What Marketers can Learn from Comeback Brands

An analysis of 5 brands that have made major comebacks recently & 10 recommendations for other brands looking to do the same

1. Pabst Blue Ribbon

Case Study

Challenge: Pabst Blue Ribbon, a 171 year old beer brand out of Milwaukee, WI, was a popular domestic beer brand in the mid-late 70s and early 80s (sharing its heyday with hard rock and leisure suits.) The American-style lager in the red, white, and blue can’s sales peaked at around 18 million barrels in 1977, making it the third highest selling beer brand in the U.S. at that time. Unfortunately, flash forward 24 years to 2001 and the company’s sales had dipped under a million barrels — 90 percent below its 18-million-barrel 1975 high. Like most cheap, domestic beer brands, PBR had focused its marketing efforts on its core buying demographic: 45–60 yr old men. However, this put them in direct competition with the marketing giants of Budweiser and Coors, which meant PBR was continuously finding itself scrambling to keep up with its competition’s deep pockets.

Opportunity: In the early 2000s marketing execs at PBR realized that their brand was being embraced by young “alternative people” — the same type of people that despise name brands and obvious marketing efforts. At a time when its competitors were spending all of their money on mainstream advertising (Super Bowl Commercials, NASCAR, billboards, etc.) Pabst decided to shift its focus to the decidedly anti-mainstream crowd. These consumers were already fans of the beer’s low price point and historically blue-collared association.

Outcome: PBR’s foray into anti-mainstream marketing — their sponsorship of indie music concerts, bike messenger races, and beard clubs — payed off. By 2012, Americans were drinking over 90 million barrels a year. By really understanding and targeting this niche consumer group, PBR differentiated itself from the competition and became the “hipster” beer of the 2000s. PBR within itself became a lifestyle statement.

Key Learnings

Rally the passion of fanatics: If you’re looking for fresh insight into what makes your brand great, there’s no better place to start than with the people who love your brand for what it is now. As PBR continued to struggle with its core target audience, the company realized that a new generation of “alternative” and anti-mainstream consumers were actually rallying around the brand because of its failure to launch widely successful traditional ad campaigns. This group loved PBR’s low price and relative obscurity — it was a beer they could sip on without knowingly “giving in” to mainstream consumerism. PBR’s deep understanding of this consumer group allowed them to effectively position and market their brand, and further fuel the fire of their fanatics.

Find your niche in current culture: As PBR attempted to make its comeback they ran the major risk of completely alienating its current fans. Had PBR’s marketing efforts come off as manipulative, inauthentic, mainstream, or honestly anything other than “grassroots”, they could have quickly lost all appeal with these consumers. However, when deciding what channels to use, PBR made sure to focus on street-level marketing; they traveled to cities like Portland, Philly, and Pittsburgh to sponsor local alternative events, like art gallery openings, skating parties, and bike messenger races. The result was a completely premeditated marketing scheme that came off as genuine and unplanned.

2. Polaroid

Case Study

Challenge: Between 2001 and 2009, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy twice; between 2005 and 2009 they went through a roster of six CEOs. A pervasive brand in the 1980s, 20 years later Polaroid had lost major clout with the youthful and artistic types it had once attracted in droves. With the advent of digital cameras and camera phones, it seemed that low-res, instant print cameras might go extinct.

Opportunity: As digital technology and social media continued to completely take over, 2010s consumers found themselves more and more nostalgic for old fashioned cameras and REAL photographs (ones you can hang on your fridge or send inside a greeting card). Polaroid capitalized on this trend by embracing its retro design and distancing itself from the sleek/brushed metal look that was so pervasive in tech at the time. Today Polaroid produces products that celebrate the company’s past and embrace vintage design, but also products that meet the needs of today’s consumers.

Outcome: Today sales of instant print cameras are on the rise; unit sales grew 166 percent in the 12 months ending September 2016, with more than 3.5 million units sold. The Polaroid brand is continuing to grow and diversify their product portfolio in hopes of capturing a whole new generation of customers and Polaroid fanatics.

