Nostalgia isn’t enough

Can’t revive a brand on memories

Ana Andjelic
5 min readMar 31, 2024
Lauren Hutton x J.Crew Icons 2023

When reviving a brand, tapping into nostalgia is easy: go back to the archives, revive the days of glory, cater to consumers’ real or invented memories, and turn it into a strategy.

It is also wrong.

Nostalgia works only as a first step in the brand revival. It is a short-term tactic to remind and delight, and after it, a brand needs to move on. Otherwise, a brand is in danger of getting stuck in a its glory days while the world, culture, and consumers all moved on. It’s like Hiroo Onoda, who refused to believe that WWII was over and surrendered only in 1974.

A better approach is to go behind a brand’s initial creative expression, rooted in a specific cultural time and place, and go to the reason why a brand was founded, what was the intention behind it, what was the energy and mood, and what are its founding principles. Then use those principles as a DNA for a brand’s rebirth: what kind of brand would J.Crew be if it was founded today? What would GAP look like if it started in 2024?

This is a creative exercise, and often beyond a CMO’s imagination. Much easier is to repeat what worked well in the past and justify it by saying that “Gen Z is obsessed with nostalgia.” Gen Z is obsessed with many other things, too, and while they may want to wear things from the 1990s, they do not necessarily want to be enticed through the same ads.

GAP Fall 2023

Old things are the most desirable when put in a new context.

Tell that to J.Crew and GAP. In a fit of inspiration, both brands have in the past year released “Icons” campaigns. In both cases, Icons refer to people and to products, and in both cases, there’s a trench, a hoodie, a white button-down, a pair of jeans.

One is almost shocked that this isn’t the same brand, so aligned is their art direction (1990s), selection of celebrities (just slightly irrelevant, just a bit past their prime), and their preferred advertising formats (TV ads, print).

The problem here is not only deep-rooted creative staleness and corporate risk-aversion, but the fact that both brands are pushing for nostalgia as a strategy when it’s only a tactic, and for believing that only select people are iconic in the post-icon age.

The misalignment is cultural.

There’s no such thing as originality. In modern culture, the most talked about things are riffs, references, commentaries. One of late Virgil Abloh’s cheat codes was his three percent rule, the idea that everything is a remix and that “a creative only has to add a three percent tweak to a pre-existing concept in order to generate a cultural contribution deemed innovative — for instance, a DJ only needs to make small edits to innovate a song.”

GAP’s 1990s Remix

Instead of originality, there’s curation. By curating (not replicating) the old, brands give it renewed meaning in consumers eyes: curation contextualizes items within a current time and a point of view. Air Jordans are still famous thanks mostly to many curatorial interventions since. “Re-editions,” “inspired by,” a “sequel,” a “reboot,” “in collaboration with” connect people, products and ideas in a way that creates something that simultaneously new and familiar, operative word being “simultaneous.”

Everyone is an individual, and they don’t need GAP or J.Crew to help them celebrate it. The Internet created micro-collectives of streetwear, sportswear, menswear, luxury watches, artisanal coffee, vintage dresses … who share ethos, style, references and vocabulary. It’s easy to link up only with others who share our taste, interests and hobbies and ignore the rest.

Fandom matters more. It is not enough for brands to have customers; in order to grow and stay relevant, they need fans. Fans are going to watch every teaser and trailer and go to Reddit to decode signs and chat about a brand with others. Fans are a brand’s biggest driver, as they create the right mood for the new ideas, products and looks to spread. Instead of applauding the world’s “originals,” we should focus on fandoms the allow them to thrive.

Fans can turn anyone into an icon. TikTok is a place where consumers spend majority of their time thanks to highly appealing content, regardless of who created it. There’s no need to follow anyone or browse or search: content is delivered based on an algorithmically created taste profiles, where any of us can be potentially propelled to momentary iconic status, thanks to the fans’ collective taste powered by a personalization algorithm. With TikTok as a blueprint for the modern culture, icons today are only personifications of a trend, not its creators. The mood has to be right for everyone to like full lips or a lot of Bottox or Onitsuka Tiger Mexico, and “iconic” personalities, products or ideas are always outcomes of their context. A few years back, the most liked photo on Instagram was a picture of an egg named Eugene. If the mood is right, anyone can become an “icon of X,” and if it isn’t, no one can.

For a brand to use nostalgia, it first has to be thoroughly modern. Going back into the nineties makes sense only if a brand aesthetically, positionally, and creatively moved on. Without this contrast, a brand is just doing what it has been doing all along, devoid of cultural interest, innovation, and relevancy. Sometimes, even nostalgia can seem out of touch.

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Ana Andjelic

Brand Executive. Author of “The Business of Aspiration.” Doctor of Sociology. Writer of “Sociology of Business.” Forbes most influential CMO.