Blast from the past: Nostalgia drives food and beverage brands back to the present (and future)

By Deniz Ataman

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/Aleksandr Durnov
Source: Getty/Aleksandr Durnov

Related tags Marketing nostalgia Advertising Baked goods beverage

Bringing back a nostalgic food and beverage brand "is about relaunching smartly," explained Purvi Shah, assistant professor of marketing, Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Nostalgic brand love​, a term coined by Shah, is described as “the longing to buy and consume a beloved brand that is not available anymore.”

In her research, Shah found consumers during the pandemic turned to foods, especially baked goods​, as a source of comfort. 

“Over 25% of Americans were eating baked goods in the pandemic [to combat stress] and of the various reasons they reported was that it gave them a sense of comfort,”​ cited Shah from the survey she conducted.

Shah describes nostalgia as a phenomenon triggered by memories, particularly during childhood: “It could be an emotional or cognitive process, or both.”

For food and beverage, brands are primarily catering to consumers’ five senses through formulation, application, packaging and marketing, all essential to reviving nostalgia.

Case study: the resurgence of Surge and the impact of consumer activism on relaunch strategy

Referring to Coca-Cola’s Surge revival after its discontinuation in the '90s, Shah’s research explored two facets of the campaign: consumer activism and Coca-Cola’s re-release strategy.

A Facebook community of more than 300,000 members urged the company to revive Surge. In response, Coca-Cola selectively distributed the soft drink initially on Amazon and later in fountain machines at McDonald’s and Burger King.

This case study exemplifies how an existing consumer base’s activism initiates a product’s revival and a brand’s strategic distribution move enhances sales. While this push is designed to appease the fanbase, Coca-Cola also relied on word-of-mouth to capture new audiences, rather than developing ad campaigns for the release.

“It's more about relaunching its smartly,”​ Shah explained, “so they don't spend a lot on it, and they keep this consumer base.”

"Involve the customers in your decision"

Shah suggests social media is a quick way to communicate with fans for brands planning to remove or relaunch a product that consumers love. “Involve the customers in your decision. Do a poll, a survey, find out what they think about it. Give them a timeline so they can prepare for it.”

When consumers start a conversation on social media (like the Surge Facebook group), it’s an opportunity for brands to consider its financial and social impact—whether it’s launching a product permanently with full marketing strategies, a limited release, selective distribution or not at all.

For brands that do not revive a product, communication is still impactful and an opportunity to strengthen the brand/fan relationship. “You give a strong rationale explaining ‘we really appreciate your business; we appreciate [loyal] fans. However, for these reasons, we are not able to bring it back.’”​   

Newer brands can still tap into nostalgia through marketing and packaging

While legacy brands have the advantage of tapping into a loyal fan base, newer brands can ride the nostalgia wave through packaging and marketing campaigns.

“Because you’re a newer brand, people may not associate it with nostalgic feelings from the past,” ​Shah explained, “you can link the nostalgic feeling through the message rather than the product itself.”

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