Everyone has nostalgia now and then — that warm and fuzzy feeling of fondness often from a familiar aspect of our past. Maybe it’s inspired by a specific place, a song, or even a scent. But what about brands and brand names? Can they evoke nostalgic feelings? The answer is a resounding yes, judging by pop culture trends, cycles, loops, and pendulums. (The Nostalgia Pendulum — it’s a thing; more on that later.)
The business of nostalgia is big, and we here at Zinzin are curious about it. For instance, is “the nostalgia loop” (it’s a thing too) a 20, 30, or 40-year cycle? There seems to be arguments for each scenario, so imagine this blog post is an Oldsmobile station wagon … climb in “the way back,” and join me on a road trip to discover more about nostalgia and naming. (Cheesy? You bet. But if you’re feeling nostalgic all of the sudden, we’re probably in the same decade of life. And perhaps you also geeked out over the Netflix original series Stranger Things.)
First of all, what exactly is nostalgia?
Before we really get rolling, let’s take a brief look at the word nostalgia and what it truly means. It’s kind of an odd word for an emotion that influences so much of our culture.
Etymology & definitions
According to the Oxford English dictionary, the modern definition is: (noun) a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations; something done or presented in order to evoke feelings of nostalgia.
However, its origin comes from a less happy place. The word “nostalgia” is derived from the late 18th century (in the sense “acute homesickness”): modern Latin (translating German Heimweh “homesickness”), from Greek nostos “return home” + algos “pain.”
It is this melancholy sense of nostalgia that is so beautifully evoked by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in his 1983 film, Nostalghia. As Wikipedia notes, “The film depicts a Russian writer (Oleg Yankovsky) who visits Italy to carry out research about an 18th-century Russian composer, but is stricken by homesickness… Tarkovsky spoke of the profound form of nostalgia which he believes is unique to Russians when traveling abroad, comparing it to a disease, ‘an illness that drains away the strength of the soul, the capacity to work, the pleasure of living’, but also, ‘a profound compassion that binds us not so much with our own privation, our longing, our separation, but rather with the suffering of others, a passionate empathy.'”
Evolution of the concept of nostalgia
The British Psychological Society says that the very concept of nostalgia shifted to a positive light only after the later part of the 20th century. Until then, it held a gloomy perspective based on nostalgia’s long association with homesickness. Here’s a snippet from their fascinating article called Nostalgia – from cowbells to the meaning of life.
The groundwork for this new look on nostalgia was laid by sociologist Fred Davis (1979). He showed, for instance, that participants associated words like warm, old times, childhood, and yearning more frequently with nostalgia than with homesickness, suggesting that participants could discriminate between these two concepts. Current dictionary definitions of homesickness and nostalgia also reflect their distinctness…
Regarded throughout centuries as a psychological ailment, nostalgia is now emerging as a fundamental human strength. It is part of the fabric of everyday life and serves a number of key psychological functions. Most importantly, nostalgia may be uniquely positioned to offer integrative insights across such important areas of psychology as memory, emotion, the self and relationships. The study of nostalgia has an exciting and promising future.
The psychology of nostalgia
Today, we celebrate nostalgia as a human strength; a way to understand ourselves and connect with others. It’s also revealed itself as a way for us to grapple with our past, cope with big changes in our lives, and even make sense of the present. When it comes down to it, the psychology of nostalgia is complex and multi-layered, as the American Psychological Association examines on their podcast called Speaking of Psychology: Does Nostalgia Have a Psychological Purpose? (Heads up: it’s a 42-minute podcast; a worthy listen when you have the time, and a transcript of the podcast is also within the link above.)
The podcast features an interview with Krystine Batcho, PhD, psychologist and nostalgia researcher. To the question of why we see so many throwbacks and retro-inspired excitement now more than ever, Bacho says,
I think on one level it tells us based upon the research that there’s something people feel is missing in the current lifestyle and that what is missing might be this social connectedness up close and personal. On the other hand, it might be that people are losing track of their sense of purpose and meaning and the nostalgia, one of its healthiest functions is to keep us on track with regard to the meaningfulness of our lives.
