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Mean Girls the Musical and nostalgia marketing

For Sunaina Sharma, Mean Girls the Musical misses the mark in these nostalgic times

Sunaina Sharma

Strategy Director Landor

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Traditional thinking suggests that trends move in 20-year cycles, and we’re clearly seeing the resurgence of Y2K in fashion, music (Blink 182 was one of the most popular tours in 2023), and the comeback of celebrities from the noughties (think Paris Hilton, Bennifer, Britney Spears).

Who is feeling nostalgic? All of us, but particularly Millennials and Gen Z thanks to social media where there’s an endless supply of nostalgia at our fingertips. With its own hashtag on TikTok, #nostalgia has 20 billion views and counting, and other accounts and videos encourage a yearning for the past.

Interestingly, we’re also seeing brands themselves nostalgic, and going back to their roots. Burberry and Pepsi rebranded in 2023 and both reverted to logos heavily inspired by their originals. As the saying goes, everything old is new again.

The psychology is simple: nostalgia in marketing uses our feelings of longing for the past to build trust by provoking a (hopefully) positive reaction, creating emotional connections, and driving engagement and loyalty with the goal of making us buy and keep buying.

The question is why are we feeling nostalgic? Simple. The current state of the world. Collectively we’ve been through a lot in the past few years. A global public health crisis, huge political divisions, social angst, the rising cost of living putting pressure on our everyday lives, and so on. We need some fun and we’re leaning on nostalgia as a coping mechanism to remind us of good times. We’re trying to find comfort, familiarity, and joy at a time when things are overwhelming and gloomy.

Balancing the old with the new is a thin line to cross

Sunaina Sharma, Strategy Director at Landor

Like most things over the past few years, it started with Covid-19, which started cross-generational cravings for the past. Losing loved ones, changes to our routines, uncertainty about what the future held, there was a loss of control and a sense of fear. Our perception of time also changed, and frankly, we were also looking to fill our days when there wasn’t very much to do, so we jumped into the archives.

In 2020, the share of 18 to 29-year-olds in the US living with their parents rose to 52%. Millennials and Gen-Z had more exposure to the past of their parents, what their lives were like, what brands they loved, what they wore, what they listened to, and clearly, they liked what they saw.

However, balancing the old with the new is a thin line to cross, it needs to be informed and well thought-through. If done properly it can inspire new experiences, keeping these treasures relevant today. And it’s not bad for business, opening yourself up to new audiences that potentially would have never considered you, becoming a generational brand with a captive buyer can only be a win.

If done wrong though, an inauthentic attempt at nostalgia can backfire and harm a brand's reputation, which could be detrimental. Brands need to stay true to themselves. Authenticity, the buzzword of the last few years, is no truer than when trying to stir up feelings of nostalgia.

Take Mean Girls. An icon of the 2000s that’s regularly quoted, and a cultural phenomenon where girls today still wear pink on Wednesdays. It would make sense for the creators to want to capitalise on it in this time of nostalgia and reboot it, a la Mean Girls the Musical. Sadly, it missed the mark. Fundamentally if you’re going to bring something back from the past it has to offer something new or additive.

While they try to do something different in the form of a musical, it falls flat because it is essentially the same film from 20 years ago, updated with music, modern references to social media and some reality TV-style confessional filming, but it doesn’t do it as well as the original.

Nostalgia in brand and marketing isn’t just redoing the same things, slightly differently. Brand reinvention should open whole new experiences and outlets that create new meaning, reconnect with the old and bring something new.

Take Friends for example, yes, some Gen-Z feel it's outdated for today’s values, but in terms of succeeding in its marketing of nostalgia, it wins. Friends has not tried to create new episodes (or recreate old ones), they have extended the experience in different ways such as creating the relatively new Friends Experience, which has opened across the world with success.

Another thing Mean Girls the Musical forgot about was the people who loved it 20 years ago. This Gen Z-ified version does not connect with its original cohort. TikTok has perpetuated nostalgia marketing, but older audiences are just as important to re-engage with. After all, they are still the ones who hold the purse strings in most instances, so you don’t want to alienate them by ruining something they once knew and loved.

Guest Author

Sunaina Sharma

Strategy Director Landor

About

Sunaina made the move across the pond to New York after living in London for eight years and working with clients across Europe, the Middle East, and Russia. Her most recent work includes working with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to reposition its three main airports, developing a partnership strategy for AWS, and leading the creation of a new Amazon customer experience, Amazon One. Her other clients have included Meta, Intel, Cisco, Johnson & Johnson, Danone, and Western Union. Previously, Sunaina worked in management consulting, with a focus on providing due diligence to private equity firms and VCs on potential targets and investment opportunities. Sunaina is forever curious – some might say too curious. Her love of problem-solving and innate restlessness always has her asking ‘why’ and trying to get to a better answer. Currently she’s asking herself why she decided to take up golf.

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