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  Paul Earle The Real Reason Brand Revival Works
by Paul Earle
February 16, 2004

Everywhere consumers turn, it seems, a marketer is waxing nostalgic about yesteryear. From beverages, to sneakers, to detergent, to cars, to television sets, to baseball uniforms, much of today’s brandscape is being retrofitted — figuratively and sometimes literally.

“Old” has become “classic,” and classic has become cool. Unless hundreds of different marketers are all wrong, the conclusion must be that brand revival works. The question therefore becomes, why?

A number of amateur psychologists posit that brand revival works as metaphorical “comfort food.” Others suggest that revival works primarily because it is such a different and refreshing tack: the “hook du jour.”


While both theories have merit, both miss the main point. Brand revival is most valuable as a mechanism to help the marketer reduce risk and achieve a “head start” over newer branding concepts. Whether the marketer dusts off an old advertising slogan or brings back a brand name from dormancy, the essence of revival’s effectiveness is this: if it worked once, it can work again.

New brands and even new marketing campaigns can take years and megabucks to seed, and still fail more often than they succeed. The fundamental brand character and consumer proposition that helped a brand endure for fifty years, however, might help it endure for another fifty. Certain truths about consumer behavior remain just as evident in 2003 as they were in 1953.

Consider brand revival in the context of the theatrical production industry. While musicals don’t comprise a traditional consumer “category” like toothpaste or pet food, much can be learned by studying the way producers look to the future by looking at the past.

Broadway revivals expose one of the great fallacies of mainstream brand revival: that a brand coming back for its second run must be targeted at the same folks who purchased the brand the first time around. Of course not! Rogers and Hammerstein’s Showboat, for instance, first opened in 1927; does that mean that the production is only relevant to the “age 95 and older” demographic? Some storylines simply strike timeless chords. Producers may update the wardrobe and the set, and the score may be played with modern instruments, but the core “brand” of the show remains the same.

Now apply the Broadway framework to consumer products. Say that you’re a new product manager. Your R&D team can deliver a state-of-the-art product, so the challenge becomes one of naming and branding. You realistically have one chance to find a name and a narrative that works in the marketplace, and we all know how fallible focus groups and other concept testing measures can be. And ask yourself this: how much time and money would it take to build a mere 25 percent level of national awareness, and at least some credibility?

Existing awareness isn’t the only component by which the value of a dormant brand can be measured. A brand’s heritage can also serve as a proxy for experience, which can be compelling in a retail environment that is swamped by thousands of new product launches every year. A brand with a history can trump one that was dreamed up last week — even if consumers haven’t heard of either. As is the case with personal relationships, trust and legitimacy are key foundations of a consumer’s existing relationship with a brand. Gravitas counts.

Consider the value of a brand’s “experience” in the context of a real world hiring challenge, which has a lot in common with the choices a consumer faces when evaluating products. Say you’re considering two candidates for a job position you need to fill. You hadn’t met either before the hiring process started. Both candidates are equally as bright, hard working, and seemingly capable. Subsequent research, however, indicated that one candidate had a lengthy and relevant track record, and the second candidate had no track record. The experienced candidate has the advantage. What’s more, he or she might also be able to command a higher salary. Translated back to the brand world: better turns, higher price point.

The notion of brand revival raises interesting questions about innovation. Certainly, it is vitally important that marketers always thrive to develop product components that are newer and better. Real winners can be found on the curve that plots the new and the old; innovative product component, proven brand name. Consider a particularly successful revival case: the beverage Ovaltine. The Himmel Group reformulated Ovaltine for modern relevance, immediately countering perceptions that the brand was “old” (which, technically, it was). The negative stigma of “old” evolved into a positive label of “proven” in a heartbeat. The end result was an Ovaltine line that performed as well if not better than its competitors, with the added advantage of a deep reservoir of past consumer experiences.

A team of scholars at Northwestern University argued recently that practitioners of the discipline called “new product development” should also consider “old product redevelopment.” (see John F. Sherry et al., “Teaching Old Brands New Tricks,” Journal of Marketing, July 2003) Sherry challenges the long-held belief that brands have a “life cycle” with a clear beginning and an end, suggesting that certain kinds of brands may follow a “life circle” instead. Perhaps a good brand may hibernate, but it never really dies.

What’s next? A Number 1 single from Chuck Berry? Probably not, but we did see a “new” Beatles album not too long ago, which of course was merely a re-release of old songs. Classic branding is here to stay… and in fact may have never left.

   Paul Earle is president of River West Brands LLC, a Chicago-based company that acquires and redevelops dormant consumer product brands.

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