Nostalgia & marketing psychology
So, what does all of this have to do with marketing? A key part of marketing (which includes branding and naming) is the understanding of human behavior. When you understand what motivates someone — how and why they make decisions — you can influence their behavior. Therefore, the psychology of nostalgia factors heavily in the “nostalgic marketing” often seen today.
Trends, cycles, loops, and pendulums
This brings us to the pop culture trends, cycles, loops, and pendulums. There are different theories and opinions on often a nostalgic loop, or cycle, comes along. Let’s look at three different theories, all convincingly written within ten years of each other (2012-2022). By the way, we don’t lay claim that one is more accurate than another. But see what you think! (And feel free to share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below.)
2022 | The Nostalgia Loop (<20 year cycle)
We’ll start with the most recent example we found: a NPR piece published in March 2022 called, From Tumblrcore to 2014core, the Nostalgia Loop is Getting Smaller and Faster, by Neda Ulaby. It’s a short, refreshingly sharp read (or a 3-minute listen). Here’s how it begins:
Some recent fashion trends make sense. Take what’s currently being called the Y2K aesthetic of wide-leg jeans, aggressive pink and metallic fabrics — a throwback to style sensibilities of the late 90s and early 2000s.
Fashion moves in twenty year cycles, or so conventional wisdom has it, when tastemakers get nostalgic for their childhoods. For example, 1970s pop culture, resurrected the 1950s in the form of TV shows Happy Days and M*A*S*H and the musical Grease. And twenty years after that, the 1990s witnessed a return to 1970s-style singer-songwriters, such as Juliana Hatfield and PJ Harvey, and an era-defining cover of Cat Stevens’ 1971 song “Peace Train.”
But the nostalgia loop has sped up. “So much faster than twenty years,” says Rebecca Jennings, a senior correspondent for Vox who covers internet culture. Jennings points to TikTok videos nostalgic for makeup trends dating all the way back to…2016, when makeup artist Mario Dedivanovic was busy breaking the internet by contouring Kim Kardashian’s cheekbones and dramatically boxing her brows. Or look, Jennings says, to last year’s much-hyped vogue for wired headsets, a vintage accessory dating all the way back to before the advent of wireless ear buds — around 2015.
2017 | The Nostalgia Pendulum (30-year cycle)
Now consider this thoughtful article by Patrick Metzger called, The Nostalgia Pendulum- A rolling 30-year cycle of pop culture trends. He explains primary reasons behind his hypothesis of a 30-year cycle:
There are a number of reasons why the nostalgia pendulum shows up, but the driving factor seems to be that it takes about 30 years for a critical mass of people who were consumers of culture when they were young to become the creators of culture in their adulthood. The art and culture of their childhood (e.g. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics in 1984) helped them achieve comfort and clarity in their world, and so they make art that references that culture and may even exist wholly within that universe (e.g. the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2014 film reboot, 30 years later). Since most of the other fashionable creators around them also lived through the same period, they too indulge in the “new” nostalgic trend that’s being repurposed, creating a kind of feedback loop where all parties involved want to contribute more and more work that revives that same zeitgeist.
It can be explained equally well from the consumer side. After about 30 years, you’ve got a real market of people with disposable income who are nostalgic for their childhoods. So artists working in popular mediums are rewarded for making art that appeals to this audience.
Furthermore, Metzger goes on to list some examples of movie remakes that fall within the 30-year cycle:
- The Parent Trap (1961—1998, 37 years)
- Star Wars (1977) ➜ Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) — 22 years
- Gone in 60 Seconds (1974-2000, 26 years)
- Planet of the Apes (1968-2001, 33 years)
- Carrie (1976-2002) — 26 years
- Strawberry Shortcake Doll (1979) ➜ Strawberry Shortcake TV series (2003) — 23 years
- Dawn of the Dead (1978-2004, 26 years)
- King Kong (1933-1976, 43 years; 1976-2005, 29 years)
- The Omen (1976-2006, 30 years)
- Halloween (1978-2007, 29 years)
- Raiders of the Last Ark (1981) ➜ Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) — 27 years
- Fame (1980-2009, 29 years)
- Tron (1982) ➜ Tron: Legacy (2010) — 28 years
- Footloose (1984-2011, 27 years)
- RoboCop (1987-2014, 27 years)
- Jurassic Park (1993) ➜ Jurassic World (2015) — 22 years
- Ghostbusters (1984-2016, 32 years)
- Beauty and the Beast (1991-2017, 26 years)
2012 | The Golden Forty-Year Rule (40-year cycle)
Lastly, inspired by the retro-fabulous HBO series “Mad Men,” Adam Gopnik offered his own cultural observation: The Golden Forty-Year Rule. His commentary can be found in his article for The New Yorker, The Forty-Year Itch. It goes like this:
It seems time to pronounce a rule about American popular culture: the Golden Forty-Year Rule. The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past. (And the particular force of nostalgia, one should bear in mind, is not simply that it is a good setting for a story but that it is a good setting for you.)…
The forty-year rule is, of course, not immutable, and its cycle carries epicycles within it: the twenty-year cycle, for instance, by which the forty-somethings recall their teen-age years, producing in the seventies a smaller wave of fifties nostalgia to dance demurely alongside the longing for the thirties. But it is the forty-years-on reproduction of a thing that most often proves more concentrated and powerful than the original.
