The Psychology of Retro Branding

Recent trends in marketing show that things are trending retro in 2020. Brand logos are being designed in styles that hearken back to the 1970’s, and “old school” coffee brands such as Folgers are doing especially well this year, compared to Starbucks and other newer brands. In Zenzi’s value-based approach, we would call this nostalgia-based trend a shift toward Security and Tradition seeking values, and a shift away from more progressive values such as Freedom and Pleasure.

Because Zenzi’s methodology is grounded in established psychological research, we like to look at the deeper meaning behind trends such as these. Research tells us that in times of anxiety and stress (hello 2020!), people tend to become more conservative and cautious. Why is this?

Terror Management Theory proposes that humans will go to great lengths to avoid thinking about their mortality. When people are forced to consider the possibility of death, they seek to assure themselves of their own worth and cultural significance. This can result in the development of conservative-leaning behaviors and attitudes, such as: 1) forming closer ties within one’s own cultural group, and thinking their group superior to others, 2) denying threats to one’s mortality, such as climate change or the current pandemic, and 3) increasing beliefs in religion and an afterlife.

This phenomenon can also manifest itself in business, as we’re seeing with the recent shift toward brands that provide comfort and nostalgia. So how should marketers react to this back-in-time moment we’re experiencing? Here are a few do’s and don’t’s:


·      Emphasize your brand’s history – Security and Tradition Seekers like brands with an established track record that they can trust. If your company is forward thinking and progressive, now may not be the time to play that up. Every company has a history (even if it’s a short one), so bring that to the forefront. However:


·      Do a full rebrand – As with everything, the pandemic will be over someday and your brand needs to be prepared for whatever comes next. So don’t go overboard in targeting Security/Tradition seekers unless you plan to be a Security/Tradition brand for the long haul. Stay true to your brand’s identity, but be mindful of the anxious social climate we’re living in now.


·      Fill a need –The goal of values-based marketing is to satisfy people’s psychological needs, which can change with the state of the world. For now, consider playing up the safety features of your brand, or suggest ways your brand can help bring families closer together. Be creative in finding ways to appeal to an audience that wants to feel safe.


·      Downplay your customers’ fears – People are loyal to brands that they feel understand them and their psychological state of mind. Don’t try to pretend that we are living in normal times or that people aren’t feeling anxious. Acknowledge that this is an uncertain time for everyone, and emphasize how your brand can help. Reassurance can go a long way in developing customer loyalty and connection.

These do’s and dont’s can all be incorporated into your brands visuals, logo, and overall aesthetic. For example, you might use comforting images of families spending time together as opposed to individuals pursuing their own personal goals. Or avoid darker, muted colors in favor of warm, brighter tones that convey a sense of safety and optimism. You can see some of these elements in play on Baskin-Robbins website, where they utilize a rainbow palette featuring lighter pinks and blues, and emphasize the family bonding aspects of the brand, steeped in years of American tradition.

These are just a few tips for applying psychology to branding in the current marketplace. At Zenzi, we specialize in helping brands make values-based connections with their customers based on established psychological principles. For more information, contact us!