Julia Cuddy, a strategy intern at Camp + King is a Boston native, a University of Texas at Austin senior, and a lover of good breakfast tacos. Speaking to LBB, she explores how gen z resonates with brands that use designs and aesthetics from a ‘simpler time’, throwing it back to the 90s – or even just a few years ago… In a time of so much loss, change, and uncertainty, she delves into how this up-and-coming generation is redefining the timeline of nostalgia and what trends brands can utilise.
There’s no question that gen z has a tight grip on nostalgia. From Y2K fashion and accessories flooding middle schools across the globe to the TikTok trend showcasing young people’s parents in full ‘90s grunge, gen z tends to look at any era through rose-tinted glasses. This younger generation craves the sentimental longing of the past in fashion, entertainment, and trends – and uses it to seek comfort and connection. These styles and memories enable them to romanticise the past, escape, and cope with the often dark realities of today. For them, it’s a simpler time; before covid-19 remote learning and an economic recession that’s beginning to affect their entrance into the job market, before social media and online pressures became omnipresent.
Redefining the Nostalgia Timeline
Gen z is also changing what it means to be nostalgic and shrinking its timeline. Nostalgia, to gen z, can mean last summer or even just last week. Viral TikTok trends and Twitter memes recall elementary school memories, from the floor scooters used in gym class to the feeling of crouching beneath the rainbow parachute. Gen z was born in the early 2000s, and their nostalgia taps into relatively recent childhood memories.
One of the most obvious ways this nostalgic shift showed itself was during the height of the pandemic. In a time of so much loss, change and discomfort, people longed for familiarity and a romanticised past – no matter how recent that may be. Gen z shared online in June how they missed April and, in December, how they missed June.
On TikTok, we saw the lockdown impacting how gen z talked about nostalgia, with users reminiscing about trending music and dances the following March. One user shares how he felt “weirdly nostalgic” hearing old TikTok sounds as if each song was from “another life” – when it’s only been a year. Gen z-ers were looking for a digital bond when stuck at home and, within months, felt a deep emotional connection to those trends and songs.
Today, the shortening of nostalgia continues with TikTok accounts dedicated to nostalgia reflecting on trends of 2016 and songs from the summer of 2019. Recently, Wildflower phone cases reminisced on their past case styles from 2014 and brought back a Tumblr-era throwback to their collection. Influencer Addison Rae initiated the campaign, tweeting that she was ready for “a comeback.” Younger consumers not only want to buy products that spark nostalgia, but they’re eager to support brands that deeply understand the fast-moving cycle of reliving trends.
In contrast to gen z’s excitement, older consumers (cough cough, millennials) commented that the studded design and iconic floral look are coming back too soon. While it was for the brand’s 10-year anniversary, naysayers thought it was not enough time to make it back to the trend cycle. The changing definition of nostalgia plays out here as we see older generations uncomfortable with the idea and gen z consumers excited for the relatively recent past to come back to life.
Why Does this Matter for Brands?
Tapping into nostalgia’s ‘true’ meaning with retro styles and vintage fonts is still a precious tool for brands. However, the changing use of nostalgia is an insight that can be extremely valuable for brands.
While there’s a fine line between brands coming across as disingenuous and forced when tapping into microtrends, it’s essential to understand how microtrends play into this changing definition. People connect short-lived trends and styles to a specific time, and with the ever-changing online landscape, it feels like aeons of time have passed once the moment is over. Not only has a trend passed, but so has an era, making it feel nostalgic despite being just months or weeks ago.
Brands like Wildflower have tapped into a version of this, bringing back 2014 styles instead of their usual ‘90s-inspired looks. With product drops frequently selling out within days, the success is apparent. This new nostalgia is a space that resonates with young consumers, and if the brand voice aligns, the potential for brands to connect with gen z is strong.