How Ocean Spray, NFL embed nostalgia in TikToks to tap ‘culture-defining’ moments

Capitalizing on ephemeral moments can be tricky for brands to finesse, especially for those still finding their rhythm on TikTok, where user-generated videos often go viral overnight and escalate into memes or trends that marketers want to be part of.

The platform’s ease of discoverability has compelled brands across categories to embrace it and work to wedge themselves into “culture-defining” conversations taking place there by weaving in elements of nostalgia. The key to establishing a strong TikTok strategy centers on understanding the app’s nuances and tapping into its community of users, panelists from the NFL, Ocean Spray and Arby’s explained during a virtual South by Southwest session this week.

“It’s about finding your personality and your ethos, and not trying to do something that you’re not,” said Sandie Hawkins, TikTok’s general manager of U.S. global business solutions. “Being able to maintain the realness of those moments is really what drives the community to be involved. That takes brands being able to take risks and jump on these trends.”

The NFL in 2020 looked to elevate its presence on TikTok and soon saw the value in nurturing fandom through nostalgic sports clips and not shying away from the comments section. In early December, the NFL got wind of a video by two middle schoolers tossing a football in slow motion, set to Bill Withers’ “Just the Two of Us.” It immediately jumped into the conversation, directly engaging with users through comments on the post. Soon, teams and individual players were following suit.

“There was such a strong response that we wanted to amplify it further,” said A.J. Curry, the NFL’s senior manager of social content. “Nowadays, commenting on somebody’s video is the same as if a player [were] to toss you their gloves after the game or throw you a football after they score a touchdown. It’s a really awesome opportunity to have this one-on-one connection with something you love so much — and in our case, that’s football.”

The video has since racked up about 67 million views, according to Curry, leading the NFL to strike a deal with the two teenagers and co-produce a national TV spot, illustrating how UGC and influencers are becoming integral to brand creative.

Blending in nostalgia

While Curry attributes some of the buzzy video’s success to her social team joining the conversation without hesitation, a blend of several marketing trends helped to boost the feel-good content’s reach.

“It was very clear by the comment section as it kept growing that nostalgia was really the driving factor for its success,” she said. “People loved seeing two kids getting outside, having a perfect day playing catch with their pals. This nostalgia was the kind of thing that reminded you why you love football in the first place.”

Nostalgia is a significant part of the NFL’s TikTok approach, sharing highlights of old gameplay from previous decades. The method is clever in that it appeals to multiple age demographics, blending the digital preferences of social-savvy Gen Zers and millennials with sports content that older groups may remember seeing live.


“If I’m seeing a video formatted the exact same way that’s posted on other platforms, and I didn’t like it then, what’s to say I’m going to like it now just because it’s on TikTok?”

A.J. Curry

Senior manager of social content, NFL


Ocean Spray in recent months has embraced a similar attitude toward weaving nostalgia into TikTok content, the company’s Senior Manager of Digital Precision Marketing Melanie DiBiasio detailed during the SXSW panel. In October, the beverage brand teamed with creator Nathan Apodaca after he posted a clip of himself skateboarding to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and sipping from a bottle of Ocean Spray Cran-Raspberry. The video helped the 1977 song chart again and has since drummed up more than 80 million views, suggesting why a number of public figures, creators and companies including Ocean Spray have moved in to capitalize on the buzz.

“… Especially during the time when the video came out, people were starting to feel COVID fatigue and look for something to make them feel good,” DiBiasio said. “Just the feel-good sensation of [Apodaca] riding the skateboard with that song was really nice, and it ties into who we are as a brand.”

The beverage co-op was not on TikTok prior to Apodaca’s video striking viral gold, but it has since focused on using the platform to boost brand awareness among younger consumers and remind them of Ocean Spray’s 91-year legacy.

“We evoke a sense of nostalgia. A lot of people remember their parents and their grandparents having Ocean Spray cranberry juice or cranberry sauce as a pantry staple,” DiBiasio said. “I think the combination of factors of the song being nostalgic and our brand having that nostalgia for a lot of people helps to make that connection again.”

‘Don’t make ads’

Since October, Ocean Spray has adjusted its entire marketing strategy to ramp up its presence on the platform, partaking in fan conversations and sharing videos by other creators, per DiBiasio. The response to Apodaca’s viral hit over the past few months illustrates TikTok’s enduring memetic qualities, where users will re-create or engage with popular clips that are boosted by the app’s algorithm.

Several features, including duets and hashtag challenges, have grown more appealing to brands in this way, as they urge fan involvement and the creation of branded content tailored to the social platform — tying into the platform’s creative ethos: “Don’t make ads, make TikToks.”

“If I’m seeing a video formatted the exact same way that’s posted on other platforms, and I didn’t like it then, what’s to say I’m going to like it now just because it’s on TikTok?” Curry said. “The best way to stand out as a brand on TikTok is to fit into the TikTok community and use it as an opportunity to make a different type of content that can strengthen your relationship with fans.”

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