Using Nostalgia to Engage Millennials? Think Again

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Millennials everywhere are being chased by zombies.

I don't mean the roaming reanimated corpses from "The Walking Dead," but instead content, brands and products that have been brought back to life after their relevance has faded. Less dangerous than the undead, these brands test the appetites of millennials like myself for nostalgia to generate cross-generational buzz. Need evidence? Look to the success of media like Nickelodeon's 90's programming revival, Netflix's 80's horror tribute hit "Stranger Things" or beloved products returning from yesteryear, like Crystal Pepsi.

While there have been some massive successes by marketers leveraging nostalgic content, some signs suggest that millennials are growing weary of looking back, and instead yearn to forge a path forward.

It's not surprising millennials have been charmed by warm fuzzies of years past: we are now saddled with the realities of adult life, such as massive student debt, that many feel the Boomer generation simply doesn't understand. We're quickly cast as being "entitled" or not working hard enough when there is clear evidence that we are the most stressed generation -- in fact, we're eager to define our space in society. Throwbacks transport us to a time when we hadn't fathomed the responsibilities that lie ahead, when the world around us was literally simpler.

Meld memories with magic

In a sea of reboots, retools and reruns, the brands best leveraging nostalgia bring back what you fell in love with in the past, but promise new value that wasn't possible in their heyday.

I have vivid memories of summers spent assembling squads of Pokémon, both in the pockets of trading card books and vicariously through the pixelated avatar on the tiny screen of my Gameboy Color. Back then, we had to imagine roaming the world as a Pokémon Master. Now, we can step outside and find Pokémon on our street corner -- thanks to the modern miracles of GPS and augmented reality. Not only has Pokémon Go gotten players out of their basements and immersed them into their local communities, it has transcended what was a fairly solitary game to create spontaneous interactions between strangers on the same quest for Pokémon Mastery.

Pandering will probably prove fatal

Brands can use nostalgia to strike an emotional chord and create meaningful bonds, but if they don't hit a home run, it will fall flat and feel hollow.

It's no secret that wellness-savvy millennials have turned away from the drive-thru and toward fast casual options like Chipotle that include more wholesome ingredients. As many start families, they're also looking for healthier meal solutions for their children.

Aware of this, McDonalds recently announced their commitment to phase out artificial ingredients across their menu. The announcement campaign featured an overtly heartstring-tugging video spot following a young father and daughter experiencing parallel childhood moments of innocence in their respective eras. Both end with the simple indulgence of a Happy Meal, only hers is presumably healthier. McDonald's is keenly aware of their status as an iconic childhood treat, and is acknowledging demands of choosy young parents. However, millennials won't be convinced by sunny guitar strums when considering something as important as their child's nutrition.

Nostalgic media like this will likely be met with skepticism and signal that the throwback bubble may soon burst.

Surround us with sparks and simplicity

Brands that will resonate with millennials for the long haul will be the ones that recognize our determination to thrive personally and professionally, equip us for the uncertainty of the future and give us human-centered experiences. Technology will continue to be integral, but it should serve as a catalyst for human connection instead of replacing it.

SoFi (short for Social Finance) is a San Francisco-based lender that saw an opportunity to actively abandon the past to connect with and empower young people managing student debt. Knowing that debt is a main stressor for millennials, SoFi banished the expected stuffy and scary experience of personal finance. Instead, with a debut Super Bowl ad, they challenged us to imagine a "Bankless World." They embraced can-do messaging, stylish graphics and services like career coaching, personal branding advice and even dinner parties -- services one might expect from a professional organization.

While we millennials may get a quick fix from a stroll down memory lane, some brands should be left in the past to make room for ones that truly listen to our values, instead of telling us what those values should be. Just don't fault us for pausing at a Poké Stop as we find our way.

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