Artifacts: Our Disrupted Holiday Season Proves the Problem with Nostalgia
By Mike Fox
Brands that divulge holiday nostalgia generate a nice seasonal confection. Brands that build relationships within people’s memories generate something much more nourishing.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Well, let’s rephrase that for 2020. It’s the most wonderful time of most years. ‘Tis the season for celebrating our cherished traditions and as Dickens puts it, “when men and women seem, by one consent, to open their shut-up hearts, freely.” The holiday season has its way of reinvigorating love and unity.
Of course, in this particular holiday season, the greatest show of unity is to be as separated from each other as possible. Many of our traditions have been put on hold, or at minimum, downgraded. In the trappings of routine holiday activities, we take for granted that the cornerstone of our festive cheer is really just being together with loved ones. That aspect was always a given. In 2020, it’s the hardest part.
So, what holiday staples don’t have to change? What are we doing to get us through? The answer is largely what we’ve been doing all year already: stimulating any comfort of our pre-pandemic past that’s within arm’s reach. And that convenient stimulation is largely via a product that conjures a memory. This is the most wonderful time of the year for brands to inspire nostalgia.
Holiday-themed movies, music, games, and consumables have always aimed to provide pleasures that carry an emotional resonance with childhood. That affect is especially poignant in times of hardship and crisis, as people are most likely to feel nostalgic during moments of distress or negativity (McDonald Ph.D., 2020). This yearning is not a condition of Covid, but rather a matter of the human condition. We ache for the past. Brands have always helped to soothe this. How effective they are is contingent on how authentically they carve a place in their consumer’s nostalgia.
It’s one thing to trigger a memory, it’s another to live in one. That’s how brands go from holiday gesture to tradition.
Photo Credit: Pexels; Coca-Cola; M&Ms
This past Spring experienced a moment for heartstring ads and “we’re in this together” campaigns. But right now, we don’t want to be told that there’s beauty in celebrating the holidays through screens. After 10 months, there isn’t. Brands have been smart to respect our collective frustration. What we do want is the comfort of holiday pastimes in ways that are accessible. We know the brands who have had great success here, Coca-Cola chief among them. But the pandemic seems to be exposing the limits of nostalgic seasonal products. Their utility is delivering a diminished return.
We keep consuming, hoping — waiting for these things to satisfy our holiday cravings, and they do to a degree, but in 2020, their calories feel emptier. They’re often devoid of what gives this time of year true meaning.
That’s always been the problem with nostalgia. It’s both wonderful and cheap. It’s the polished version of a memory buffed so smooth you can barely feel it.
What fulfills us, what gives us our spirit and the reason the holidays matter, is people. It’s a needed celebration of togetherness and the embrace of the ones we love.
Brands that put people at the forefront of their activations, and not just their convenient but fleeting motivations, will make the best decisions for their audience, and also for themselves. Building relationships within a memory creates a greater connection with consumers. It’s not enough to merely appropriate one. The more your brand becomes an acting companion of a holiday tradition, the more you thrive in its evolution in good times and in bad. The alternative is simply transactional, and thus, expendable.
This disruptive year won’t change our holiday pastimes forever, but it might change our relationship to them. Brands should examine if they scratch the itch of a memory or have a presence in the foundation of one. The former comforts; the latter transcends. Traditions don’t endure because we long for the past. They endure because we choose to carry them forward.