It is said that brands are not owned by companies, but by customers. That they exist as an intangible bundle of perceptions, memories, associations and feelings in the minds of those who have experienced them in one way or another.
Customers certainly talk about them as if they were their own: my BlackBerry, my Burberry, my Mac, my Merc. But the reality is a little more complex. They are of course ‘owned’ by both their creators, who possess them as business assets, and by customers, who pay for them, wear them, eat them, drink them and play with them. But once they fall out of favor with customers, they very quickly lose their value as revenue drivers for the businesses that bring them to market.
They can get too comfortable and become complacent. They can lose touch with their core values, their customers or the context in which they operate. They then either get shelved as dormant intellectual property or sold off to liquidators, who try to squeeze out whatever value is left by selling off the remaining merchandise at bargain basement prices. Even the strongest brands aren’t immune to change.
Luckily, once-loved brands can also bounce back. Sometimes their owners see an opportunity in the form of a new market, or market segment that has not yet experienced the brand. As they assess the new environment, they find ways to reconnect with customers. They tell stories that trigger latent emotions. They draw on cultural trends, new media practices and product, service or marketing innovations. And let’s face it, everybody loves a good comeback story.
In these cases, the brand is resurrected and can enjoy a second life with a whole new set of customers. We recently did a study of over 30 comeback stories – an exploration and analysis of how and why well-known brands rise, fall and rise again. While there is no magic recipe there are certainly staple ingredients that contribute to successful comebacks.
What’s Old is New Again: Relevance in the Age of Nostalgia
The age of nostalgia has been written about ad nauseum. It is commonly linked to the millennial sense of irony: think retro Instagram filters and the resurgence of canning. To align with this sentiment, a few brands have revived historic taglines, logos, fonts and collections to connect modern consumers with a time and place once forgotten.
Take for example, Chinese bike manufacturer Forever Bicycle. As international competitors – and even cars – disrupted their cultural cachet, the company intuitively launched Forever C, a line of bikes inspired by the vintage Chinese postman’s bike, branded with the company’s 1950s logo and fonts. By referencing the brand’s strong roots in Chinese history and identity, the company connected a younger generation with the cycling culture of their parents and saw an immediate resurgence of their brand.
The Campbell Soup Company found a colorful opportunity to re-energize its condensed soup brand. In September 2012, the company celebrated the 50th anniversary of Andy Warhol’s infamous Campbell’s Soup paintings by launching 1.2 million limited-edition pop-art cans of condensed tomato soup. The Warhol-inspired cans struck a cord with millennials and the media.
Brands in almost every category tend to be obsessed with the 18-34 demographic. They will enjoy great popularity with one generation, go dormant with the next, and then come back to life with a third. The whisky or ‘brown’ liquor category is a great example of this. Canadian Club was the go-to brand for the Mad Men generation with their penchant for an Old Fashioned, Manhattan or Rusty Nail. Their boomer offspring, keen to reject anything that smacked of the ’establishment’, abandoned brown liquor in favor of other intoxicants. Nowadays, the millennial taste for all things exotic has breathed new life into their grandads’ brand and Canadian Club is booking record sales.
Some brands, instead of reviving themselves for a new generation, will leverage their heritage for a generation that still has vivid memories of it. Harley Davidson is the classic example. In 1984, the company was all but bankrupt, but it had a very loyal following – 75% of owners made repeat purchases. HD management leveraged this by establishing the Harley Owners Group – HOG, now with over 500,000 members worldwide – segmenting its products into four distinct lines, and targeting affluent males in their mid-forties who were previous owners. The customer insight was that the outlaw image of the brand would appeal to weekend riders in mid-life crisis. It succeeded wildly.
Comeback of the Core
Some companies have been deliberate about re-focusing on their core to revive what matters most.
Burberry demonstrated this when sales were tanking in 2004. In an effort to appeal to younger shoppers, Burberry had released ower-end items sporting its signature pattern, despite their established brand heritage, this over-accessibility eroded their image. One of the first steps in a brand resurgence involved going back to what Burberry was best known for, luxury fashion. The company scaled
back on their lower-end products, and in turn launched a new twist on a few historical designs as a salute to their 150 years in fashion.
Danish toy company LEGO lost strategic focus in the 90s. Ventures that included a theme park, a TV series and a line of off-brand action figures created massive debt. CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstrop re-focused LEGO’s strategy by selling off LEGOLAND and discontinuing unpopular toys. With the customers as compass, he put his designers back in touch with the adult fans of LEGO in order to keep new designs close to the company’s core values.
Even the most iconic brands are at risk of becoming tired or outdated in today’s fast- paced market.
Take the case of Gourmet Magazine. Though launched as the first and most prestigious food and wine publication, Condé Nast shut it down as readers were turning to the internet and the economy was contracting. Gourmet transformed its 70 years of competency in the print world into an immersive and interactive digital experience. The website and iPad application brought the ever-expanding collection of content back to life for loyal readers.
Arm & Hammer staged a turn-around when baking soda sales dropped by championing new uses for its hero product, form personal care to pet care. Built on the original core attributes of cleaning and deodorizing, the 150 year old brand not only turned sales around, but successfully extended into new categories: oral care and laundry. Revitalizing declining brands doesn’t necessarily require a re-invention. The Volkswagen Beetle is another classic example. Over 16 million had been sold by the early 70s, when the Beetle was replaced by the Golf and the Rabbit. Then sales plummeted and the company took it off the market. After sitting on the shelf for over 20 years, it was again launched to an enthusiastic market in the late 90s. Retaining its distinctive size and shape but slightly re-styled to appeal to a more contemporary buyer, the Beetle was a hit with twenty-something female first-time buyers. So what had been a compact challenger to the huge American land yachts of the 50s was resurrected as a retro ‘girl’ car in the 90s.
While context is king in all of these cases, a few simple and arguably timeless ideas emerge. To blaze a new trail forward, the brand has to look back. It can extend into new categories as long as it remains true to its core. And in times of constant change and increasing complexity, nostalgia has a special appeal. In the end, all of these have to achieve the same result: to make the brand relevant again. Without that, what was once great will just gather dust.
This article originally appeared in summer 2013, The Bounce Back Issue