Hungarian rolls. Whether I’m in London, Laos, or Los Angeles, Hungarian rolls are a family tradition with “must-have” status at both our Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Hot out of the oven with a bubbly, gooey caramel sauce coating a fluffy sweet roll laced with cinnamon. Hungarian rolls are everything. They make my holiday meal special.

My mom first got the recipe in the mid-60s while studying at Purdue University. The rolls were served with Sunday dinner at her residence hall and my mom managed to get the recipe. They first graced our family holidays in the 70s and they were a big hit. Served alongside the meal instead of as a dessert, the intense sweetness was the perfect balance to the savory main and sides.

The responsibility for making the Hungarian rolls passed to me in the early 80s. I graduated from being under mom’s watchful eye to being able to whip up a batch on my own for friends at college and every place I’ve lived as an adult, including the UK. The recipe doesn’t always translate in other countries, particularly where metric measurement is used, oven settings are not Fahrenheit-based and/or yeast-based home baking isn’t a thing. That means you improvise, using your eyes, taste buds, sense of smell, and a little prayer to make sure it comes out the way you remember.


CEO Rob Volpe’s delicious Hungarian rolls Thanksgiving tradition throughout the years


And I’ve learned over the years how temperamental Hungarian rolls can be. One Thanksgiving we road-tripped from DC to South Carolina, with the roll dough in the back seat, rising. When we finally made the rolls hours later, they were hard like hockey pucks. Turns out nothing beats the air out of a yeast dough like the repetitive vibrations of a car along I-95 in the mid-Atlantic states.

Why do I continue to make Hungarian rolls regardless of whether I’m at a friend’s or in a foreign country? Yes, they are delicious, but it goes beyond that. Those rolls are a sentimental attachment to my childhood. Big gatherings of family, with love filling an already-packed room, and Hungarian rolls were the food that I attached to those emotions. Each bite may not correspond to a specific memory but it is married to an overall feeling. Hungarian rolls represent me, my family, and friends who have all celebrated the holidays together over the years. And every year I make them, it’s like I’m bringing that love forward and the sentimental attachment is reinforced.

While Hungarian Rolls may not be your thing, most of us have sentimental food favorites at the holiday table

When we at Ignite 360 go out on projects and talk with people about their holiday rituals, we hear similar stories of foods that anchor the table. It might be a dish that you’ve never cared much for or haven’t had as a staple at your family table. But when you get over your bias toward the dish, you’ll find that you too have similar gooey sentimental connections as other people. The food is merely a sensorial mnemonic device to unlock the warm emotional memories of the past that elevates your mood today. A bad memory connected to food, like I have with lima beans (a story for another time), is not going to evoke the same warm, fuzzy feelings.

All of this sentiment is another word for nostalgia. Packed with meaning, nostalgia can lift your mood and make you feel better according to the work of Dr. Clay Routledge of the North Dakota State University. When the goal of advertising is to influence human behavior and we are often driven by our emotions, it seems like nostalgia is the perfect feeling to tap into.

Nostalgia is rooted in trust and a feeling of security. You don’t long for the uncertain moments in your past, you long for feelings of being taken care of, feeling safe and secure. That’s the foundation of a relationship and an attachment. That’s what nostalgia links back to. Like the green bean casserole that shows up every year at Thanksgiving, there is an infusion of nostalgia in the dish and therefore it’s packed with emotion. And it’s not just at the holidays. Nostalgia transports you back to endless touchpoints in your past. Look at how Stranger Things takes us back to the 80s. Microsoft took us to the 90s in some ads for IE in 2013. And Crystal Pepsi, is a nostalgic product with nostalgic marketing. There is an attachment to the era which is then linked to the product being marketed.

In some companies, nostalgia marketing is given a bum-rap – it’s deemed old-fashioned. Square and un-cool. Tell some marketers their brand is nostalgic and they change the topic. When brands successfully execute on nostalgia, they tap into the emotional memory triggers and what those represent instead of a purely sepia-toned imagery of years past.  That default approach is superficial at best and misleading at worst - it signals to consumers that your product is part of the good old days being brought forward to today. And that’s not what people want. The values and emotions, yes, but not the days themselves.

The irony of nostalgia marketing is, as we move through this era of authenticity, the “old ways” that a grandparent did something or a brand they bought, has come back in vogue and yet old-school marketers shun the nostalgic emotion that goes with it. One of the tenants of authenticity is trust in the tried and true methods. That trust is validated by a sentimental attachment to a grandparent and that special feeling of safety and security that comes from the grandparent-grandchild relationship. So “If it was good enough for grandma, it’s good enough for me,” is how the consumer thinking goes. Beneath that is the trust in the person who loves you unconditionally. It’s not just a trust in the wisdom of elders, but in their love as well.

Marketers need not be afraid of nostalgia

To get a fresh take on your brand, explore the sentiment behind nostalgia with some qualitative investigation. You can start by being an armchair researcher yourself this Thanksgiving. Ask everyone at the table which dish makes it Thanksgiving for them. Then, ask these 3 follow-up questions if you want to learn more.

1.  “What are some memories you have of this dish?”

This will help you get at some context of how the dish came to be a favorite, what people and situations are associated with it. To go a little deeper, ask one of our favorite probes: “Tell me more…”

2.  “By having this dish here today, what does it mean to you?”

You want to be really open to what they might share here.

3.  “What would Thanksgiving be without this dish?”

I’ll be curious to learn what you hear in response to this question, it’s where the depth of the current emotional attachment will come out.

The answer to that third question will most likely provide the emotional richness and insight that you need if you were to write a creative brief for an advertising campaign around this nostalgia-laden dish. Go beyond honoring tradition. The dish is embodied with powerful, positive emotions like love and togetherness. It might also represent a personality trait that you’d want to promote. And if that dish happens to be made with your brand’s product, you may uncover a recipe for future sales growth.

What’s the dish that completes your Thanksgiving meal? And what did you learn from asking the 3 questions? Let us know in the comments or let's have a conversation on FacebookLinkedInTwitter or Instagram.

Happy Thanksgiving! Hungry for more insights?