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Retrobrands and Retromarketing
Today’s big brands are all rooted in the past. Tide, Coca-Cola, BMW, and even Apple are all connected to bygone decades. When these brands extend and use their existing brand name to introduce a new product or service, the past meanings and images that it invokes become an important element to be managed, understood, wielded, and shaped by managers. This short essay discusses and analyzes a form of brand extension strategy that has gained prominence, in which tired or even abandoned brands have been reanimated and successfully relaunched. Management will deliberately reach into the past and consciously seek to gain new value from old brands and the meaningful relationships they convey. Stephen Brown (2001) terms this a “retro revolution” in which the revival of old brands and their images have become an increasingly attractive option for marketing managers. Over the past decade, I have been involved either independently or with coauthors in a growing body of research that looks at how the past is consumed, valued, revalued, and managed, beginning with a study of the values and images of the Wal-Mart retail chain (Arnold, Kozinets, and Handelman 2001). Stephen Brown, John Sherry, and I define retrobranding as “the revival or relaunch of a product or service brand from a prior historical period, which is usually but not always updated to contemporary standards of performance, functioning, or taste,” seeing retro goods as “brand-new, old-fashioned offerings” (2003b, 20). Old brands retain value simply by being old: the value of nostalgia, the so-called retro appeal. There is also value in the communal or cultural relationships that the brand has built over its lifetime. Finally, there are values on an individual level that relate to the former two other values.
In a set of studies cutting across three different retro, “cult brand” products—the Volkswagen Beetle, Star Wars, and Quisp breakfast cereal—Brown, Sherry, and I have sought to explain the underlying principles of retrobranding and the way consumers responded to it (2003a, 2003b). The VW Beetle was a popular car associated with the 1960s era and hippies and also immortalized in Disney’s Herbie films, a series of four films originating with 1968’s hit The Love Bug (the series itself later updated and retrobranded into Herbie: Fully Loaded, a 2005 motion picture starring Lindsay Lohan). Star Wars is one of the most successful media franchises of all time. And Quisp cereal is an American breakfast cereal released in the 1960s using cartoon advertising created by Jay Ward, the creator of cult animation hit Rocky and Bullwinkle, and employing some of the same voice talents.
In each case, the entertainment connections of the brand have helped spur a type of residual and actual “brand fandom” that led to the possibility of a revival. In the case of the VW Beetle, this was the 1998 launch of the VW New Beetle. For Star Wars, it was the much-maligned 1999 prequel The Phantom Menace. For Quisp cereal, it was the quiet and limited redistribution of the cereal into select markets in the 1980s, after it had languished without support since the late 1970s. As well, Quisp’s fan-spurred and eBay-supported emergence in the mid-1990s marked it as the first so-called Internet cereal.
In further research at the Burning Man project that takes place annually near Gerlach, Nevada (Kozinets 2003), at the ESPN Zone interactive entertainment complexes (may they rest in peace; Kozinets et al. 2002), in people’s homes as they used computers and other networked information technology (Kozinets 2008), and at the American Girl Place and its affiliated locations (Kozinets et al. 2003; Diamond et al. 2009), we found the centrality of these historical and popular cultural connections. Whether we are talking about breakfast cereal, computers, cars, retail chains, motion picture franchises, sports bars, restaurants, dolls, or self-made theme camps in the desert, we cannot escape the endlessly thrilling and fascinating activity of the cultural dumpster dive. People, left to their own devices, will find and breathe new life into undervalued images, items, and brands.
This investigative work on retrobranding bridged Brown’s (2001) theorizing and retromarketing case studies with my ethnographic research on longstanding entertainment brands, their ongoing extensions, and the role of consumer culture and subculture in this process (Kozinets 2001). As well, the investigation sought to bring together research on popular culture with research on consumer and marketplace cultures. It deepened an exploration into the sources and implications of the convergence of fan communities with brand cultures.
A lasting finding of the research program is its delineation and explanation of the role of “the story” in the marketing (and remarketing) of brands (and retrobrands). Drawing on the work of cultural theorist Walter Benjamin ( 1973,  1999), Brown, Sherry, and I have argued that powerful brands—including those that are capable of being reanimated—possess their own detailed story structure: “Our study thus suggests that Aura (brand essence), Allegory (brand stories), and Arcadia (idealized community) are the character, plot, and the setting, respectively, of brand meaning” (2003b, 30). Retrobranding research thus builds on the idea that brand allegories are stories, narratives, or extended metaphors in symbolic form. Successful branding is successful world-building, and the world it builds can be a window into the brand’s own (often rosy-colored or stereotyped) past. Successful brand narratives will possess an almost utopian evocation of past worlds and past or present communities.
What propels this valuation? What permits a brand to become valued? Brown, Sherry, and I have proposed that there are six key characteristics that create value in sleeping brands and other properties:
• Dormancy is the starting point for revival. If King Arthur or Princess Aurora were not sleeping, they could not be awakened.
• Iconicity is the core of attraction. If the item was never important for a generation, a cohort, a culture, or a consumer, then there isn’t much to revive.
