Return of the 1990s: how brands of that era could get a boost from Gen Z nostalgia
A view from Jidé Maduako

Return of the 1990s: how brands of that era could get a boost from Gen Z nostalgia

Some brands that were popular in the 1990s, such as Gap and Benetton, are now struggling. Might they get a little help from Generation Z?

Gap (pictured, above) and Benetton are just two of the many brands popular in the 1990s that are now struggling. But if they could talk to the right people about the right things at the right time, they could engage with a whole new generation. I’m talking about Generation Z and tapping into this young cohort’s passion for 90s nostalgia. 

Evidence of the struggle many 90s brands are now having is all around us. Gap is closing one of its two Oxford Street stores and is mulling becoming an online-only business in Europe. Benetton, meanwhile, is struggling for relevance with the recent launch of its late-to-market ecommerce push. 

At the same time there is ample evidence of an appetite among a new generation of younger consumers for 90s nostalgia.

For example, among those under 25, TikTok and memes are full of stars like Jane Fonda, Samuel L Jackson, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn who are 50 years and older. Meanwhile, “Y2K dressing” is the name now given to what Vogue recently identified as Gen Z’s throwback fashion movement.

In the US, we are already seeing some brands capitalising on the connection between the two. 

Younger generations’ passion for reruns of Friends, for example, gave a boost to sales of throwback crop tops and chunky hoes for American Eagle and Urban Outfitters. Gen Z’s interest in items including beaded bags, bows and tiny sunglasses has recast the 90s as the new vintage era

Closer to home, some brands are now starting to tap into this opportunity. Jeans brand Lee has launched a sustainable, size-inclusive denim collection in partnership with H&M that targets Gen Z with 90s styles. 

Meanwhile, 90s footwear favourite Kickers recently celebrated its 50th anniversary with a campaign featuring an old-school photo aesthetic. 

For brands such as Gap and Benetton that are under pressure, Gen Z’s 90s nostalgia is an opportunity too good to miss. To unpack this opportunity, there are a few things brands should consider. 

First, young people are idolising the 90s as a time pre-internet when there was no pressure to be Insta-perfect, because individuality was the goal and authenticity was a given.

Success lies in making this generation feel a part of this time again and letting them re-appropriate it.

There are Instagram pages full of nostalgic 90s throwbacks, showing celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp in their younger years. By tapping into such passion points, struggling heritage brands can build brand awareness and rapport through these channels and grow a community at the same time.

Second, this shift is part of a broader movement away from shallow influencers and towards human connection. There is a re-balancing in favour of integrity away from brands or influencers trying to be something that they’re not. Brands that show substance will win consumers. 

Embracing substance might involve highlighting your supply chain, supporting movements, revealing the journey of your products or showing behind-the-scenes content. Key here is to tap into Gen Z’s interest in and commitment to social purpose. 

This young age group is already putting tremendous pressure on brands to take action on social causes – climate change and the environment especially, but now also racial equality and social justice following events of the past year. 

Some 62% of Gen Z would prefer to buy sustainable brands, according to one recent study. But you can’t just have a manifesto – you have to physically do something and be seen to be doing it. It has to be baked into your DNA. You will be called out if you don’t follow through and people will vote with their feet.  

Third, working with Gen Z creators themselves is key. Brands should be building their own channels and working with creators on platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and YouTube.

Brands have been slow to adopt the likes of TikTok, because unless you’re built lean, you might always do what you know best and not think it’s worth taking the risk. 

But brands need to be more open and flexible in their approach to trying new channels and open to hiring the right talent to really pioneer their social media strategy. Young people need to hear young voices. 

Get on board with the likes of TikTok and nail the Gen Z appetite for 90s nostalgia, and some businesses might be able to return from the brink.

Jidé Maduako is chief executive of Yoke Network

Photo: Getty Images