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Nostalgia is the secret sauce of social media’s attention economy, but it is harder to pull off than you’d expect.Edward Regan/The Globe and Mail

Dan Guadagnolo is an assistant professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

The Hudson’s Bay Company’s relaunch of the Canadian discount brand Zellers comes at an opportune moment for the retailer. First announced in early 2021, the rollout arrives just as rising interest rates have undermined Canadians’ buying power, and right as millennial consumers hit yet another patch of nostalgia – this time for the nineties.

Nostalgia has proven itself a durable social-media force, especially in Canada. Media outlets, such as Retrontario, alongside endless social-media history accounts, have successfully mined eighties and nineties Canadian culture for their platforms’ content.

But relaunching a nostalgia-driven brand is very different from managing one. Hudson’s Bay is taking a digital-first approach with the Zellers revamp. This means that they are going to have to figure out how to make the brand work online, where it is stripped from millennials’ experiences of going to the store in the nineties and oughts – and directly competing with the online businesses that pushed the chain to bankruptcy in the first place.

Hudson’s Bay might just find that nostalgia marketing is harder to pull off than expected.

This marketing approach of nostalgia is well-trodden in the Canadian retail landscape, to be sure. Tim Hortons and Canadian Tire have long grafted themselves onto our national conversation through messaging strategies that speak to an idyllic and abstracted experience of Canadian winters and childhoods spent in chilly hockey rinks.

Social media has made this type of nostalgia – once relegated to finite television ad campaigns – a permanent fixture. With endlessly shareable bits of vintage content, platforms such as Instagram and TikTok have made it easier than ever for us to collectively reminisce over the Canada of our childhoods. Everything has become clickable and monetizable social-media content: from which retired doughnut flavours Tim Hortons should bring back to old jingles for Ontario Place – even Zellers mascot Zeddy the Teddy.

12 Zellers stores are now open in Ontario and Alberta. Here’s the full list of new locations

Zellers’s particular position in Canadians’ collective imaginations makes for an interesting case of nostalgia marketing. Long before the arrival of Walmart, Winners and other discount retailers to Canada, Zellers was the de facto outlet for new Canadians. Families like mine who lived in satellite suburbs of Toronto went there regularly. Perhaps ironically, many millennials never actually shopped at Zellers – their parents did the buying. But memories of being greeted by the iconic red “Z” and grabbing a late breakfast at the Zellers diner remain signposts of a weekend morning well spent.

But while nostalgia sells online, is it sustainable in person? The few bricks-and-mortar outfits that are planned are essentially pop-ups – installations that will be housed within Hudson’s Bay stores exclusively in Ontario and Alberta. Branded as “in-store experiences,” these new mini-Zellers stores position affordability as chic. This is a great irony given Zellers’s discount model, where their “lowest price is the law” slogan stood in contrast to the higher-end department stores of the time such as Sears, The Bay and Simpsons. Like Loblaw’s popular No Name campaign in 2019 – which saw Toronto’s Union Station wrapped in the brand’s yellow/black colour scheme and a themed clothing line that rebranded discount shoppers as “haulers”– affordability can be milked for engagement. However, this tactic only survives as long as the firm does not raise prices, as we’ve seen after the end of Loblaw’s much-advertised (and now rightly pilloried) price freeze pivot this past January.

Although Hudson’s Bay has put a great deal of effort into crafting an exciting narrative around the return of Zellers, the company will need to figure out what, exactly, the brand’s bricks-and-mortar outlets are going to offer. What will the new Zellers look like three, six, nine or 12 months down the line? If the brand is to emphasize affordability, it cannot remain a pop-up within the Bay, where prices are well above what consumers expect from the Zellers brand. And the heyday of the strip mall, which once featured Zellers as an anchor store next to other defunct brands such as Consumers Distributing, are long behind it.

Nostalgia marketing presents further challenges in that it encourages people to scrutinize what happened to the product or service being revived. The Bay chose to wind down the Zellers brand in 2013, using it as a liquidation warehouse until the brand was shuttered at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. A collateral outcome of Zellers’s return may be the reawakening of memories of lost jobs and dying suburban hubs in addition to feelings of nostalgia.