Leveraging Nostalgia in the Automotive Industry

Many people associate cars with childhood, positivity and togetherness. The automotive industry should keep this emotional connotation in mind.

Jeff Snyder

April 6, 2023

4 Min Read
Dodge Challenger 23 screenshot
'23 Challenger's styling evokes Dodge muscle cars of yesteryear.Dodge

Innovative products tend to be sleeker and shinier than their predecessors. Even in the past few years, electronics have slimmed down, furniture has lost embellishments and buildings have become more minimalistic. In the U.S., these qualities have become firmly associated with the future and an ever-forward-thinking mentality.

Historically, the automotive industry has been no different. Tesla’s angular Cybertruck is an example of this, but cars designed with the future in mind are not new. Think about the 1957 Galileo Show Car, which looks like it’s half James Bond car and half spaceship – a considerable feat for hitting the market more than 65 years ago.

Despite these innovations, the futurism strategy may be losing its effectiveness. Many think the long-delayed Cybertruck is unattractive and find its futuristic design a flaw, not a feature and it is looking like it will never make it into production.

What’s more, consumers crave the familiar in times of uncertainty and these are indeed uncertain times.

Consequently, people want their products to evoke the comfort of the familiar rather than the excitement of change. Furthermore, with less disposable income, consumers are less likely to be won over by futuristic gimmicks – especially when buying something as expensive as a car.

The Power of Nostalgia in Today's Fast-Paced World

Nostalgia is a powerful emotional phenomenon. It transports people to a different time and place, evoking a sense of positivity and safety. Research indicates that participating in a nostalgic activity, like looking at old photos, can produce feelings of calm.

Cars are deeply nostalgic objects for many people. In the U.S., the past is sometimes literally represented by cars. The 1957 Ford Thunderbird, for example, conjures images of that era: milkshakes, diners with jukeboxes and drive-in movie theaters. For Americans, being driven around as children, watching movies with car chases and going on family road trips are universal experiences.

Consequently, many people associate cars with childhood, positivity and togetherness.

Nostalgia also can make unfamiliar features seem more acceptable. Skeptics of electric vehicles might accept them if they adopt a retro look, for example. The unfamiliar becomes familiar in the presence of nostalgia.

Four Factors Industry Leaders Should Consider When Leveraging Nostalgia

It makes sense that automakers want to evolve their brands with nostalgia to meet particular consumer expectations. However, before starting, here are a few things to consider:

  • Nostalgia is different for everyone.

There is no one-size-fits-all nostalgia strategy. Car buyers come from different generations, different places and different cultures.

  • Nostalgia doesn't outweigh quality.

Nostalgia should complement the more innovative features of a car, not eclipse them. There are plenty of examples of great retro designs that didn’t last long because of quality issues.

  • Likewise, when reviewing old models or designs, ensure there’s more to them than relics of years gone by. The best nostalgia plays for automakers are brands, models or ideas that are still part of pop culture. If contemporary music and movies still reference a car, it’s a good candidate for revival.

  • Nostalgia allows a mix of old and new.

Consumers generally want to keep up with the times and stay on the cutting edge of technology. As such, automakers shouldn’t put all of their eggs in the nostalgia basket. Nostalgic design elements remain relevant because they make new technologies seem more approachable. Therefore, battery-electric vehicles are the perfect place to blend risk and exciting new tech with familiar, comforting designs. The use of midcentury interior design cues in new BEVs is an example.

  • Nostalgia can tell a story.

Nostalgia works because it reminds people of the “good old days.” To revive old models and styles, there need to be stories that place them within that context. Marketing departments must find angles that pluck at consumer heartstrings. Narratives should be compelling and relate to cultural ideals about driving and traveling. At the very least, they should target strong, niche markets.

Jeff Snyder.jpeg

Jeff Snyder

Ultimately, nostalgia is a powerful selling tool. It does the impossible, allowing consumers to look back while looking forward. Reminding potential car buyers of their first road trips could be the most effective marketing strategy that automotive executives try this year.

Jeff Snyder (pictured, left) is the founder and chief inspiration officer at Inspira Marketing Group.

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