Gen Z and the nostalgia trend

Nostalgia is trending with Gen Z. To escape an overstimulated reality and the impending adult responsibilities, younger generations are seeking refuge in the past.

The word “nostalgia” comes from Greek, and is a compound word deriving from nostos, which means “returning home” and algos, which is “pain”. Nostalgia is a longing for the past and can be seen as an escape from the uncertainty of the future. The past is known, the past is certain, the past provides comfort.

Y2K (which, for our Boomer readers, refers to the year 2000) has risen in popularity in recent years. On TikTok, the hashtag #y2k has almost 10 billion views. Nostalgia has more than 51 billion. So, why are we looking back at times in which most of us Gen Zers were barely born?

Why Gen Zers are yearning for the past

Nostalgia is a form of emotional escapism that provides comfort when the present is uncertain. We are coming of age in a period of unrest at all levels:


“My biggest concern is the amount of turmoil that exists in the world, which is seemingly getting worse. We have one large existential crisis after another, and I think the challenge is everyone is exhausted with having to be resilient… we’re not truly able to solve the issues we’re faced with. Instead, we put a plaster on it and inevitably the problem comes back bigger. This unrest and turmoil then plays out in the financial markets, in the economy, in politics and this coupled with the climate crisis is making everyone more stressed than ever before.”
Matt, 29, UK, One Young World ambassador


A 2022 study published on the Journal of Neuroscience, found out that the sentiment of nostalgia can lead to weaker perceptions of pain and discomfort. Consequently, young people are looking back to a past that provides them an emotional escape from the problems of today’s world. Some believe we are yearning for a “simpler time”. Familiarity is key. According to Business Insider, Generation Z is seeking comfort and connection during challenging times, and “instead of turning to their own childhood memories, they’re seeking simpler pre-social-media times”. During the first lockdown in 2020, 37% of UK consumers were revisiting dishes from their childhood. Spotify reported a 54% increase in nostalgia-themed playlists being created in the first week of April 2020. But the current trend is not only about re-living the past, it is about reinterpreting it for the present times.

Nostalgia as a marketing tactic

In an attempt to understand product value, the Harvard Business Review created the Elements of Value, identifying the 30 components that drive a customer’s decision-making process. Among the Emotional needs, we find the element of Nostalgia.

Nostalgia marketing is a strategy used to evoke positive feelings related to the past, in order to prompt the purchase of products that remind consumers of the past. This technique is used to arouse personal memories, provide a sense of comfort and ease negative emotions. The negative outlook on the present is seen in contrast to the “rose-tinted” memories from the past. But nostalgia can be both used to evoke periods within the consumer’s own experience, and those that predate the consumer’s lifespan.

Nostalgia is trending

Gen Z are now longing for the past, especially one they have never experienced themselves, dating back to when we were not yet born.

So how are CPG brands navigating the nostalgia trend? We have here a selection of the best CPG examples, according to the TRFF team. Here is what we liked:

Coca Cola x Netflix Stranger Things vending machines

The company takes pride in “transforming Shoreditch into Hawkins” to celebrate the release of the third season. The space enabled visitors to play 80s gaming classics whilst drinking Coca-Cola zero sugar. Moreover, the first 800 visitors to the hidden upside-down world were given a limited-edition Coca Cola x Stranger Things upside-down can.

Burger King 1970s logo comeback

According to our Instagram poll, 71% of Gen Zers prefer the rebranding that draws on nostalgic 1970s graphics in a new way, versus 29% who preferred the former version of the logo. Launched in 2007, this product was taken off the shelves in 2012, and is now making a comeback with a “glow up” according to the brand. In perfect #tbt (aka, throwback Thursday) style.

Oreo Cakesters

Launched in 2007, this product was taken off the shelves in 2012, and is now making a comeback with a “glow up” according to the brand. In perfect #tbt (aka, throwback Thursday) style.

McDonald’s Halloween Boo Buckets

The first bucket debuted in 1986, and for several Halloweens, buckets replaced the Happy Meal’s cardboard box and toy, playing with different designs:

  • 1989: McBoo was joined by the white McGhost and the green McWitch.
  • 1992: The bucket lids got Halloween cookie cutters.
  • Between 2010 and 2016, the buckets featured pop culture tie-ins, including Mr. Potato Head, Minions, and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

Conclusion: Recommendations for CPG marketers

According to The Drum, Gen Z look ahead to a better world, while they look to the past for belonging and comfort. They experience a tension between longing for the past and trying to shape the future.

What can marketers do to navigate this dichotomy?

Embrace the tension, by reinterpreting the past through the lens of the present reality.

Familiarity should capture attention through the comfort of past memories, but it should be reinterpreted to appeal to Gen Z’s forward-looking attitude. Take for example the way 19-year-old TikTok creator Spencer Barbosa responds to the low-rise jeans trend. In the 2000s, this fashion trend was closely associated with flat tummies and a skinny body type. Spencer is updating this definition for our times, by showing that the Y2K fashion trend is for everyone. In this way, a nostalgic trend is reinterpreted through a more contemporary, inclusive lens.

Y2K marked the end of a century and the beginning of a new one. Don’t we all feel like we are facing a period of unrest that marks the beginning of a new era? I like to believe that, with us Gen Zers coming into adult life, we will be able to create new possibilities for a better future for us all.

Beatrice Soncina Beatrice Soncina