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From Paper Boat to Google, how brands bank on nostalgia

Debating whether or not to send his parents away to an old-age home, a young man gets under the shower and returns with clarity of thought. As improbable as it may sound, this is advertising, selling a water heater on the back of nostalgia.

Racold Thermo Ltd’s latest advertising campaign, titled “Power of a Hot Shower”, conceptualized by BBDO and produced by Cutawayy Films, uses a theme—nostalgia—that is a perpetual favourite in the ad world, and it’s not surprising why. 

Memories are triggered by sights, sounds and images (and in some cases touch and smell). They invoke both anticipation and remembrance. Advertising combines all of these facets in a time capsule called nostalgia which creative experts describe as both “comfort food” and “emotional blackmail” to communicate a brand’s directive.

While 2016 (in terms of advertising) was celebrity obsessed more than nostalgic, younger brands like Google and Paper Boat, among others, used the theme effectively in their advertising campaigns to take viewers back to simpler times and perhaps a place of familiarity.

In June, Google created a six-minute ad titled “The Hero—A Bollywood Story”. It touched upon how Hindi films have stirred and doused hopes of countless thousands, and they did this with an unlikely protagonist—the 60-something father of a young aspiring actor. 

The idea was to show how the previous generation had to give up on their dreams because they did not have access to technology—in this case, Google.

“Getting to the core of how our users think, feel and act is an everyday task as we make products,” writes Sapna Chadha, country head of marketing, Google India, in an emailed response. “We take the same approach to marketing. People are rooted in their memories and emotions and we only are building our work on that premise.” 

Created by advertising agency Lowe Lintas, it opens with a dinner-table conversation between a mother (Gujarati actor Morali Desai) and son (actor Vicky Kaushal, famous for his role in Masaan). The son, who has a job in Mumbai, asks his parents to join him there, since his father (Marathi theatre actor Nandu Madhav) has retired from his job in the hill town they live in. 

The mother tells him that his father would never agree to shift to Mumbai, a city he went to 40 years ago to become an actor. He had even landed a role in a film that was to be shot near Bengaluru, but his Bollywood dream was shattered by his own father (the young man’s grandfather) who brought him back to their home town to become a manager in a cinema hall.

Here the film uses what ad veteran K.V. Sridhar, founder and chief creative officer of Hyper Collective, describes as “borrowed nostalgia”.

“Newer and younger brands like Google and Paper Boat, which have not been around for hundreds of years, borrow from the characters in these ads. Google, which is talking to young people, uses older protagonists to tell the story to the young audiences,” explains Sridhar.

In Paper Boat’s “Rizwan: Keeper of the Gates of Heaven”, an ad film that released in May 2016, Rizwan is an old blind man who lives alone in a secluded home in the hills and is reliving unadulterated memories of his childhood. 

Neeraj Kakkar, founder and chief executive of Hector Beverages Pvt. Ltd, the company that runs Paper Boat, has the daunting task of competing with the memories of the drinks he creates, and so they are a recurring theme in the brand’s communication.

How powerful is nostalgia?

Psychologically, nostalgia taps into the human mind and consciousness, by evoking fond memories. Entire generations of audiences can be virtually transported to a seemingly simpler, happier time, such that they as a group identify with the content on display. 

Nostalgia has both emotional and cognitive elements. It also taps into the “need to belong”, says Chadha of Google. 

According to Hyper Collective’s Sridhar, the power of nostalgia lies in the fact that it can bring back lost love for brands both old and new. “Nostalgia is usually used when brand love drops. It’s emotional blackmail that works. We endorse and encourage this behaviour in our daily existence. While advertisers are by default dream merchants who sell aspirations, nostalgia is often used when love is lost. The brand, in a jilted reaction, says, ‘How can you forget me?’”

Take, for instance, Maggi, the popular instant noodle brand from Nestlé SA. Its comeback campaign in August 2015 was pegged on nostalgia for the product even before it returned to shelves after it was banned by the government for a few months for supposedly containing traces of lead beyond statutory limits.

The videos, posted by Nestlé India with the hashtag #WeMissYouToo, tried to keep the brand alive in consumers’ minds. All three videos created by McCann WorldGroup India feature single men and their association with Maggi.

One narrates how he never cared about home-delivery leaflets as long as he had Maggi; another says because of Maggi he did not have to wake up his mother at midnight; and the third talks about how he never needed to connect with his neighbours, because he always had Maggi.

In these 40-50 second advertisements, the protagonists articulate their longing with the key message: “Kab wapas aayega yaar? (When will it be back?)”

In such cases, it is less about nostalgia and more about milking value out of what you consider a strong, meaningful property during difficult times, say advertisers.

According to Ambi M.G. Parameswaran, a brand strategist and founder of Brand-Building.com, nostalgia triggers emotions of trust and caring. “These can be strong feelings for certain product categories and brands,” he adds.

Parameswaran is referring to work by brands like Mother’s Recipe, best known for its pickles; The Times of India, which has used nostalgia in some of its theme films (the “Hockey Champion”); and Tata Salt, which used boxer Mary Kom and her story to drive home the message of “Desh Ka Namak”.

HT Media Ltd, which publishes Mint and Hindustan Times, competes with the publishers of The Times of India in some markets.

Nostalgia is for everyone

Another characteristic that makes these emotions of longing and reminiscence tick is that they appeal to a broad audience, especially a large section of the Indian middle class, which is perpetually in a state of emotional flux.

You might say that as you age, you become more receptive to “a longing for positive memories from the past”, says Google’s Chadha.

Parameswaran believes that nostalgia works best for the slightly older age group. “If your key target audience is the youth, nostalgia may not be as powerful, unless your advertising execution makes fun of the nostalgia stereotype. Some brands have used old movies and old songs to make fun of the ‘old times’,” he explains.

But Chadha believes that this is not about age. “All audiences can get swayed by nostalgia, and there is no ‘segment’ or target audience per se,” she says. “The work we have done showing older characters are ultimately about a family, and feelings and stories related to family in almost all cases. All generations of family are impacted by such storytelling.” 

To be sure, 2016 has not been a tipping point in terms of the use of nostalgic themes, says Sridhar. “It has been used for many years and it will continue to be used for many years. Although, I think this year the volume of nostalgia-led advertising has grown,” he adds.

Tracing it back 

In the past, nostalgia has been used by legacy brands that have been around for decades—for instance, Bajaj Scooters with the popular tagline “Hamara Bajaj”, VIP Luggage and Godrej. “Here brands are simply trying to say: I have been around for so many years and I will be around for some years to come,” says Sridhar.

These ads were a big deal when they came out in a media-dark period—satellite television took off in India only in the early 1990s—but are still talked about because they have now become kitsch.

Closer to the present day, a 2006 ad campaign by The Times of India opened with an entire village celebrating the news of the selection of one of their own into the Indian hockey team. The selected boy’s grandfather goes back to a storeroom to find a 70-year-old newspaper—with a report on him being dropped from the hockey team back in the day.

Nostalgia, by definition, triggers positive emotions—a yearning to replicate the best of the past, in a way. In the Racold ad, after his shower, the young man tears up the application form for the old-age home. In the Google film, the father agrees to move to Mumbai with his son. 

Happy memories, it seems, lead to happy endings. 

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