Bottling The Past: Using Nostalgia To Connect With Customers

From gin to geriatric care, companies are invoking the Good Ol' Days to foster a connection with their customers--even if the product is only a decade old.

HendrickThe first time I encountered Hendrick's Gin was in the exclusive George V Hotel in Paris. While sipping on a glass of wine, I noticed the crowd at the table beside me drinking from what appeared to be a pot of tea. They clinked their oddly shaped glasses--like glass teacups on a wineglass stem--and the bonhomie continued. I asked the bartender what it was that they were drinking. He raised a brown bottle shaped like an old apothecary tincture pasted with a clear block-letter label--"HENDRICK'S GIN." I had never heard of it. It seems I'm not alone. Hendrick's Gin prides itself on its exclusivity: In its own words, it is a brand that proudly proclaims, "Our gin is much loved by a handful of curious individuals all over the world."

Hendrick's is one of the few gins made in Scotland, but it's the way that it's made that gives the drink its mystique. It is distilled in two rare stills--the Bennet, manufactured in 1860, and the Carter-head, manufactured in 1948. Utilizing a process involving both stills, the gin is created from a subtle infusion of botanical essences, including rose and cucumber. What's more, the pot stills can only manufacture batches smaller than 1,000 litres. It's then only made available to exclusive high-end bars at select spots around the world.

Everything about Hendrick's harks back to the 19th century--a time of alchemists, inventors, hot-air balloons, burlesque dancers, top-hatted gents, and penny-farthing bicycles. Contrary to its vintage appearance, the first bottle only reaching its targeted drinking establishments in 1999. Everything about Hendrick's is staged by a team who train bartenders in the rituals of serving, as well as attracting an exclusive patronage of those who fit the values and aspirations of the product.

And Hendrick's isn't the only brand that has succeeded in creating an aura of nostalgia. I mean, how old would you say Bailey's Original Irish Cream is? The distinguished brown bottle with its gold embossed green label is misleading when you consider that it's a product of the 1970s. Even "Bailey's signature" is fictional. But it certainly succeeds in conjuring up the convivial aura of a bygone era where people sipped on liqueurs in genteel establishments.

The more stressed and harried and frenzied and insecure our world becomes, the more we long for the certainties of the past. In those "good ol' days" everything seemed perfect. People seemed happier, life seemed simpler--even the sun shone brighter! Or so we believe.

Have you ever had a nightmare vacation? The sort where the weather was terrible, the hotel damp, the food tasteless, and the family not able to agree on anything? In the midst of the misery you take a few snapshots. Then, a few years later you come across the photos, and almost magically it doesn't seem to be as bad as you remembered. After all, the sun did shine now and again, and even if the hotel wasn't great, it was in a really good location. As you stare at the photos, the trip transforms into a much nicer memory.

We're suckers for nostalgia. In a research study carried out in 2006 at the University of Southampton in the U.K., 79% of the 172 students polled claimed they experienced nostalgic thoughts at least once a week. A further 16% reported having such fond moments daily. I call these rosy memories. When I was conducting research for my next book Brandwashed, I discovered that we're programmed to recall our past memories in a more positive light as time goes by. As the big time clock keeps ticking, so our memory transforms its recall in our stored thoughts. By tracking the memories of a large sample group, we learned that any given event would, on average, improve by as much as 35% in the short space of two years.

Hendrick's and Baileys are not the only brands on this great earth of ours that have learned the unique powers of nostalgia. A retirement village in Britain has taken the concept a few steps further. Many of the people who live there suffer from dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Furthermore, it's an established fact that as people age, their short-term memory suffers whilst their long-term memory remains intact. In this particular retirement village the walls in the halls and common rooms are decorated with images from the 40s and 50s. There are posters from old movies starring the likes of Veronica Lake, Bette Davis, and Jimmy Stewart. The music plays Frank Sinatra, Patsy Kline, and Benny Goodman. Even the rooms take their names from celebrities of the time--names everyone of a certain vintage will remember easily. The citizens of the village seem quite and ease and comfortable in the surroundings of their era.

One thing we can be certain of: Nostalgia is a fad that's likely to last forever. Perhaps this is why my Brandwashed study found that last year approximately 20% of new product launches--or relaunches--were cloaked in a sprinkling of nostalgic package design, advertising campaigns, and even websites. I'm not sure if I love or loathe it, but whatever's the case I know that 12 months have passed, and I'm still dreaming of my Hendrick's at George V. That gin and tonic poured over a bed of cucumber slices tasted better than any other gin and tonic I've ever had. I can't help but wonder why.

Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best--seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, will be released in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.

Read more by Lindstrom: What Apple Babies Reveal About Our Tech Routines

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6 Comments

  • Eugene Cantera

    Fascinating and always timely stuff from FC.  As a member of the 'cutting edge' team at Discover, Learn, and Play we battle nostalgia in reverse....these are not your grandmother's music lessons. Still in all, our material and learning processes have remain relatively unchanged for the past 500 years though we now use technology to reach an unprecedented number of students world-wide. Our struggle is to marry the positive and 'nostalgic' feel of learning and playing instruments that are essentially hundreds of years old with technology that allows us to communicate and deliver instruction to today's savvy learners.  I wonder if we can digitize the smell of valve oil or an old clarinet case?

  • Mike @ Ecosalon.com

    Gorgeous article. And very true about the modern hunger for the validatingly old. I live in York, in the north of England, and here we have narrow alleys locally known as "snickelways". Visitors to York automatically assume it's a quaint medieval term, a splash of local colour in the lingo. In fact it was invented in 1982, a portmanteau of "snicket", "ginnel" and "alleyway". The inventor is a very clever man, in picking a word that sounds like it *should* be really old...

  • Brent Green

    New psychological research has validated that nostalgic memories serve a powerful role in our lives by increasing our sense of social support, and these enduring feelings can be marshaled in the brand-consumer relationship. Sociological theory and research has also demonstrated that nostalgia is particularly effective with Baby Boomers because of the unique period that this generation came of age. In a recent article posted online, I discuss the merits and potential liabilities of generational (nostalgic) marketing. http://huff.to/q47FjV