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Nostalgia Just Might Cost You.

August 2, 2011

Wendy's Founder Dave Thomas The dictionary describes nostalgia as a sentimental yearning for the happiness of the past. As we all know, the “happiness of the past” can be a dangerous thing to ponder. It’s like when we find ourselves daydreaming about that old high school sweetheart or the days before marriage and then as time goes by we wonder why we aren’t as close to our spouses as we should be. Getting caught up in the past may cost you the present. Okay, I understand that my first example was a little grim, so I’ll give you a better one. Guys, think about that time when you reflected on how awesome your wife handled a particular situation or how good she looked the last time she wore your favorite dress. Automatically, you want to do something special for her, maybe even buy her some flowers. See, it cost you something then too. Well, in marketing it’s no different — not as serious, but no different.

Nostalgia is used by brand marketers to evoke positive emotions which usually results in a connection being made with that brand. The brothers Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick, say, “How do we get people to care about our ideas? We make them feel something.” Most recently Wendy’s and KFC have been trying to make you feel something about their brands and it seems to be working.

About 20 years ago, we first heard Wendy’s founder, Dave Thomas, touting his “hot ‘n’ juicy” burgers served on a kaiser bun. Today, nearly 10 years after his death, the new owners are bringing him back. Late 2010 in test markets and early 2011 in all other markets, Wendy’s introduced the first burgers to ever be named after Dave Thomas. They even use the phase above from the chain’s first advertising campaign. The new drive promoting Dave’s Hot ‘n’ Juicy Cheeseburgers is the first successful national ad campaign since Dave. “Why is this successful?” you might ask. Because there are a lot of us who still remember watching Dave on television and the transparency he portrayed. Dave kept it real and we feel something about that. And to tug on the heart strings of those who are extremely sentimental, they’ve gone and put the real Wendy in commercials. This all works because nostalgia — the good of the past — has to work along with the same good of the present — or at least the hope for good of the present — to truly be successful. Go back to my first example. Thinking about that old girlfriend or boyfriend while married doesn’t end so well. The one you’re thinking of isn’t the same one you’re currently with. But in the second example, the good of the present is the same as that of the past. This is universal. We don’t say, “Oh, I remember the days of watching the Steelers win with my grandfather. That’s why I root for the Lions.” See. It doesn’t make any sense. For those of us who were touched by Wendy’s commercials or by seeing Dave iconically with spatula in hand on the new cheeseburgers’ logo, we love Wendy’s because we once loved Wendy’s and the burgers are just as good today as they were two decades ago.

Kentucky Fried Chicken too is getting nostalgic — even more so than Wendy’s. KFC isn’t discreetly asking you to remember those good ole days, they’re formally asking you to do so. The king of all chicken chains is asking for your memories, videos, and photos of Colonel Sanders. Their goal is to keep the legacy of the Colonel alive for generations to come. Shirley Topmiller, the Colonel’s assistant of 28 years and participant in keeping the founder’s persona and good deeds remembered, said in a QSR Magazine interview, “We want to preserve all of these great memories before they’re gone forever.” Though the purpose is to memorialize Harland Sanders, I’m sure they’re hoping to sell some chicken in the process. ‘First, remember how awesome he was, then go buy a 12-piece.’ Just kidding.

In conclusion, we’ve learned that nostalgia works best when the subject of nostalgia is just as good today as it was yesterday. If the focus isn’t good, make it better. Notice that both campaigns came after a menu revamping. For Wendy’s it was Natural-Cut Fries, new Frosty items, and prettier salads in addition to the burgers; KFC got new sandwiches and Kentucky Grilled Chicken. I’m sure that pretty soon another chain will follow this same process because, well, marketers aren’t always original. Luckily, we don’t always have to be. But we must at least execute the tried and true strategies with excellence. Now go buy some chicken… and a really big hamburger.

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