Finally, nostalgic naming
While each of the authors make compelling cases, we’re going to use Metzger’s (30-year) Nostalgia Pendulum as an excuse to take a joyride through company names of the past, specifically the 1960s, 1990s, and 2020s. Are there any observable patterns here? Are the current crop of newly minted companies influenced, perhaps subconsciously or culturally, by the class of 1990, and were they in turn influenced by the 1960s, at the start of a cultural revolution?
Some American brands & the year they were founded (30-year cycle)
Big O Tires
Crate & Barrel
Pier 1 Imports
Sally Beauty Holdings
Holiday Inn Express
Lucky Brand Jeans
Nickelodeon Animation Studio
Paul Frank Limited
Rooms To Go
Mr. Beast Burger
Scout Motors Inc.
Varda Space Industries
Warner Bros. Discovery
Time waits for no name
Thanks for joining us on our road trip through nostagliaville. Now, unbuckle (wait, there are no seat belts in “the way back” of the station wagon!), and revisit this post anytime you get the nostalgic feels. As we often say at Zinzin, we like to get outside of ourselves and explore all kinds of topics and industries. It keeps things fresh and fun, (because naming should be fun), especially when we’re feeling nostalgic. And let’s face it, these days, who isn’t wistful for happier, more stress-free times?
Bonus: Here’s a heartwarming opinion piece in The New York Times called Name Brand Nostalgia. I bet a lot of us can relate.
Is there a brand name that makes you feel nostalgic? Add your comments below!
Encore: Riding the 30-year cycle, “Nostalgia,” by Billy Collins
“Nostalgia” is a well-loved 1991 poem by Billy Collins, a famous contemporary American poet and Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003. Here he reads several of his poems, including “Nostalgia,” the introduction to which begins at the 22:38 mark. (The poem’s text is included below the video.) Collins deftly skewers nostalgic cultural “decade-ification,” in which glorification of the past is marketed to consumers in the present.
By Billy Collins
Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon,
and at night we would play a game called “Find the Cow.”
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.
Where has the summer of 1572 gone? Brocade and sonnet
marathons were the rage. We used to dress up in the flags
of rival baronies and conquer one another in cold rooms of stone.
Out on the dance floor we were all doing the Struggle
while your sister practiced the Daphne all alone in her room.
We borrowed the jargon of farriers for our slang.
These days language seems transparent, a badly broken code.
The 1790s will never come again. Childhood was big.
People would take walks to the very tops of hills
and write down what they saw in their journals without speaking.
Our collars were high and our hats were extremely soft.
We would surprise each other with alphabets made of twigs.
It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead.
I am very fond of the period between 1815 and 1821.
Europe trembled while we sat still for our portraits.
And I would love to return to 1901 if only for a moment,
time enough to wind up a music box and do a few dance steps,
or shoot me back to 1922 or 1941, or at least let me
recapture the serenity of last month when we picked
berries and glided through afternoons in a canoe.
Even this morning would be an improvement over the present.
I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of bees
and the Latin names of flowers, watching the early light
flash off the slanted windows of the greenhouse
and silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.
As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.
Billy Collins, “Nostalgia” from Questions About Angels. Copyright © 1991 by Billy Collins.
Still feeling nostalgic?
Here’s another throwback: Vanished Brands: Orange Whip