Key Learnings

Pair nostalgia with innovation: When C&A Marketing orchestrated Polaroid’s rebrand in 2009, they knew that they needed to balance the classic appeal of the brand with the market’s demand for modern technology. A reliance on pure nostalgia would’ve produced lackluster products that are fun to look at, but offer little utility. On the other hand, a complete focus on innovation would have disregarded the essence of the brand. The company succeeded by combining these two strategies: they innovated in modern product categories (like digital printers and sports cameras) while retaining the vintage design and artistic appeal that had defined Polaroid from the beginning.

Capitalize on social trends: Polaroid has always been a social brand, it’s in their DNA. So, in the 2010s, as they were working their way back into mainstream culture, the company realized that Instagram offered the perfect opportunity to integrate instant film into the digital space. By 2015, over a million Instagram posts had already been tagged with the hashtag #polaroid and it was common practice for Instagram users to embed a Polaroid picture into an Instagram post. Polaroid capitalized on this trend with the #PRINTitFORWARD 2016 holiday campaign and a few experiential events which encouraged users to share their prints in this digital space. It payed off — Polaroid saw a jump of 152,000 followers during the following year.

3. Old Spice

Case Study

Challenge: In the mid 2000s Old Spice’s sales were way down (especially of its “Glacial Falls” deodorant) and the brand was facing new competition from younger men’s products, mainly Axe. At the time, Axe was a sleek, sexy, and modern brand, while Old Spice’s brand associations read “grandpa” or “elderly gentleman”.

Opportunity: Old Spice wanted to move away from its perception as a brand for older, more serious men. Instead they wanted to directly take on Axe by targeting young guys, aged 12 to 34. To do this, they needed a new attitude and a new name for their “Glacial Falls” scent. Their solution was “Swagger” — a word that oozes the type of laid-back confidence every young guy wants to have. With the help of Wieden and Kennedy, the company created hysterical creative work that capitalized on the emotional benefits and cultural relevance of the word.

Outcome: The results of the Swagger campaign, which included traditional print, TV/Youtube commercials, as well as an interactive website — Swaggerizeme.com — were astounding. Old Spice ended up quadrupling sales of their once floundering deodorant product. Two years later, a similar campaign for Old Spice’s bodywash led to a 27% increase in sales and allowed it to capture the category lead.

Key Learnings

Take a page from the competitor’s playbook (and do it better): When Unilever rebranded Axe in the early 2000s, they had one target in mind: nerdy and insecure young men. Inspired by this psychographics incompetence with women, the company positioned Axe as the deodorant that will “help you get lots of chicks”. Old Spice, recognizing that this target and brand positioning was lucrative, decided to engage the competition head on and go after the same consumers. However, Old Spice focused their positioning on the internal feeling of confidence, manliness and “swagger”, rather than the external motivation of getting women. The result was a funnier, less cringe-worthy rebrand with broader appeal (even women liked it!).

Recapture forgotten emotion: Every brand is created for a reason, a reason that is both functional and emotional. The problem is that brands often lose their original emotion as they chase product superiority claims. Before its rebrand, Old Spice’s marketing consisted mainly of product performance claims — even the name Red Zone rings “you won’t get sweaty even when you’re in a place that’s really hot!” With the launch of their rebrand, Old Spice moved from performance claims to a personal appeal to emotion. Comically blunt lines like “I am a man. I use Old Spice to make me feel manly” resonated with consumers and gave them a reason to choose Old Spice over other similarly functioning deodorants.

4. Patagonia

Case Study

Challenge: Founded in 1973 by Yvon Chouinard, a professional rock climber and environmentalist, Patagonia has always been focused on doing one thing: creating simple, high-functioning, eco-friendly outdoor clothing and accessories. The brand was extremely popular during the 90s, but its sales waned as cheaper, more fashion-forward athletic brands emerged in the early 2000s.

Opportunity: Thanks to the (somewhat unfortunate) fashion trend of Normcore which started around 2014, hipsters in Brooklyn and frat boys up and down the East Coast promptly scrambled to raid their parents closets to don vintage Patagonia fleeces. It’s what Patagonia didn’t do marketing-wise at this point that led to their success. Instead of using this resurgence in pop culture to regain momentum, the company instead focused on a “slow growth” strategy and reaffirmed their commitment to the environment over fashion.

Outcome: Patagonia’s commitment to its original ideals in the face of a changing consumer culture has led the brand to success. Since 2008, Patagonia has doubled its scale of operations and tripled its profits. Today Patagonia embodies what it means to be a lifestyle brand.

