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The Year 2023, a Time of Marketing Nostalgia

Looking back on some of the most popular and successful marketing campaigns of 2023 it is easily noted that the year’s efforts failed to elicit descriptive terminology like highly creative and groundbreaking. Consumers experienced a period where social and economic concerns permeated every news cycle. While some hopeful optimists admitted that some challenges were beginning to moderate, few consumers felt financial relief. Marketers were challenged to create campaigns that overcame people’s malaise and motivated them to connect and make a purchase. When the sparkle fades on new communication technology designed to wow and engage sellers and consumers into action, what is a marketer to do?

Nostalgia is a powerful marketing tool, particularly in challenging economic times. Looking back to perceived easier times has routinely found favor among consumers who often gain relief from feelings of anxiety and social instability. The truth is that the ragged edges of any period in history are often softened by the passing of time, a fact that peddlers of all things from music to milkshakes artfully tap into every few years in hopes of revitalizing sagging sales or polishing a tarnished brand. It is a powerful ploy that often works, at least for a while.

The most noted marketing campaigns of 2023 sought to rebrand, refresh, or reposition some of the most iconic players like Pepsi, McDonald’s, Dunkin, and State Farm. It is interesting that such a broad range of industries would gravitate marketing efforts in the same direction, but it was engrammatic of the challenges encountered across industry.

At McDonald’s, the world’s best-recognized fast-food chain, creating buzz utilizing its stable of colorful and personable mascots is not an innovative or groundbreaking ploy, but last summer’s “The Grimace Birthday Campaign” had the venerable restaurant chain basking in purple. The Grimace campaign’s performance surpassed everyone’s expectations. The usual supporting character managed to achieve star status with his purple milkshake performance. Even some veteran promoters are suggesting that Grimace’s starring role could top all other mascots’ past efforts. The most engaging element of the campaign was a limited-edition purple shake that drove more than three billion views on TikTok. “Part of showing up authentically in culture means sharing the pen with fans so they can make the brand their own,” said JJ Healan, vice president of U.S. marketing, brand, content, and culture at McDonald’s.

Maybe the most successful marketing campaign of the year came from a collaboration between Mattel and Warner Brothers Studios. Barbie, the movie, set the famous but aging toy doll on a marketing world tour destined for new heights. Mattel and Warner Bros. “Barbie” movie was nothing short of a global sensation, generating $1.36 billion at the box office, with sales of the toy up by 25 percent after the film’s release. The marketing efforts’ success was realized by utilizing unprecedented collaboration between all partners who created “experiential marketing initiatives, providing consumers with unforgettable and exclusive moments.” The brand’s marketing team outperformed in an objective to think out of the box and utilize multiple digital channels and many traditional mediums like billboards, city monuments, and parades to reach a diverse audience and achieve a memorable impact.

Rebranding is a marketing strategy that is on the uptick, and 2023 saw Pepsi seeking to reidentify itself after decades of staying the course. Together, brand elements such as design, color, and logo are a visual identity of who a brand is and often what it believes. Nostalgia played a starring role in the cola’s campaign that featured decades-old collaborations and the resurrection of past commercials. “Each element is meant to celebrate Pepsi’s past in the service of building Pepsi’s future,” according to Jenny Danzi, senior director for Pepsi Trademark.

The reimagined Dunkin Donuts brand resurrected a relationship with Ben Affleck to produce a Super Bowl advertisement that featured the actor and director enjoying his favorite Massachusetts-based breakfast spot. The effort delivered both authenticity and light-hearted banter. In an effort to engage with younger consumers, Dunkin’ enlisted upstart rapper Ice Spice to name and promote a limited-time drink that blended the chain’s Pumpkin Munchkins Donut Hole Treats into its Frozen Coffee. “Connecting the brand to culture isn’t just about being trendy for the sake of it or for celebrity cache, we use these moments to keep Dunkin’ top of mind as a daily ritual, and to create affinity with the next generation of coffee drinkers,” said Jill McVicar Nelson, CMO Dunkin.

State Farm showed its ability to be in the right place at the right time with a timely partnership between Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift. State Farm’s Jake, the mascot, was positioned to take advantage of the hype surrounding the love relationship between the personable football star and the entertainment phenom in an October football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Travis’s Kansas City Chiefs. “The truth is, something like that only happens when you create the conditions for it, years and decades in advance,” said Alyson Griffin, head of marketing at State Farm.

For marketers, 2023 was a year to take a few steps back in time to gain success. At best we can agree that it was a time when something old was new again and it worked.