalgia with a brand or campaign can instantly evoke intense emotion. But it could also make the brand look outdated, limit the audience to a certain generation, inhibit the possibilities for transformation, and make or break the brand’s position depending on shifting moods.

Industry places limits on nostalgia. It can dilute an automotive brand, for which constant innovation is expected and demanded.

Nostalgia is a shortcut to a customer’s trust, but a volatile one, so it must be paired with down-to-earth differentiators and modern solutions. Legacy branding, on the other hand, requires a long-term vision, as well as the desire to build trust step-by-step and innovate constantly.

Both legacy and nostalgia in branding have their benefits and trade-offs. Whether your company needs a refresh or your brand wants to ride the nostalgic wave, you need to carefully decide on your approach. And do it with purpose.