Reinventing Zombie Brands

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Originally published in Applied Arts Magazine, 2015

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A satirical look at the revival and reinvention of dormant brands

As we slouch into high summer, it’s difficult to take work too seriously. Time to chill, take the edge off. Save all the angst for later, when it’s cold outside. Right now we’re in a more playful mood.

So what if, while sipping a mojito on the patio, you get the brief to revive a dormant global brand? From Harley-Davidson’s resurrection in the ’80s as a rich urban boomer toy to the rebirth of the Volkswagen Beetle in the late ’90s, there is plenty of proof that brand equity can sometimes retain enough value to be brought back from the brink — or even the dead — to flourish once again.

But it’s not easy. The operational infrastructure behind the brand often requires a technological, organizational and perhaps cultural overhaul in order to cope with new market conditions. Products and services need to be re-imagined. Customers need to be re-engaged.

Because it is impossible to make serious recommendations about how to revive a dormant or struggling brand without intimate knowledge of its actual business, we have taken a wry, satirical look at how a few iconic brands could be brought back. Or not. So let’s have some fun.

 

AMTRAK 

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Diagnosis: Longissimus neglectus (too long neglected) If American domestic travel were the EU, Amtrak would be Greece. Life support was legislated in 2002; in 2006, the Bush administration tried (but failed) to withdraw it, hoping to force more folks into cars and planes. A once-great network has been woefully neglected. In 2015, beloved only by rail geeks, Amtrak is still alive, but in intensive care.

Prescription: Two remedies. First, revive the romance of rail by upgrading sub-branded routes like The Limited, the Empire Builder, the Zephyr and the City of New Orleans to deliver a deluxe “retro” customer experience. Second, designate key intercity routes as business routes and refit for high-speed rail, allowing Amtrak to compete with air routes. Jobs, speed and luxury. Win-win.

 

WHITE TOWER

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Diagnosis: Vincere in pugna (defeated in battle) One of America’s original fast food joints, started in the Depression era. Famous for its tiny, grey, five-cent hamburgers, its lily-white exteriors and its “Towerettes” (waitresses dressed like nurses). In latter years, when Americans moved to the suburbs, White Towers stayed downtown and became symbols of inner-city decay.

Prescription: Millennial upgrade. White Tower could retain the size but radically improve the taste of the Depression burger, using local ingredients and turning it into a more contemporary “slider.” Now that the economy has stalled and austerity is the new religion, WT could rebrand itself as the slider provider of choice in America’s hippest urban locales, from college towns like Ann Arbor and Austin to rustbelt recovery sites like Detroit and Cleveland.

 

PLAYBOY

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Diagnosis: Perditio testosteronis (testosterone deficiency) From a category perspective, Playboy is the Xerox of porn. But America’s original men’s magazine just hasn’t been able to keep it up in the midst of competition from its numerous successful imitators (who have been much more ribald and hard-core). Nor has it really been able to make the leap into digital space. Tough to be relevant when the brand’s most visible icon is a near-nonagenarian man in pyjamas.

Prescription: Playboy can no longer compete effectively on “skin” alone. What it does have, besides its archive of erotic photography and video inventory from Playboy TV, is a collection of long interviews with some of the most famous politicians, architects, film stars, writers and thinkers of the last 60 years. Playboy could repackage all these assets to appeal to the literate audience of boomer voyeurs that grew up with the brand. Throw in a few archival centerfolds and call it “slow” porn.

 

PANAM

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Diagnosis: Patricius ruinosus (fallen aristocrat) Pan Am, whose once-proud logo bedecked the fuselage of the “Space Clipper” in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, was the sexiest of global carriers. It brought the Beatles to America, it appeared in James Bond films, inspired a 2002 biopic (Catch Me if You Can) and, even as recently as 2010, a TV series.

Pan Am has been referred to as the “Ritz-Carlton” of airlines because of its legendary focus on a quality customer experience. It is still the most romanced airline brand around, even though it has not operated since 1991.

Prescription: In the age of austerity, a luxury long-haul carrier is sorely missed. The Pan Am brand’s ownership of deluxe air travel positions it perfectly to be reborn as the “airline of the 1 per cent.” All those Wall Streeters who are still pulling down huge bonuses, dating Czech supermodels and driving Phantoms need an airborne version of the Ritz-Carlton, if only to save themselves from having to ride business class on an aircraft full of 99 per centers.

 

KFC

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Diagnosis: Nimia chemia (too many chemicals) Poultry everywhere must tremble at the sight of the mustachioed old man in the white suit, with a red-striped bucket in one hand and an antibiotic-and-hormone-laden hypodermic in the other. Behind that avuncular smile lurks an obsession with operational efficiency which, while maximizing production, has ruffled the feathers of a much more health-conscious consumer.

Prescription: Don’t use a dead icon to revive a dying brand. That’s like shoving a fire hose down a drowning man’s throat. The brand is trying to change its image from that of an industrial-era chicken fryer to a company that is more in tune with the times. So it’s doing that by bringing Colonel Sanders back from the dead? It will be fun to watch how an old white man dressed like a 19th-century plantation owner brings the brand more in line with the times.

 

CITROEN D SERIES

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Diagnosis: Occisus nutrio pretioso (killed by high fuel costs) Styled by Italian sculptor and industrial designer Flaminio Bertoni and the French aeronautical engineer Andre Lefebvre, the DS was known for its aerodynamic, futuristic body design and innovative technology, including hydropneumatic self-leveling suspension and directional headlamps. When launched at the 1955 Paris auto show, 743 orders were taken in the first 15 minutes. The DS came in 3rd in the 1999 Car of the Century competition, and was named the most beautiful car of all time by Classic & Sports Car magazine. The car was produced until 1976, when production ceased due to the effects of the 1974 oil crisis (sound familiar?).

Prescription: Bring it back. Please! Though not to all tastes, this automobile is unlike any other. Its unique styling marks it as an original, which is hard to find in any category these days. No question this high-end automobile and its quirky, iconic design would appeal to anyone with an interest in standing out from the crowd. Like Patrick Jane of the TV series The Mentalist, a DS owner would be the kind of person you would expect to find in a café thumbing a copy of Albert Camus’ L’Etranger while his “Dayesse” cools its lovely heels at curbside.

We could go on like this for hours. But it’s too nice outside. Time to kick back and read about something besides business. Now disconnecting… wn