Where do people turn after dealing with the uncertainty of a global pandemic, a tumultuous election season, and an economic crisis? Comfort and familiarity. For decades, nostalgia has provided warmth and predictability in times of chaos. Throughout World War 2, the financial turmoil of the 70s, 9/11, and the Great Recession, consumers grasped for familiar textures, scents, and colors intertwined with feelings of safety and predictability. In 2020, consumers reached for products that transport them to simpler times when pandemics were left to history books and sci-fi films.
Our current push towards nostalgia and comfort is a lifeline to many CPG brands that lost a bit of relevance before the pandemic hit. As the level of products’ “safety” and “familiarity” drive decision-making, consumers gravitate towards the brands they grew up with rather than their more sophisticated counterparts.
Our Consumer Pulse Survey (circulating to our database of consumers nationwide until March 2020) detected the same pattern. Purchases of frozen treats, desserts, and snacks increased 45% compared to pre-COVID times. Purchases of desserts and sweet treats continue to uptick as Americans attempt to offset emotional strain with foods that bring happiness.
As consumers’ priorities shift to comfort, the same brands struggling to stay afloat a year ago now find themselves riding the wave of nostalgia. Large companies such as the Campbell’s Soup Company, where sales have been declining over the past few years, are increasing their production, hiring new employees, and raising wages for hourly employees to keep up with the demand.
Of course, the definition of “nostalgic” varies by household demographics and generation. COVID-19’s stay-at-home mandate allowed older family members to expose their children and grandchildren to the brands they knew and trusted decades ago. The result? A generation removed from Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and calming Campbell’s chicken noodle soup was suddenly exposed to both.
The gravitational pull of nostalgia affects millennials in an equally intriguing way. Brands that millennials loved as children such as Fruit Roll-Ups and Ramen Noodles have long been replaced by meticulously branded, health-focused, more mature newcomers sold by the likes of Whole Foods and Trader Joes. Yet when the pandemic introduced a desire for comfort and familiarity, millennials ran back towards the artificial flavors, high-fructose corn syrup, and red food dye they’d sworn off as adults. As millennials reach for products they’d typically pass without a second thought (i.e., I, as a 26-year-old woman, purchased a Baby Bottle Pop for myself the other day), nostalgia is resuscitating brands and products that lost steam in the health-conscious 2010s.
The demand for these lost comfort foods directly translated into sales – Campbell’s soup sales soared 59% compared to a year ago, Prego pasta sauce increased 52% YOY, and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers’ sales also climbed nearly 23%. The push for nostalgia benefits well-known brands over lesser-established players.
“There is potential for increased preference for established, reputable, dependable brands that solve newly framed problems better than other alternatives,” Jon R. Moeller, Procter & Gamble’s CFO, said when announcing strong-third quarter earnings. Well-known P&G brands such as Tide Detergent and Charmin toilet paper have increased in sales by 20%.
Consumers’ sweet tooth for nostalgia doesn’t just open the door for struggling brands to win back customers, it also allows less established brands to connect with consumers in new ways. Successful marketing involves engaging and emotionally affecting the consumer – making nostalgia-driven campaigns lean, mean, conversion machines. Cereal companies such as General Mills are relaunching classic cereal formulations and their original 1980s themed boxes. However, packaging and formula reboots aren’t the only way we’re seeing CPG brands spearheading nostalgia-based research initiatives. Companies are also relaunching product lines from yesteryear and remastering jingles from the past.
When it comes to leveraging nostalgia to appeal to consumers’ sense of familiarity, established brands hold a clear advantage. The crunch of a Lay’s potato chip brings memories of summer camp picnics and Fourth of July celebrations in a way a baked quinoa crisp cannot. Similarly, a dairy-free whipped air concoction is incapable of conjuring the memory of catching the ice-cream truck for a decadent creamy treat. The real question is: how long will this advantage last? Can comfort brands find a way to harness this newly found momentum and turn it into a sustainable strategy forward?
For the companies that missed out on the 2015-2019 developmental surge, forfeiting shelf space to emerging brands with nimble marketing strategies, the post-pandemic nostalgia surge presents a unique opportunity to reclaim lost territory. For those CPG companies seizing the moment, they embody the saying ‘fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me’. Determined not to be fooled twice, these brands are accelerating innovation and pouring resources into R&D and consumer insights to re-establish themselves as industry leaders.