• Evocativeness is the element of animation. Can the item still summon vivid experiences, or have they died down entirely? Can the item inspire the necessary collective consumer embroidery to add value and to create more value, providing the cultural physiotherapy that will allow the just-wakened item to walk among the living again?
• Utopianism is the spark of imagination. Is there an astounding Gernbackian landscape, an Elysian vision, an all-together-now Better Place, that can be mobilized by the item? Can the item engender and evoke longing for something ideal (in retro, a past) that is satisfied somehow through some sort of consumption (even if it is the pristine and untouchable distanced consumption of the collector)?
• Solidarity is the principle of unification. Can the item link person to person, as Bernard Cova (1997) would insist that it must? Whether as cozy as a meeting of friends or as wide-ranging as a global online community, fictive and imaginary or concrete and in person, the item should offer a connection to other living souls and a feeling of belonging to a community.
• Perfectibility is the final piece of the puzzle and involves the search for the final piece of the puzzle. The brand must be indefinitely updateable, both technologically and ideologically, to assure its perpetual relevance to consumers who are constantly revising their own identities. (2003a)
After these six characteristic elements are met, the conditions for revival and the revaluation—as well as the addition of value by the efforts of the community—are met. Yet, behind these elements, there is also an inspiration: a motivation to find, to share, to dream, and to build on.
Shrouded, cloaked, and buried within the stories and histories must be something mysterious and strange, something that powers the connection and motivates the chase. “Antinomy, the final element of our 4As abbreviation, is perhaps most important of all, for brand paradox brings the cultural complexity necessary to animate each of the other dimensions” (Brown, Kozinets, and Sherry 2003b, 30). Antinomy, an irresolvable paradox at the heart of a brand, hints at the cultural complexity, ambiguity, polysemy, and open-endedness of the brand.
A strong brand will combine the opposing elements of a deeply meaningful product. Ice cream will convey lusty sexuality in the way it is eaten and hedonistically enjoyed, yet it will also evoke through memory and sweet flavoring the fresh innocence of youth and the purity of milk. An apple is both the good of a healthy food that keeps doctors away and the sick evil of an Alar-coated pesticide-ridden symbol of Adam and Eve’s fall from the Garden of Eden. (Do I need to mention the fervent love/hate relationship at the heart of the eponymous technological device brand?) The brand that can tap into these insoluble puzzles offers lasting engagement and meaningful connection that can persist through the decade.
Thus, the retrobrand is, at its core, animated by mystery.
Other, more recent research conducted regarding Mattel’s wildly successful American Girl brand finds the basis of its marketing lying in well-researched, moralistic, value-rich, historical stories to attach profound levels of complexity and moral meaning to the dolls, their clothing, and accessories. (See, for example, Diamond et al. 2009; Kozinets et al. 2003.) Each of the individual dolls in the American Girl pantheon becomes a storied brand containing its own rich Aura, Allegory, Arcadia, and Antinomy. Testament to the success of the dolls’ collective stories is found in the fact that the original doll-and-clothing franchise has had its brand extended into a successful magazine, a library of how-to books for girls, a set of made-for-television movies, and, most recently, a hit major motion picture release (2008’s Kit Kittredge: An American Girl). The deeper the story goes, the more the world-building and world-making that occurs, the richer the rooms of the imaginative mansion that both adults and children play in.
The key to consumer engagement and involvement seems to lie in the rich telling of tales, a story that, in itself, is certainly not new to Madison Avenue. The role of the story in fostering emotional connection with the brand looms large in accounts by experts and insiders such as Sal Randazzo (1993), Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson (2001), Marc Gobé (2001), Laurence Vincent (2002), Kevin Roberts (2004), Douglas Atkins (2004), and Alex Wipperfürth (2005). Advertising, branding, and marketing practitioners are continually working with the entertainment industry, developing and hybridizing new forms in a dynamic environment characterized by rapid technological change and the consumer-to-consumer interconnectivity of the Internet.
We see the results, as Hollywood remakes and refreshes old franchises just as old brands are continually extended and renewed. Alongside, popular consumer culture and fan culture merge effortlessly one into the other, their possibilities continuously expanded and technologically accelerated. Old comic book characters become refreshed into new motion picture characters—think of the Joker in The Dark Knight as a prototypical entertainment retrobrand. Characters such as Heath Ledger’s Joker become the basis for new action figures with Ledger’s face, new puzzles with his form, new trading cards and games in which his image of the Joker becomes the Joker (of this time, just as Cesar Romero was the chillingly antagonistic Joker of another, now bygone, era). The universe he and his cohorts inhabit also now engender transmedia, cross-product, and transbrand empires that reach from chewing gum packages and video games to their own wikis, alternate reality games, virtual worlds, and social network sites.
The example simply shows that the true retro revival is never over. This refashioning and revaluing, if successful, continues just as the gift continues to circulate—ever added to, never put down for very long. It may stop and rest, but it is ever subject to rediscovery. In our contemporary culture, the main source of energy and invention is in the past. And, in the moment of rediscovery itself, there is value.
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