YOYO Brands: What we can learn from brand resurgence

[Note: this article first appeared in BHM BIZ, Nov. 2016]

Pop quiz: what do the following brands have in common – Adidas, Birkenstock, Old Spice, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Levi’s, Marvel Comics, and Lincoln? Answer: they’re all relatively old, (some of them very old), and they’ve all experienced a recent resurgence in popularity. Bonus question: which two of these are not like the others? We’ll get to that later. But first, let’s talk about brand resurgence.

Brands come and go (some more than others). Take Birkenstocks for instance. Believe it or not, the Birkenstock brand traces its heritage to 1774, when Johann Adam Birkenstock was registered as a “vassal and shoemaker” in the church archives of a Hessian village. The iconic shoes with their contoured cork soles, however (our frame of reference for this brand) first arrived in 1964 as an orthopedic sandal. Since that time, the Birkenstock brand has waxed and waned in popularity on an almost predictable 10-year cycle. A yo-yo brand. Its most recent revival can be traced to the debut of Celine’s 2013 Spring Ready-to-Wear collection during which a furry version of a shoe that was once the preferred footwear of the flower child could be seen on the runways of Paris.

Levi’s is another prime example. In the sixties and seventies, Levi’s were the only jeans. Those of us who harken to those times wore the Levi’s bell bottoms until the hems came out and they dragged behind our feet, tattered testaments to our love for our faded, careworn threads. But, in the early 2000’s, the 163-year old brand fell out of favor, with sales plummeting from a high of $7.1B to $4.2B – a heck of a drop for such an iconic brand. So, what brought it back? In 2012, James Curleigh joined Levi’s as global president for the brand and began to help engineer a resurgence. First they solidified their classic 501 jean, their “core,” introducing a thin-legged tapered version – the “501 CT” (custom and tapered). Additionally, they expanded the brand to include other garments that bespoke a lifestyle that was hip, down-to-earth, and just on the edge of working-class – a brand profile that greatly appealed to a wholly new millennial audience.

Maybe the best example of all is Old Spice. Now, here’s an aftershave that was used by the grandfathers of those of us who walked on the bottoms of our Levi’s. But look at what this brand has done in terms of appealing to a much hipper, younger audience. Leveraging grassroots marketing that focused on the deodorant sector, and employing the significant advertising talents of Wieden & Kennedy, Old Spice flipped from a tired aftershave brand that still collects dust on its ivory bottles in medicine chests of old men around the country, to a brand that competes strongly for the young, single-man market.

You can see this story repeated over and over. Lincoln has targeted a younger, quieter, affluent market with its brand. Marvel took its brand to the big screen, capturing an entire generation of people who have no interest whatsoever in reading comic books. Adidas mixed sportswear with fashion to attract a young audience for whom the Adidas brand was barely a blip on the radar. And there’s Pabst Blue Ribbon, now the go-to beer for a large sector of millennial beer drinkers. And all of these brands are currently in ascendance.

Which brings me to the question I left hanging at the beginning of the article. Which two brands are the outliers? Answer: PBR and Birkenstock. Here’s why – both brands have enjoyed their popularity because of organic change that was not instigated by the themselves. PBR is a protest brand – a brand that a slice of millennials drink in protest against the hipster fervor around craft beers. It attracted a new audience because of its low price point and the unpretentious, working-class patina of the brand. Birkenstock, on the other hand, may be one of the only autonomous yo yo brands out there. It sinks. It rises. It sinks. It rises. At its heart is the intrinsic comfort of this arguably ugly footwear. People just keep coming back to it. But the evident reasons for its periodic rise and fall are myriad and mirky.

But what of the other brands? What can we learn from them? This: they paid dear attention to their audiences. They saw their target market aging out. The saw their numbers dwindling. Then they did the work to make their brands relevant to a new audience. In fact, in the case of Old Spice, Proctor & Gamble decided deliberately to skip a generation and focus on an audience that was virtually unaware of the brand’s history. You might think of the process as brand gentrification – the brand becomes deteriorated, the audience in decline, and you replace it with a version that appeals to a younger audience willing to spend their money with you. So what can your business learn from this? It doesn’t matter whether you are a multinational packaged goods brand or a B2B service brand, there is no substitute for keeping your finger on the pulse of your target audience. Know how old they are. Know when they are migrating to different products, addressing different needs, going through the inevitable life changes we all experience. And then act accordingly. Change isn’t just healthy when it comes to outlasting your audience; it’s absolutely vital.