You may not recognize the name Terry Malloy, but I bet you know his work:
I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum.
I’d like to apply “Terry Malloy” to brands, brands that have faded in popularity for any number of reasons including changing tastes, mishandled marketing or the relentless search for novelty*. While we have a name for brands fighting their way up–Challenger Brands–I can’t think of any meaningful names for brands fighting to keep from falling down. So I’ll enlist Marlon Brando’s iconic character from On the Waterfront.
Just to give a few quick examples, I’ll list some brands that enjoyed greater followings than they now have. Mind you, I do this without malice; I like some of these brands, which is a point I’ll revisit presently:
Notice the lack of Fresca? Fresca fans probably raided this Target’s meager supply already.
Aim relegated to the bottom shelf. Perhaps a casualty of the 3,000 SKUs of Crest and Colgate.
Any number of spirits brands would fit here; I just watched an episode of The Sopranos where someone mentioned that J&B was Anthony’s favorite Scotch
Step 1: Admit the problem
Perhaps the greatest challenge for Terry Malloy brands lies in fessing up to being Terry Malloy. Both client- and agency-side marketers work hard to reach positions of responsibility and, as a result, do not generally want to admit to problems in their kingdoms. In my experience I can remember only one client who admitted “the old gray mare she ain’t what she used to be:” Blimpie. In the mid-90s, Blimpie was still run by its founders, one of whom spoke openly about his business successes and failures. To his credit, he knew when he had lost it and made every effort to get it back.
Every marketer needs to look at her brand and, in the matter of all Presidential candidates since Reagan, “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Or fourteen. Or forty.
Step 2: Take a new look at old customers
Assuming that your brand still has sales, it stands to reason that somebody out there likes you. Spend time with your customers to understand what keeps them with you. If the answer is “it’s the cheapest,” then so be it. At least you’ve learned something.
There is, perhaps, a temptation to take this learning and simply go retro–to present the brand as it exists in the minds of former customers. However, I suspect that doing so limits the ongoing appeal of the brand. How Pabst can anyone drink before realizing that it’s swill?
Whatever it is that keeps fans with your brand, firm though few they may be, will serve as a launchpad moving forward.
Step 3: Contemporize
To turn William Gibson’s famous quote on its head, “the past isn’t gone; it’s just not widely distributed anymore.”
While expression changes quickly, bedrock values change less so. Almost no one can relate to Borax’s “20-mule team” strength these days, but we all want laundry soap strong enough to clean our clothes. Instead, look for ways to update the meaning of the brand.
200-year-old Brooks Brothers might serve as a great example of a brand that contemporized without really changing all that much in terms of product. It still sells essentially the same preppy polos and khakis that they always have. However, instead of relying on the Nantucket set for sales, they’ve basically remade themselves as merchants of high-quality, reasonably priced and completely safe office wear. They realized the same virtues that made them a favorite with the Groton crowd make them relevant to a much broader group of people today.
And if all else fails, be charming
Some brands just don’t make the transition to the modern world so easily, if at all. However, they can still diffuse the situation with humor. Arby’s has gotten a lot of mileage over its Twitter feed and quasi-feud with The Daily Show. Oscar Meyer still has its Wienermobile. And, dammit, Tad’s Steaks is still holding on, whorehouse moderne decor and all.
*I’m pointedly excluding brands that fell because of a failure to adapt to new technology, such as Kodak or Alta Vista. Dying technologies rarely enjoy more than a niche following and helping companies recognize technology shifts is a road well traveled elsewhere.
I am also specifically excluding Sears because…wow, where do I begin?