3 Inspiring Examples of Improbable Brand Comebacks

On a recent episode of the Speaking Human podcast, we talked about eBay’s attempt at brand rejuvenation. Yes, we know eBay is still a billion dollar brand. But it’s also a brand whose consumer perception has become a little bit old and creaky (not to mention overshadowed by Amazon).

Our discussion about eBay’s bid for a brand comeback led into a conversation about brand comebacks in general. More specifically, we asked the question: Can a brand come back from the edge of irrelevance to become relevant again? Does it ever really happen?

Our answer: Yes. But not often. It typically requires a brand to take a different approach and make new inroads with audiences. If a brand can figure that piece out, and they have a name people know and trust, it’s possible to become a contender again. After all, everyone loves a good comeback.

3 Examples of Big-Name Brands That Returned to Relevance

Here are a trio of big brands that have successfully scaled the comeback mountain…

Pabst Blue Ribbon Reborn as Hipster Beer

1. Pabst Blue Ribbon

Pabst is a brand that dates all the way back to 1844. But the brand’s heyday was the late 1970s. At the time, 18 million barrels of Pabst were sold a year. Fast forward to 2001 and that number drops all the way down to 1 million barrels. Pabst had become a shell of its former self.

But in the early 2000s, new leadership took over at Pabst. And with that new leadership came a new effort to reconnect with consumers. The first task: Find out who was still drinking Pabst and why. What they discovered was an audience of “early hipsters” who liked that Pabst sat outside the mainstream. This was not a Super Bowl beer brand, and for a certain audience that reputation had value.

Instead of trying to shift this brand perception, Pabst embraced it. It also helped that the brand/customers moved away from “Pabst Blue Ribbon” or even “Pabst” to the much cooler and easier-to-say “PBR” (as in “PBR me ASAP”). Using sponsorships and low-key marketing efforts, they pushed sales of Pabst back up to 6 million barrels per year (as of 2013).

Today, Pabst has become the hipster beer of choice. It has incredible recognition and positive perception for a “cheap” beer, and prominent placement in bars across the country. Even as the craft beer trend has gained steam, Pabst still has a niche.

Polaroid Lives On with Snap Touch

2. Polaroid

An American company founded in 1937, Polaroid had a peak revenue of $3 billion dollars in 1991. For a good chunk of time, Polaroid (along with Kodak) was one of the brand names in cameras. Most people of a certain age fondly remember shaking Polaroid photo paper as they waited for it to develop.

The key benefit of Polaroid cameras was their immediacy. They may not have given you the best pictures, but they gave you pictures right away (or after a few minutes of photo shaking anyway). No dropping your film off at the drug store and waiting days/weeks for them to get developed.

Then a funny thing happened: Film was no longer the quickest, easiest, or cheapest way to get pictures. The rise of digital cameras essentially left film in the dust. And Polaroid was one of the brands left behind with it. The brand filed for bankruptcy not just once but twice in the 2000s.

But in recent years the brand has taken a different approach by both embracing innovation and nostalgia at the same time (you can get more of that story here). Products like Polaroid Pic-300, Cube, ZIP, and Snap Touch (pictured) allow for the instant printing Polaroid is known for while being packaged and styled to fit in the now.

As a result of their efforts, Polaroid has carved out a place in the modern world with younger generations.

Old Spice a Brand Reborn

3. Old Spice

The Old Spice brand dates back to the 1930s. For anyone who grew up in the 80s or 90s your memories of Old Spice are probably the smell of your dad or your grandpa. You may even remember the white and grey glass bottle the cologne came in.

That brand perception worked for much of its history. Until it didn’t. Until it become the scent of the old and the young moved away from it. By the time a hotshot brand called Axe came along, Old Spice—which was already thought of as an outdated brand—appeared even more outdated in comparison.

But in the 2000s, the brand made a remarkable comeback by (1) developing a new line of products, (2) changing its packaging, and (3) taking a bold and very different marketing approach. That last thing may have been the most important.

Old Spice adopted a humorous marketing style that nods to its manly history while also bringing the brand into the now. The brand’s 2010 Smell Like a Man campaign featured “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” commercial, which was a smashing success (it currently sits a 54 million YouTube views).

Today, Old Spice remains a top brand in the category with marketing content that regularly goes viral.

5 Other Big Brands That Came Back

On the brink of oblivion, these brands managed to turn things around in a big way…

1. Marvel

A big name in the world of comic books, Marvel fell on hard times in the mid-90s racking up debt. But a risky move to produce their own films in 2005 yielded huge dividends. As a result, Marvel is one of the biggest brands in the world right now.

2. LEGO

LEGOs are a staple of childhood. But by the early 2000s the brand had grown stale—and nearly went bankrupt. Streamlined operations and licensing deals helped rebuild the brand.

3. Apple

A big name in the 80s, Apple had a rough time in the 90s. That is until Steve Jobs returned to the company and the iPod, iPhone and iPad transformed the brand into one of the most beloved in the world. Apple is probably the greatest brand comeback story of all time. 

4. Converse

First a popular basketball shoe in the 70s. Then a cool grunge shoe in the 90s. Then a fading relic on the brink of bankruptcy in the early 2000s. Nike bought the brand in 2003 and revived both its image and its revenue.

5. Vinyl

Vinyl hasn’t really changed. It’s just come back into vogue. Sony recently announced they will be making records again. Sometimes things just come around again. Like a record, baby, right round round round.

 

Listen to our full podcast discussion of brand comebacks: