Rejuvenating Nostalgic Brands

When a product is entrenched in the cultural history, revitalizing the brand can be a balancing act between rejuvenation and sacrilege.

By David Feder, Managing Editor

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Don't dare say the words "new" and "Coke" together in the halls of Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta. Even a couple of decades after the New Coke debacle, the brass still cringe when they hear those words together. The 120-plus-year-old company bounced back, fast and stronger than ever, from the New Coke debacle of 1985, but the lesson of how not to revive an old brand still stings.

Coca-Cola learned from its mistakes. Not only did it channel the "damage control" energy into a boost-giving rebranding for Classic Coke, the company has since transformed the Carnaby Street-era diet soda pioneer, Tab, into a new, non-cola energy drink for the chic-yet-retro 2000s.

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The company used this wisdom to free itself from a snag all soft-drink makers hit a few years ago, when health and functional drinks stalled soft drink sales. Under direction of its new CEO, Neville Isdell, pulled from retirement to add life back to the brand, Coke swam against the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" tide of teas, waters and other non-carbonated drinks and directed energy -- and cash -- back into the cola core.

Isdell's three-point strategy of marketing, new market development and horizontal brand extension worked. Within two years, Coke sales were bigger than they'd been in nearly 20 years, the global market was theirs (although competition from dozens of new "boutique" beverage makers keeps the sales struggle going in the U.S.) and Coke Zero sold more than 100 million cases in its first year.

Shooting for the moon

Of course, what's a cola without a Moon Pie? The chocolate-marshmallow-cookie treat turns 90 this year. Sales continue to climb -- by at least single digits and sometimes low double digits annually, according to Tory Johnston, vice president of marketing for Chattanooga Bakery Inc. (moonpie.com), Chattanooga, Tenn., -- which created the Moon Pie in 1917.

"We are growing. The real key for us, whenever we've had a lull -- and there have been some -- is coming out with new flavors, new packaging, new varieties, new sizes. We're in an impulse-driven category, so we need to stay fresh with consumers."

The challenge, of course, is to space such changes far enough apart to keep things interesting, yet close enough that one update can take advantage and sustain the energy of the previous one. Moon Pie does it by alternating big changes with small ones.

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Never what you'd call "hip," the chocolate novelty beverage shifted from Studebakers to skateboards to rejuvenate in the truest sense of the word.

"Our most recent big innovation is the Mini Moon Pie, introduced in 1999. Back in the late 1970s, the big development was the double-decker pie. These are the types of things that keep the brand moving upward," says Johnston.

There's another classic beverage associated with Moon Pies: Yoo-hoo. First produced at the beginning of the last century, Yoo-hoo was purchased at the beginning of this century by Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages (www.cadburyschweppes.com), Plano, Texas.

Yoo-hoo tastes as good as it ever did, but the youth market saw it as strange and old-fashioned -- if it saw the drink at all. Although tweaks were made to flavors, the biggest turnaround came from changing the image. Thus the shift from baseball to skateboarding, from Yogi Berra to Ozzie Osbourne.

Under the new ownership the brand has grown tremendously via expanded distribution. Along with multiple and aggressive PR campaigns (specifically geared toward the 20-and-under set), flavor additions (strawberry, cookies & cream) and nutraceutical components (added calcium), Cadbury Schweppes reinvented a brand that had never been "hip" and made it retro-cool. Most important for this success was the basic recognition that the old brand had millions of dollars worth of untapped potential.

What's old is new again

For some companies, keeping classic brands fresh is the main business. Kraft and its 2000 acquisition Nabisco (a company that traces its roots back to 1792 as the New York Biscuit Co.) constitute a veritable treasure trove of nostalgic brands. Premium saltines (1876), Philadelphia cream cheese (1880), Oscar Mayer meats (1883), Fig Newtons (1891), Maxwell House coffee (1892), Jello (1897), Knox gelatin (1898), Shredded Wheat (1898), Ritz Crackers (1901), Nilla Vanilla Wafers (1901), Barnum Animals animal crackers (1902), Arrowroot biscuits (1902), Triscuits (1902), Planters Nuts (1906), Toblerone (1908), Oreos (1912),  and the "baby" of the group, Honey Maid Graham crackers (1928) tote up nearly 2,000 years of brand recognition and solid sales.

But don't mistake Kraft Inc. for a museum. Although such a large body of its business involves these classics, the company has mastered the art of making them work through heavy investments in advertising and reformulation.

Another food giant skilled at keeping old brands alive and thriving is B&G Foods Inc. (www.bgfoods.com). The Parsippany, N.J.-based company owns such nostalgic trademarks as Underwood Deviled Ham, B&M Baked Beans, Vermont Maid syrup and Br'er Rabbit and Grandma's molasses products.

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The oldest U.S. trademark still in use holds its strong position by sticking to its narrow niche.

The Underwood Red Devil is the oldest registered food trademark still in use in the U.S., according to the company. Established in 1867, it's the identifier of a full line of canned meat products, including the iconic deviled ham." The Underwood line and logo became the property of B&G Foods in 1999 when they bought from Pillsbury Co.

Brandi Unchester, product manager of the Underwood brand, makes no bones about the nostalgia factor in bringing boomer consumers back to childhood favorites. "They say everything old is new again," she says in company communications. The "retro craze has taken off in the past few years as people celebrate the nostalgia of previous fads." Speaking of nostalgia, the company just bought the Cream of Wheat and Cream of Rice hot cereal mix brands from Kraft.

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