This week, a huge news story broke in the Pokémon world: Nick Johnson of Brooklyn, NY became the first person to catch all 142 Pokémon currently available in the US. He did it by walking an average of eight miles a day for 14 days, in the end amassing 4,629 Pokémon in total (and dropping 10 pounds). And unsurprisingly—at just 28 years old—he’s a Millennial.
Since its launch a few weeks ago, the gaming app has been a hit among Gen-Y consumers. A survey by mfour found that 83% of people who use Pokémon Go are between the ages of 18 and 34. A survey by StartApp bumped that percentage up to 90. Altogether, usage of the app has been off the charts. Just two days after Pokémon Go launched, Android users were spending more time on the app than on Snapchat, Instagram, or WhatsApp.
The craziest part is, Pokémon Go developer Niantic didn’t have to spend a lot of money on ads to generate this kind of engagement. It had something much more powerful: nostalgia.
With Pokémon celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, this new app is primed to appeal to those who grew up collecting the cards and building their Pokedexes on Gameboy. Think about it this way: If these users were 10 when the game first launched in the 1996, they’re now 30—meaning they likely own smartphones and have significant buying power.
In light of Pokémon Go’s success, let’s take a closer look at why nostalgia in marketing is so effective and how brands have used it to appeal to consumers’ emotions.
According to Merriam-Webster, nostalgia is “pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.” Psychologists suggest that it can reduce stress, increase self-esteem, and enhance feelings of social connectedness. In fact, these feelings are so powerful that they can even influence us to make purchases. As a study by the Journal of Consumer Research found, people spend more money when they’re feeling nostalgic.
Pokémon Go is a perfect example of this. As Dr. Jamie Madigan, author of the book Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on People Who Play Them, told Time: “If nostalgia is in play, and it evokes this positive emotion . . . our brain can substitute the question, ‘Does this make me happy’ for ‘Is this a good game?’” Thankfully for Niantic, Pokémon Go fits both criteria: It’s making people happy and it’s widely considered to be a good game.
Feeding into this nostalgia, the app is bringing to fruition one of Millennials gamers’ biggest dreams: to play Pokémon Go in real life. Thanks to built-in augmented reality features, users can now map the Pokémon world onto their own and catch the creatures in their homes and neighborhoods.
These feelings of nostalgia also seem to resonate much more deeply with Millennials than any other generation. That’s because Millennials came of age during the digital revolution; many spent their childhoods playing outside, and their teens and young adult years attached to their screens. As a result, they tend to yearn for a time when life was slower and less overwhelming than their non-stop social feeds.
“We call this ‘early-onset nostalgia,’” Deep Focus CMO Jamie Gutfreund told Digiday, “where there is such an information overload that it has compressed their sense of time.”
Just look at this image of a dad showing his daughter his old Pokémon card collection.
Pokémon Go can inspire people like this man to not only relive their past, but also share it with their kids, who may grow up to play this new version of the game.
Pokémon and Niantic aren’t the first to embrace the power of nostalgia in marketing. Many brands before them have successfully tapped into consumers’ pasts in order to drive impassioned engagement.
In 2014, Penguin appealed to Baby Boomers by launching an interactive Mad Libs app that let them return to the books of fill-in-the-blank fun. As a result, the app generated over 5.5 million downloads and increased Mad Libs sales by 74%.
Around the same time, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese was ready to promote its new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-themed products. To get the word out, the brand resurrected Vanilla Ice’s iconic rap from the 1991 movie. As one article noted, “The target audience for the ad isn’t young kids, but their parents – Millennials who now have children of their own.”
Back in the gaming world, Nintendo even plans to release a “Classic Edition” of its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Unlike the bulky set of the ‘80s, this new product will be a lot smaller, and it will come with 30-built in games so you don’t have to keep track of separate game cartridges. It’ll also be equipped with an HDMI port (so you can connect it to your TV) and a new controller than can sync up with a Wii Remote.
Over on social media, audiences are also finding their own ways to relive the past by using hashtags like #TBT for “Throwback Thursday” and #FBF for “Flashback Friday.” Just check out this #TBT post from Britney Spears that’s sure to send ‘90s kids into a spiral of nostalgia.
Additionally, apps like Timehop and Facebook’s On This Day dig up past social media posts to help users share their memories with friends and family.
If anything, mass media outlets feed into these feelings of nostalgia. Just look at two of this summer’s biggest movies, Finding Dory and Ghostbusters, which piggyback on cultural phenomena of decades past. BuzzFeed has also published countless posts appealing to Millennials, such as “48 Reasons ’90s Kids Had The Best Childhood.” And Netflix is launching a slew of ‘90s and ‘00s reboots, like Full House, Gilmore Girls, and Twin Peaks, proving that this eagerness to revisit older cultural sensations isn’t dying down anytime soon.
It’s important to note that most of the brands above didn’t just embrace the past; they understood the importance of modern technology as well. Penguin didn’t just re-publish Mad Libs; it launched an interactive app to engage today’s consumers on a digital platform. And Pokémon didn’t just re-release its hit game; it adapted it to cutting edge, augmented reality technology.
As Dr. Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, told Time: “[Pokémon Go] is the perfect marriage of nostalgia, bringing something old that people have these memories of from their childhood. And coupling that with technology that allows people to connect and share these experiences in ways they could not in the past.”
By tapping into emotions of nostalgia with modern tools, marketers can learn from the past while still shaping a more engaging future for their audiences.
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