Merchant of Nostalgia

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Dr. Altaf Merchant can tell you why that grainy, black-and-white ad you just looked at turned you into a consumer.

In an award-winning 2013 paper, Merchant and co-authors tested a 2009 Pepsi Super Bowl commercial which was based on the classic Bob Dylan song "Forever Young".

In a 2015 paper, Merchant and co-authors examined one way that nostalgia was used in a French TV commercial, for the company CNP Assurance.

Step out of the present for a moment and take a stroll down memory lane. Think back to childhood, and those iconic commercials, songs, movies and TV shows that defined your youth. What do you see? What do you hear?  Maybe you’ve got The Beatles’s “Come Together” running through your head right now (covered by Gary Clark Jr. for 2017’s “Justice League”) or perhaps you remember that Gatorade commercial compelling you to “Be Like Mike” (the original, and the remastered 2015 version). How does this make you feel? Happy? Sad? Melancholy? 

Chances are you’re feeling some form of nostalgia for a time gone by, one that cannot be relived but is still accessible through a haze of feeling. This is powerful and potentially profitable. UW Tacoma Milgard School of Business Associate Dean and Associate Professor Altaf Merchant researches nostalgia in marketing and looks at how consumers are drawn to a brand through a sense of shared history.

Merchant began researching nostalgia as a part of his dissertation while working towards his Ph.D. at Old Dominion University in Virginia. “Back in 2004-2005 when I started my research, nostalgia wasn’t a very big topic in marketing, or even in other related fields,” he said. “Nostalgia was thought of as something only old people experience when they don’t have enough to do, but that really isn’t the case.”

Nostalgia can be a tricky thing. It can evoke warm feelings, help overcome boredom and loneliness, and make you feel more generous and tolerant. It can also revive painful associations. A pioneer in the psychological study of nostalgia is Dr. Constantine Sedikides at the University of Southampton. “Nostalgia makes us a bit more human,” he said in a New York Times article in 2013.

Over the past 15 years, UW Tacoma’s Merchant has developed an understanding of how nostalgia has been embraced by marketing. “Testing has shown that there is a clear advantage in adding nostalgia to marketing. But businesses should be wary about evoking too many negative emotions to influence a customer. It can completely backfire,” he said.

For Merchant, this research topic has brought up a lot of questions: How should nostalgia be used in ads? What are key motivators for beginning to shop for a brand or continuing to shop for, say, the same brand your mother did when you were young? “The recession was a difficult time for many, so advertisers naturally directed their attention towards renewing the past to remember better times,” he said. “Even after the recession when things were looking up in the nation, I think a lot of marketers realized that they had tapped into something big when it came to understanding consumers and creating a connection.”

Merchant has published a score of academic papers on nostalgia in marketing. He is a visiting professor at universities in France, Belgium, and India. He’s leveraging these international connections to expand his research across multiple cultures. “There is a significant amount of variation across cultures when it comes to how nostalgia impacts consumers and how companies utilize it,” he said. “For example, in India there is a sense of collective nostalgia so commercials draw on how they remind you of your family or community, while in France ads are more linked to cultural pride and French identity.”

The idea of vicarious nostalgia was explored in a 2013 paper by Merchant and his co-author, Milgard School of Business Professor Gregory Rose. They tested this Chrysler commercial from 2011.

Vicarious nostalgia — creating an emotional “memory” of an event or time you’ve never been to or experienced — is an example of how the feeling of longing can be used as a tool to create influence. “You may not have gone to Woodstock, but when you watch the Volkswagen commercial with their VW Bus, you might feel a sense of joy or relaxation that you’ll now connect to the company itself,” he said. This overlaps with the way that identity and values within a brand can either encourage or discourage purchasing. “We’ve found that people seem to buy from brands that either reflect their personality or fill in for their personality,” he said. “In other words, values of the brand become our own when purchasing, and possessions are like an extended self. When we don’t have heritage, we borrow it, or in this case, we buy it.”

As much as nostalgia helps brands develop a customer base and brand loyalty, it also helps the consumer feel more comfortable about their experience with a company. “We’re seeing brands use nostalgia to develop a friendship with their customer base. That’s another aspect of how brand icons work so well. It is a representation of the brand that the consumer can identify, and these days, interact with through social media,” he said. “Brand icons are like friends to consumers, so too much change can make a brand seem unrecognizable to an otherwise loyal customer base.” This was one of the key findings for Merchant in one of his more recent pieces of research discussing insights into brand icons. “One of my questions was, ‘What would happen if the Cookie Monster turned green?’ Well, consumers taking part in the experiment didn’t even recognize him,” he said. Beyond failing to recognize a beloved character, participants who were shown an image of Cookie Monster eating healthy foods instead of cookies were less likely to donate to PBS, one of the networks that airs “Sesame Street.”

A Cookie Monster toy on a shelf in the office of Dr. Altaf Merchant, associate professor and associate dean at UW Tacoma's Milgard School of Business.

In 2014, Merchant received the Great Mind Award from the Advertising Research Foundation for his article published in the Journal of Advertising Research. Titled “How Strong is the Pull of the Past? Measuring Personal Nostalgia Evoked in Advertising,” the article focused on defining the four distinct elements of nostalgia in ads. Past imagery, positive emotions, negative emotions, and physiological reactions are components of an impactful ad, but balance is key. “Nostalgia is like a golden fire. We want to touch it, but not burn,” said Merchant. “There has to be balance between reintroducing the past and making the brand or product aimed towards the future with a modern spin.”

Merchant’s recommendation to brands looking to expand their customer base? “Look into how nostalgia works,” he said. “It’s a multisensory and multi-level consumer reaction that creates benefits for the company but also a deep psychological connection for consumers.”

Section: 
Written by: 
Catarina Terrill / July 17, 2019
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty. Illustration by Alex Volkman.
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu