Need to Rebuild a Tired, Old Brand? Quit Looking in the Mirror.

Brand equity doesn’t come fast or cheap. It is built over time, usually with outsized investments of cash and labor. Once built, it becomes a highly prized asset.

Throwing away brand equity is crazier than throwing away cash. It’s especially nuts to let iconic brands die because it’s almost always avoidable. There’s a proven approach for saving legacies. That’s what this little post is about.

Yet, legacy brands that took billions to build are regularly sent to their graves, mostly because the marketers were too busy looking at themselves to pay any attention to their audiences and the stories their brands tell to the audience.

If the ad industry maintained a mythical graveyard where old brands went to die, General Motors would likely be the official undertaker — a cautionary tale about what not to do with legacy brands.

“GM doesn't have too many divisions.
They have too little imagination.”

In the opening years of this century, GM shuttered four car brands — Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Hummer and Saturn. They were all iconic in their way. The longest-lived was Oldsmobile, introduced by Ransom Olds in 1897. Some 90 years later, the Olds Cutlass was America’s best-seller. But just a decade after that, GM killed it.

The common wisdom said GM just had too many brands. But Joe Sherlock, a writer and car enthusiast, got to the truth when he quoted an anonymous “Wall St. analyst” who said, “GM doesn't have too many divisions. They have too little imagination.” That echoed the sharp analysis of Maryann Keller, Wall St.’s most famous automotive analyst, who once blasted GM at an Oldsmobile dealers’ symposium for “generic advertising,” among other unimaginative sins.

GM’s car brands died when they stopped embodying special stories about their customers’ lives and aspirations — living the American dream (Oldmobile), being fast and badass (Pontiac) or helping the planet (Saturn). Instead, the car brands began to mirror GM’s internal view of its own automobiles: generic, manufactured commodities. And no real person could respond positively to that.

If GM is the worst-case scenario for legacy brands, LEGO is close to the best.

Famously, LEGO debuted in Denmark in 1932, grew hugely successful with its brick and minifigure play-by-building system in the ‘70s and ‘80s, saturated every store in the world, stopped growing, stagnated in the late ‘90s and was courting bankruptcy by 2003.

The book “Brick by Brick” and numerous press reports tell how LEGO first looked inside itself for a cure. It tried so hard to innovate its way back to success that the innovation — electronic characters and so on — careened beyond control. Products and costs multiplied. Sales did not. LEGO bled money.

"I think what LEGO learned from Star Wars
is the power of the story."

The turnaround came when LEGO took a hard look outside itself at the changed landscape of competition and the lives of its customers. LEGO noticed that its recent successes had been with products that came from licensing deals with Star Wars and Harry Potter. Space stories and wizards weren’t enough to turn the company around, but they indicated a potential path forward for the brand.

Wharton Professor David Robertson, co-author of “Brick by Brick,” explains LEGO’s renewed sales growth for the past decade:

“From the point of view of the kids, I think what LEGO learned from Star Wars is the power of the story. If you have this rich world with a story that plays out in that world, kids love to build that world and then play the story out in that world with their little minifigures and then rebuild it and try things in different ways. LEGO has learned to tell stories around the bricks, I think, very well.”

LEGO saw there was great storytelling power in its core elements — minifigures of everyday people, police stations, firehouses and ordinary homes, villages and cities; the staples of LEGO land. By 2014, with the release of “The LEGO Movie,” LEGO’s power to leverage its storytelling core grew exponentially. Sales, formerly stagnant, spiked up 25 percent in 2015 alone. That rate slowed in 2016, but only because LEGO cut back on marketing because it couldn’t meet demand. LEGO became the world’s largest toy company, passing Mattel’s still-floundering, steadily slipping legacy Barbie brand. 

Another great legacy brand transformation story comes from Beech-Nut Nutrition, founded in 1891 in upstate New York. Long a second fiddle to Gerber in the baby food business, Beech-Nut enjoyed a reputation as a more “wholesome” alternative to the market-leader’s mass-produced products. But Beech-Nut gradually lost its way, squandering share and reputation.

Two decades, one corporate scandal and three corporate owners later, Beech-Nut was mired in lackluster performance with me-too products. It was mid-2012 when the company’s newest owners, in a last-ditch effort, brought in a whole new executive team headed by Jeff Boutelle, a food-business leader and P&G graduate. 

“This is not baby food.
This is real food for babies.”

As Boutelle tells it, he found himself running “a 125-year old iconic brand that had deteriorated to a distant #2 value brand in a declining category.” Instead of remaining transfixed by Beech-Nut’s many problems, Boutelle and his team took a long hard look outside and spent time with their potential customers, millennial moms.

What they found was startling. Most of the category’s decline was because moms were abandoning the supermarket aisles to make their own baby food at home. “Homemade was the real competition, not Gerber,” Boutelle says. “Homemade’s not convenient or easy, but it allows moms to know exactly what their babies are eating and that’s really important to them.”

The new Beech-Nut team invented a whole new process for making commercial baby food — using only fresh and fresh-frozen natural fruits and vegetables and whole grains; eliminating virtually all additives, including added water; refusing to overcook. The result was pureed food with the fresh aroma, texture, taste, vivid natural colors and nutritional value of homemade. 

To tell their new story, Beech-Nut partnered with Story Worldwide, the agency I co-founded. Story had created a sub-specialty of turning around legacy brands, having reinvented the Green Giant for General Mills, among other minor miracles for CPG and tech clients. 

Working with Beech-Nut, we created a fresh marketing approach that gently told the “homemade” story. Acknowledging upfront that even the phrase “baby food” had become anathema to Millennials — signaling bland, overcooked mush — the launch campaign led with the message: “This is not baby food. This is real food for babies.”

From launch, Beech-Nuts’ new “naturals” line reversed the shrinkage in the category. The new food achieved market position in its first two years that had taken other “natural” competitors more than six years to achieve. Today, Beech-Nut is a growing $160 million business that has re-earned the “more wholesome” reputation of its legacy brand.

For legacy brands, managers continually face the binary choice between ignominious decline and miraculous rebirth. The trick to miracles is to stop looking in the mirror and look, instead, to customers and prospects for solutions.

NOTE: This story originally appeared in slightly different form on Story Worldwide's Post Advertising blog.