Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

In the summer time when the weather is high, You can stretch right up and touch the sky… Mungo Jerry, In the Summertime, from Summer 1970. July 2013, a swelteringly hot week has made me nostalgic for the school holidays and that tune. I miss being a kid. The long days of nothing to do that became filled with so much, the feeling of freedom as it began, the rush to squeeze every last drop out of it as the days wound down.

Some of my strongest childhood memories are from summer, and although some are more than 40 years in my past, there are certain sensations that I remember clearly to this day. There were always bike jaunts. I remember the sound of the cardboard flap I snapped onto my bike spokes to sound like a revving motorbike; my summers were spent being Tarzan, we had jungles in the woods, we swung across streams hanging onto ropes of dubious provenance.

We went to the North Wales beaches, staying with Grandparents. They would get out of the car, put the folding chairs out in front of it and barely move all day, while my sister and I spent the day running between them, across the beach, into the sea and back again. The picnic was always a feast. On one visit I irritated my sister and she responded by stuffing sand into my mouth. The grains of sand took days to leave my mouth.

Three years stand out. Hitting my head falling off the roundabout at Butlins in 1967, nearly drowning in Lydstep Haven in 1972 and in balmy 1976, my dad winning a bet by successfully frying an egg on our doorstep. Oh the nostalgia, it makes us a bit more human.

Nostalgia, a longing to return home, is a word that comes from the Greek nostos (to return home) and algo (pain or ache), was coined by C17th-century Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer as a label for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. The Kuhreihen, simple melodies played on the horn by Swiss Alpine herdsmen, were banned because it reminded the soldiers of home, although some military doctors believed their problems were specific to the Swiss and caused by the racket of Alpine cowbells!

I’m comfortable with nostalgia, sometimes a little wistful, but I see nostalgia as passing history forward – it’s not just reliving the past, but thinking about how events in that past affected where I am today. Nostalgia has a strong social side to it. It engenders feelings of belonging. As a son, husband and dad, I feel closer and happier when sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

I think back to one particular summer photo that is embedded in memory, and still in my collection, of me aged 16 outside a caravan in Cornwall, taken by a Polaroid camera that I received as a birthday gift. My long arms look as though my body has yet to grow into them. I remember that camera like it was yesterday: a big bulky plastic thing that you loaded up with film so expensive that you had to be selective about what you shot. Now people shoot gazillion photos with low-cost digital.

The marketing of nostalgia is serious business. In the last couple of years, when the credit crunch squeezed and with uncertainty about the economy, big brands have been marketing nostalgia to remind us of all the good times we used to have, full of rose-tinted happiness. In doing so, they have been reinforcing their history and heritage, their products’ endurance and quality, their authenticity.

The reason that nostalgia is now being considered as an important emotion by marketers is because it makes us happy. In times or recession or instability nostalgia is effective because when people are feeling down about their situation now, nothing makes them feel better than remembering the happier times in the past. Numerous studies confirm that most consumers really do look back on the past with rose-tinted glasses and an open wallet for any product that can help them recreate it. Products popular during a person’s youth will influence their buying habits throughout their lifetime. That explains my Ramones t-shirt!

Nostalgia can add significant value to brands that have the opportunity to tap into the heritage of the brand, consider Harley Davison, Mini, Fiat 500, Volkswagen Beetle, retro styling of digital radio brands etc. Nostalgic, iconic brands have defined Britain for years, some remain as strong as they were when they were founded: Hovis (1886), Marmite (1902), Brasso (1905), Bisto (1908), to name a few, have all stood the test of time.

Most importantly, it must have an emotional link The word ‘brand’ derives from the Old Norse word brandr meaning to burn, referring to the practice of burning a mark or brand onto cattle to denote ownership. It is this indelible mark in our mind that makes us prefer certain brands.

Lyle’s Golden Syrup is Britain’s oldest brand. Its green and gold packaging has remained almost unchanged since 1885. Research indicates that more than 85% of us immediately recognise the brand. Its original Victorian logo representing a lion and bees, coupled with its biblical quotation out of the strong came forth sweetness, has stood the test of time. It harks back to the great industrial times of the late C19th, a time we respect and value.

Bisto is another example. Trusted, reliable, and found in most kitchen cupboards across the country, the brand has remained in red-brown packaging since it was founded in 1908. An astonishing billion servings are sold each year, which equates to 18,000 tons of the brown powder. Lashings of piping hot gravy is a nostalgic memory for us all, an emotional link utilising its comforting values and association with family gatherings.

One of the most famous examples of ‘advertising nostalgia’ is the mammoth 122-second TV commercial from Hovis. The advert won the British Television Awards ‘Commercial of the Year’, told the story of a young boy travelling through time charting Britain’s turbulent history over the past 122 years – including the first world war, the suffragette movement, the first motor car, the second world war, the Queen’s coronation in 1953, the swinging 60s, England winning the 1966 World Cup, the 1980s miners’ strike and the millennium celebrations.

The advent of social media has seen the digitisation of memory and to some extent, the zombification of nostalgia as the intimacy has been lost by the immediacy and mass broadcast of personalised experience. Essentially the digital camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality. Virtually limitless storage has created a vast, noisy digital canvas that masks memory with too many pixels.

Anything that affects us at an emotional level today is exhaustively mined for commercial reasons, intensified with digitisation and new media. Today’s hottest consumer tech brands take it to an algorithm and machine-driven new heights. Your Kodak moment just got cropped, tagged, filtered, published, shared, liked and stored forever. Great for memory, not so good for nostalgia.

This is the endgame, packaging the past as the future and selling our memories back to us, one byte at a time. Etsy, Pinterest and Instagram all combine a pre-digital activity (scrapbooking, photography, handicrafts) with a social platform. How sophisticated is Nostalgia Innovation? Pinterest was the fastest brand to hit 10 million visitors, averages 89 minutes per visitor, and has become a significant source of referral traffic for retailers, and has yet to scratch the surface of its database of individual our tastes, interests and favourite brands. Facebook is now following the Google advertising model, but based on personalisation.

It is well over a decade since the philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued that reality itself had been fundamentally altered by a mediatised world, that there was no objective reality anymore, only a reproducible simulacrum, the nature of which is determined by large-scale corporations in the digital space. We no longer retain our own nostalgia.

But enough wallowing in nostalgia, it can create inertia. Why do we resist clearing out the unused and unusable accumulations in our files, our lofts and sheds? Why are we saving books we will never read? Life’s clutter builds up over time and we stuff it into the space under the stairs and into the dark corners of the attic.

Into my sixth decade now, I find that the present interests me less and less. Of course, the future continues to preoccupy me as a reliable source of excitement, hope and new stuff, but increasingly the present seems to have no outstanding qualities of its own, being merely a waiting-station through which I travel to the vast shadowlands of the past and the bright new shiny future.

Perhaps the reason I feel quite so liberated from the present while more and more attached to an ever-present past is because the hard drive of my computer is overloaded with digital images of the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met, all of them time-coded. There is also an email trail leading back years, comprised of thousands of ephemeral traces. I can employ a few keystrokes and correlate my personal recollection of what was happening on that day, at that very hour, where I was in Burnley, Barcelona or Brisbane.

Because of this, instead of curling photographs and yellowing newspapers, we are possessed of a shiny and permanent now, and so delude ourselves as to our own eternal youth – until, that is, we look down at the wrinkled and liver-spotted hands that rest on the keyboard! However, the trend for social media is definitely faster and faster; as we spend a greater amount of time editing and narrating our own lives, we’re more self-absorbed and prefer a twitter soundbite to a long letter.

Some of our relationships are entirely Skype-chat. That’s cool, technology lets you do some new stuff, and maintain contact with a lot of people that otherwise would’ve fallen by the wayside a long time ago.

Business is about trust and reliability, and you can leverage those in a brand story using nostalgia. Being innovative doesn’t have to project a cold and futuristic image, you can link it into old-fashioned ingenuity like many brands have done. It is a paradox of technological advances such as the internet and the proliferation of TV channels enable us to wallow in the past.

The Chinese definition of happiness is having someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to. I’m happy. But back to my youth, and as the Buzzcocks sang, About the future I only can reminisce, and although this may sound strange I’m surfing on a wave of nostalgia, for an age yet to come. Another hot summer day beckons, we’ll be nostalgic for the summer of 2013 in ten years time. Now, where is my bike?

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