Key Learnings

Diversify and extend thoughtfully: Patagonia’s comeback coincided almost exactly with the emergence of the athleisure trend. The brand could easily have decided to diversify and enter into this quick-growing fashion category — a lot of other outdoor brands (like North Face) certainly jumped on the leggings and sweats bandwagon. However, one of the best decisions Patagonia might have made was to forgo entering the new category. In fact, their marketing goal during this time was to “limit growth”. They kept their focus on what they do best: creating insanely durable and well-made outdoor gear. This strict focus on high-end products created a cache like no other — Patagonia is made for people who hike the Appalachian trail and ski off cliffs, but it still appeals to those of us who don’t. Patagonia is a lifestyle brand that makes even the laziest couch potato feel incredibly cool.

Stay “woke”: Patagonia has always been a socially conscious brand with deep roots in environmental preservation. This dedication can be seen through almost everything that the company does, from product development to marketing. However, Patagonia doesn’t just commit to these ideals on a philosophical level — the company routinely takes action by responding to current events. For example, in Aug. 2017, Patagonia released a commercial (its first commercial in 44 yrs.!) that highlighted the need to protect America’s lands in response to President Trump’s request to review 28 of the nation’s national monuments. This kind of social awareness modernized the 45 yr. old company and attracted consumers who cared about similar causes.

5. Miley Cyrus*

Case Study

*If social media has taught us anything, it’s that people are brands too. In an age where every photo, Tweet, and LinkedIn post is locked away forever in a vault of internet immortality, people are increasingly being judged and evaluated on a set of curated associations that exist alongside the individual. This is especially true for famous people whose reputations beget their livelihood.

Challenge: In 2013, after the release of her album, Bangerz (the pop/hip-hop album that brought us “Wrecking Ball” and collabs with Nelly and Future) Miley was living the life of tabloid stardom. She was considered a successful, albeit eccentric, music artist and she was everywhere. However, after an infamously scandalous VMAs performance, a few too many wardrobe malfunctions, and some seriously eccentric Instagrams, Miley’s craziness clearly began to supersede her talent. Had fans reached crazy fatigue?

Opportunity: Having reached a limit on crazy, Miley decided to take embark on a months long “media-blackout.” During this time she quit smoking weed, got back together with her clean cut Australian boyfriend, and devoted herself to creating a new album and image. This break from media gave Miley the time she needed to create a new identity for herself. Her new album, Malibu was released in Oct. 2017.

Outcome: Aside from the popular single, Malibu, Miley’s new album hasn’t received rave reviews. However, the album has redefined Miley as an artist and as a person. The break from her former, more eccentric self has shifted the focus from her exploits to her music.

Key Learnings

Take a break if you need to: Ironically, the first major step to reinventing your brand might be to do nothing at all. One of the best things Miley Cyrus did for her “brand” (and probably for her mental health) was to take a complete break from the paparazzi and media. This recess gave fans enough time to forget about the “old Miley”, so that when the “new Miley” emerged it didn’t seem like a complete fraud — it was realistic that she could have matured and gained new insight on her personal life and music during that time. Switching from one brand message to another brand message too quickly can come off as inauthentic and deceptive. Time away from the spotlight gives a brand time to dissociate (at least partially) from negative connotations consumers might have.

Remember what makes you great: While Miley Cyrus is no Adele, she is a pretty decent rock-pop musician and she can be a captivating performer. Unfortunately, during her crazy Miley stage, the singer’s antics began to majorly outweigh her talent. At the time, this was good for getting a lot of social media reactions and immediate attention, but it wasn’t a sustainable practice. With the 2017 release of Malibu, Cyrus returned to her rootsy upbringing — with melodic, hazy anthems and tranquil lyrics. The album paints a picture of a new, mature Miley. Although there are mixed reviews on the quality of her new album, and the success of her new image, one thing is sure: the focus has shifted more towards her twang and less towards her twerk.

10 Recommendations

  1. Rally the passion of fanatics
  2. Find your niche in current culture
  3. Pair nostalgia with innovation
  4. Capitalize on social trends
  5. Take a page from the competition’s playbook
  6. Recapture forgotten emotion
  7. Diversify and extend thoughtfully
  8. Stay “woke”
  9. Take a break if you need to
  10. Remember what makes you great