Is the nostalgia trend marketing code for a lack of new ideas?

By Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/SolStock
Image: Getty/SolStock

Related tags Marketing nostalgia Advertising Brand Brand management Chocolate Confectionery

Sweet treat campaigns targeting Gen Xers are really having a moment, but does evoking the past future-proof sales?

Any good product developer or marketer knows you should listen to your customers and appeal to their tastes. And confectionery brands worldwide seem pretty eager to appeal to the Gen X demographic right now through wholesome nostalgia that transports them back to their childhoods.

Global brands are launching memory-inspiring marketing and advertising promos to capture a piece of the captive, hyper-connected, and leisure-seeking Gen X confectionery consumer market. But is nostalgia marketing here because that’s what the demographic wants or has the industry simply run out of ideas for new innovations in flavours, textures and formats?

Gen Xers and nostalgia bring sales

Nostalgic products and experiences make a big difference at the tills. Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that nostalgic feelings made the study participants more willing to spend money on consumer goods​, giving confectioners the nod that nostalgic marketing does increase sales.

Confectioners are well-poised to act now, too. Although Gen Xers are smaller in number than the baby boomers who came before them and the millennials who followed them, their spending power is disproportionate to their size. With a higher-than-average household income, the demographic has a combined spending power of $2.4 trillion.

This will only grow over the next two decades, when Baby Boomers’ wealth is expected to transfer over to their Gen X children. In the US alone, this is expected to put a collective $84 trillion (€78tn) into the pockets of Gen Xers.

Some Gen Xers (aged between 43 and 59) are now parents and grandparents, and are most likely to buy premium confectionery and sweet treats in bulk unlike their Generation Alpha teen counterparts​, for instance, who have less money to spend.

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Cadbury's reinvigorated its Dairy Milk variety in May 2024 with retro packaging

No more novel ideas?

With sweet sellers bringing marketing campaigns to global Gen X audiences that center on nostalgia, could this be because we’ve simply run out of truly innovative colours, flavours and textures?

According to a confectionery marketeer, this doesn’t seem possible. “If we’re to believe the whimsy of the confectionery world presented in movies like Wonka​, I don’t think we’ll ever run out of new colours, flavours, and textures,” says Huntly.

Having endless ideas for new confectionery doesn’t mean we’re not missing out on something, though. “We also have to add experience,” says Huntly. Finding, engaging with and selecting a sweet treat is more than how it tastes and looks. They’re important, of course, but occasion eating is a big trend for a reason. “Sometimes products become more than what we consume, but also how​ we consume [them],” says Huntly.

Confectioners are tapping into this with immersive store interactions, tech-led brand engagement opportunities like QR codes, online stories and digital worlds as well as new flavours and formats. “Product development isn’t always about creating something new; sometimes, it’s about bringing it to the audience in new ways,” adds Huntly.

Gen Xers really value nostalgia

“A quick online search and you’ll find Reddit forums, social media posts, and other conversations of consumers reminiscing about their favourite candy,” says Candace Huntly, Founder of SongBird Marketing Communications.

Looking at Gen X attitudes to leisure activities, as part of its recent Generations Now and Next 2024-2025 report, Future Laboratory highlights the one big trend that won’t go away: nostalgia. For the demographic born between 1965 and 1980, it all comes down to tapping into these childhood memories for many brands. “Nostalgia is one of the most powerful tools a marketer has when connecting with their audience,” adds Huntly.

Hitting the nostalgic sweet spot

Nostalgia is particularly big in sweets, market research provider Mintel highlights.​ In the UK, 76% of consumers are attracted to sweets reminiscent of childhood. It’s a similar story in Canada, too, with three-quarters of confectionery consumers preferring the chocolate and candy brands they grew up with. In Germany, 67% of chocolate shoppers like to eat the same chocolate products as they did as a child, too.

Familiar flavours are also comforting, with 2 out of 5 German consumers interested in flavours that remind them of their childhood.

And looking at demographics, there’s none more eager to see nostalgic launches and returns than Gen Xers. These shoppers actively want brand and product revivals that capture their childhoods and younger years.

Speak to Gen Xers' loves and loyalty

Nostalgia marketing aims to interpret the decades gone by rather than relive them, the US Chamber of Commerce reports​. However, this form of reminiscent marketing has only been used in between 1% and 4% of ads in recent years. So there’s a big opportunity for confectionery brands to appeal to consumers’ childhood memories.

So, what is the message for confectionery brands trying to appeal to Gen Xers? “It’s not about creating something new,” says Huntly. For brands wanting to cater to the Gen X demographic, start-ups and multinationals can lean into what’s already popular with these shoppers but add a modern twist. “It’s about tapping into nostalgic flavours that feel authentic and reflect lived experiences,” adds Huntly.

Leaning into the brand loyalty that big players have built over decades as household names is also a tried-and-tested way to connect with fans. For smaller producers, capturing the flavours, formats, confectionery segments, and pop cultural references that resonate with Gen Xers has the potential to appeal to their interests and spending power.  

Sweet revivals

Hi-Chew creates new Dessert Mix range with nostalgic flavours and campaign

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The nostalgia-inspired Hi-Chew Dessert truck

In June, soft candy brand Hi-Chew became one of the latest sweet names to tap into nostalgia, launching its Strawberry Ice Cream, Key Lime Pie, and Candy Apple chewy candies as part of its Hi-Chew Dessert Mix flavours collection.  

The campaign transported confectionery consumers back to the dessert parlour era of the 1970s, famously portrayed in the cult classic film Grease. As part of its marketing campaign, the brand brought its Dessert Mix Truck, featuring a retro dessert parlour, to New York.

Cadbury reminisces as its celebrates 200 years

Global chocolatier Cadbury’s reinvigorated its Dairy Milk variety in May 2024 with retro packaging housed in memory bar boxes. Partnering with UK charity Alzheimer’s Research, the launch was promoted with nostalgia at its core to tie in with the brand’s 200th anniversary.

Cadbury’s also revived its 1990s chocolate bar, Top Deck, in June. In its original formulation, bringing its milk and white chocolate variety back is another way the brand is celebrating its milestone year, tapping into nostalgia and connecting with Gen Xers to build brand loyalty.

Rol-a Cola returns to where it was born, 30+ years later

In India, the Rol-a Cola confectionery brand, huge in the 1980s, has made a resurgence onto the nostalgic-led comeback scene. Its Mumbai-based owners, Parle, first introduced its bite-sized candy to Gen Xers, giving them a taste like the famous fizzy drink Coca-Cola in chewy confectionery form. In its first year back, Parle anticipated the product would make up 10% of its overall turnover.

Although available in Africa and the Middle East throughout its hiatus, it was discontinued in other markets. Spotting the opportunity to appeal to Gen Xers’ nostalgia, social media was an easy and experimental way to gauge consumers’ interest. Launching its #BringRolaColaBack campaign, the brand set an ambitious retweet target of 10,000 to see if consumers were really interested. They reached their target, and Parle reintroduced its Rol-a Cola to new and existing audiences.

Freia connects the nostalgia of chocolate and home

Norwegian chocolate company Freia launched its promotional ad, emphasising its tagline “Et lite stykke Norge” (A little piece of Norway). With the Scandinavian brand’s roots front and centre in it messaging, the advert’s storytelling centres around nostalgia, joy and simplicity.

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