Successful marketing through nostalgia in the food industry

With the loss of several beloved icons and the rise of countless debates on politics that has divided walls within our nation, 2016 has been a year that one could simply keep in the attic. On the bright side, there is wave of nostalgia for the better days past. The silver lining of this year seemed to be in the return of the food that we have grown up with. In yearning for those seemingly simpler and happier days, we also crave the food from that particular era.

The comebacks

That kind of nostalgia is hardly limited to this year – not in the Philippines, where decades-old favorites such as Tom Sawyer’s Fried Chicken and the Wendy’s Salad Bar made their return in 2014. Tom Sawyer Chicken, for those who remembered it, was a staple of the 80s. It was the place for the first casual date, or to bring a family out for a budget-friendly dinner that wasn’t just fast food burger and fries. Meanwhile, The Wendy’s Salad Bar evoked memories of where friends met up and hung out in the 80s and 90s, where they gathered around their Wendy’s meals and made the most of what they paid for with elaborate salad towers made of lettuce greens, macaroni, cucumbers, and jello cubes.

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Just last May, Whammos chocolate cake bar, an early ’90s baon favorites, created a buzz in the internet when rumors were confirmed that it would be making a comeback. Almost as soon as Whammos were first sighted in 7-11 convenience stores, they were bought in bulk and sold out. Fat Fingers, the twinkie equivalent of Whammos, would debut months later, but to little fanfare.

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Whammos and Fat Fingers were popular snack food fare for grade schoolers in the 90s, while candy such as Bazooka Joe bubble gum that was given out in children’s party loot bags mixed with that elusive White Rabbit milk candy with the edible inner wrapper. And how about being defined by a breakfast drink: were you an Ovaltine kid, or did you Milo Everyday?

The secret

In an industry that relies on setting and making the trend, what works in marketing through nostalgia?

The most obvious consideration – it has been spoken for. Avid foodies and buyers may grow older and have a wider range to choose from, but nothing beats the classics as they have long made those restaurants, dishes, or snacks, a part of their routine.

The catchy tag lines, scripts, and jingles, were also as good as having immortalized some of these food items in our consciousness. One only has to remember that scene from Pixar movie, Inside Out, where Riley bursts into the bubblegum commercial jingle. It’s why, whether they’ve seen it or not, “I remember yesterday…” is still said and sung to a certain tune by a certain set of millennials, along with the full spiel of “Dear Diary, Carlo sat beside me today…” for Purefoods Tender Juicy Hotdog. For some people, Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ is still “the Zesto song”. Even with mainstream food products that have never gone away, it’s that tagline, that jingle, that classifies them as a childhood treat that we pass on to the next generation.

The reality

But there is danger in being stuck in that golden era. The likes of Iced Gem Biscuits, Haw-Haw Flakes, and even Humpty Dumpty chips have never gone away, but they are no longer, and never will be, the top choice in today’s grocery list for snacks. They are still there, they are still in the familiar wrapping we’ve grown up with, but they haven’t found a way to be new or compelling enough to pass onto – unless the buyer has a specific story to that particular snack. There is also the battle of the store shelves, and these childhood favorites may be lost amidst the wave of more popular and newer products. In the case of Whammos and Fat Fingers, they  have updated their look for the present day and time, but in the years they’ve been absent from the stores, they have a lot more competition than they used to.

In marketing through nostalgia, there is a way in, but the challenge as always is to stay fresh and relevant for the brand to last. It doesn’t just end with being one’s childhood favorite. Is the product still good enough to stand out, or be sought after in a well-stocked supermarket shelf? Is it the kind parents would drive their kids out for? More importantly, will it be a central part of new experiences for the next generation?

At the end of the day, trends will always be trends: bounded by its time-restricted demands, fading from the brink of its fame once it is no longer as appealing as it were before to the people. But nostalgic food is timeless; regardless of how long it has been, it is and will always be in the hearts of many. Because no matter what innovations the food industry shed light on, it would always be emotional connections over flavorful satisfactions –– our palettes’ biases would always lean towards the emotional connections we have with our favorite food, just like how a scoop of your favorite cookies and cream ice cream would best Dairy Queen’s latest flavor edition as your company for your most sober moments.


For more essays on food trends and the food industry, click here.

Art by Claude Aranza