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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Few baby boomers are thrilled at entering their 50s and 60s, and the treats of their youth can bring a lot of comfort. "We've seen a trend toward all things nostalgic," says Kirk Stephen, brand manager for Cadbury-Adams USA (www.ilovegum.com), Parsippany, N.J. "There was strong appeal for our historic gum brands -- Beemans, Black Jack, Clove -- in the marketplace when we first re-launched them as a promotion in 2003. Due to high consumer demand, we re-released them again in 2004 and 2005. In 2005, we replaced Clove with another retro brand, Adams Sour, in cherry and apple, two of its original flavors."

Cadbury-Adams understands the lure of the past. "We continue to look for opportunities to provide our consumers with the brands they love, and we will consider relaunching limited editions as the time is right," Stephen adds. "The key is tapping into that experience to help recall good memories of an earlier time."

It's best to wear kid gloves when tampering with an established brand. "With such strong historical equity, it is difficult to remake vintage brands. However, when we relaunched these gums, we improved the original formula and chew texture, providing more consistent flavor." Stephen cautions, "Processors should try to stay true to the original product as much as possible, offering improvements such as extended shelf life and enhanced flavor profiles that don't take away from the original intent of the product."

In addition to flavor and texture changes, the Adams gum packaging graphics got a facelift. "The primary message to consumers is, here are the same brands you remember from your childhood, they're back again for a short time so buy them now! We never positioned them as new," Stephen says.

To bring these gums back to life, Cadbury-Adams tied into a "consumer overlay program." In 2004, the company commissioned pop artist Burton Morris to create art for a line of exclusively sold posters, then tied the relaunch to the 135th birthday of modern chewing gum, invented by company namesake, Thomas Adams.

Earning new bread

While most of the brands we've discussed have been revitalized by new and big corporate owners, some nostalgic brands are being nicely maintained by their originators.

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With 321 years in the baking business, the Matthaei family, makers of Roman Meal products, might have the longest known track record for product success.

Tacoma, Wash.-based Roman Meal Bread Co. (www.romanmeal.com) still is owned by the Matthaei family. Bread-making for the Matthaeis can be traced back to 1686, in Marburg, Germany. Henry Matthaei moved to Kansas City, Mo., from Marburg nearly two centuries later, in 1872, and set up an American version of the family's Old World bakery.

When Henry Matthaei's son relocated to Tacoma, he purchased a small cereal company from medical doctor Robert Jackson, who in 1912 invented Roman Meal Hot Cereal, a blend of wheat, rye, bran and flax, based on the diet of Roman centurions. Roman Meal bread was born when the cereal mix was added to white bread to make it more healthful. Eighty years later, Roman Meal bread still enjoys strong sales.

Maintaining the brand was effected by partnering with bakeries all over the U.S. and, by the 1970s, internationally, with partner bakeries in Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Guam and Bermuda. Roman Meal was one of the earliest brands to franchise in this manner.

The recent whole grains revolution ushered in another opportunity for Roman Meal. "Roman Meal has almost 100 years of whole-grain heritage," notes Todd Kluger, director of marketing. "It is one of the top brands associated with whole grains, and has a history rooted in health and wellness products." The company recently launched a line of 100 percent whole-grain, all-natural snack bars. They contain no refined sugars, corn syrup or trans-fats, and each 200-calorie or less bar provides 16g of whole grains and 5g of fiber.

Strategies Roman Meal follows to keep the brand relevant and growing, according to Kluger, include "creating healthy whole grain products today's knowledgeable consumers are looking for" and "developing products that 'live' in other categories beyond bread, while still creating new bread varieties."

The company also stays tuned to its demographic. "We have a target market of women aged 50-plus," says Kluger, "and we focus on them through brand-building activities such as sponsorships, magazine, radio and online advertising, as well as online communities. We focus on staying dedicated to creating relevant new products, building our reputation as a whole grain leader, focusing on our target market and supporting our licensed bakery partners."

Sometimes, the revitalization of a new brand can completely change the company direction. Bush Bros. and Co. (www.bushbeans.com) Knoxville, Tenn., is famous for baked beans. Yet the company started out 99 years ago as a processor of canned tomatoes. Bush Bros. still produces more than beans, and its products held the market as regional favorites, expanding piecemeal into different parts of the country for the next eight decades.

But in 1993 the youngest Bush brother, Jay, became company spokesperson in regional ads. Over the next two years, the company expanded into the Northwest and, in what turned out to be a marketing coup, brought Duke, the family dog, into its ad campaigns. The combination of expanded distribution and the award-winning "Jay & Duke" ad campaign shot the brand to No. 1 in its category nationally, where it remains a dozen years later.

Keep things simmering

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You don't have to be Andy Warhol to see the cultural importance of a brand. Campbell's has kept its iconic core product line simmering for six generations.

How does 128-year-old Campbell Soup Co. (www.campbellsoup.com) keep its classic brands relevant in the minds and lives of consumers? "I think it starts with really understanding and respecting that our consumers relate to our brand in a deeply emotional way," explains John Faulkner, director of brand communications for the Camden, N.J.-based company. "Then, there's making sure we don't take advantage of that emotional connection or take it for granted."

Even with dozens of new product launches yearly, Campbell makes sure it maintains focus on its icons, such as chicken noodle and cream of mushroom soups. "From a business standpoint, we can achieve this with unrelenting attention to our key corporate strategies," says Faulkner.

Faulkner describes the company strategy as comprising four parts:

  • "One, we expand our icon brands within simple meals and snacks -- this means we do not compete in the soup category, where we hold the major share, but rather we compete against a universe of simple meal options, such as pizza, hot dogs, mac and cheese and fast food. This helps us better position soup versus our competitive set, and we look for ways to expand and innovate our brands in this broader competitive set.
  • "We trade consumers up to higher levels of satisfaction centering on convenience, wellness and quality. We're making our products more convenient via pop-top lids and microwaveable cups and bowls, plus make them easier to shop for in the store.
  • "We are focused on wellness initiatives as never before. Soup has always been considered 'wholesome,' but this year we reformulated 32 soups with lower sodium (via) natural sea salt. We're continuing to enhance the nutritional attributes of our soups.
  • "Finally, we have done a lot of work to enhance the quality of existing products through (methods such as) cold-blend and aseptic technology. We are convinced the premium segment of the soup category has growth potential, and we can deliver against consumer expectations for premium-quality soups."

Like all things, brands have life expectancies. Some should go gentle into that good night, but others deserve a longer life, even if it means some medical interventions. If older brands continue to resonate with consumers or trigger some warm nostalgia, they're worthy of a formulation update and a packaging face-lift. Add the right marketing push and the brand can win another generation or three of solid sales.

Note to Marketing

Campbell Soup is a 19th-century brand with a 21st-century insight into the value of marketing -- both general advertising and linking up with social causes. "We believe our brand maintains its relevance with great advertising and associations consumers care about," says John Faulkner, director of brand communications.

"We partnered with Kroger Co. to offer special 'pink label' cans of chicken noodle and tomato soups to support breast cancer research with donations. We also have the 'heart check' on our line of Healthy Request soups and supported the Go Red (heart-health awareness) effort. In February we built innovative associations with the NBC game show Deal or No Deal, where we auctioned off contemporary Campbell Red Dresses for the charity.

"We also worked closely with G. Clotaire Rapaille (an internationally renowned expert in 'archetype discoveries and creativity' in market research) to understand how and why our consumer emotionally connects with Campbell's and respect that association. We brought back an old TV spot -- 'Snowman' -- because it perfectly portrayed the classic Campbell's story about coming out of the snow and having a warm bowl of Campbell's soup waiting, thanks to Mom."

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