business

Old Brands, Renewed Appeal

Yesterday's familiar products get a fresh marketing jolt as businesses realize reviving them is easier than launching unknown names

By Pallavi Gogoi

Remember Spam, that mystery meat in a can? Does Popeye ring any bells? How about White Castle burgers? Maybe you're familiar with these products just from listening to your parents talk about the good old days. But chances are your familiarity will grow next year. Marketers are revving up the publicity machine to turn these darlings of yesteryear into 21st century stars.

Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and even Broadway are betting that many of these ubiquitous icons still retain some cachet. Witness the recent success of The Brady Bunch family reunions and the return of chocolate drink Ovaltine. Marketers know it's tougher to launch a new, unknown, and untested brand than to bring back oldies but goodies for a second act. "Marketers don't have to explain the brand, just build on latent appeal," says Drew Neisser, CEO of Renegade Marketing Group, a brand-marketing firm in New York.

Here are five old-timers that backers hope can make a splashy comeback in 2005 or continue their remarkable 2004 return:

Spam

The all-purpose lunch meat made by Hormel Foods (HRL ) has been the staple of dorm parties for years, but the 66-year-old brand is now getting a rehash. It's cool to eat Spam again in the West, much like it has always been in Korea and Japan, where it's considered a delicacy and given away in gift boxes. Product sales jumped 10% in Britain in 2004 after a marketing campaign that urged Brits to eat their Spam. And in November, a follow-up ad campaign reminded viewers that Spam "is still out there."

Better still for the meat, on Mar. 17, 2005, a new musical entitled Spamalot is set to debut on Broadway. It's adapted from the 1975 movie classic, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As tickets went on sale on Dec. 6, the first 100 delighted fans waiting in line outside New York's Shubert Theatre received a promotional gift of a limited-edition can of Spam. The flavor? Golden honey grail. The limited-edition product will be sold in February at select New York City retailers and also at the theater's merchandise store.

Popeye

From the '30s through the '70s, the squinty-eyed, pipe-smoking sailor with the funny-looking arms captured the hearts of children with his famous proclamation: "I yam what I yam." In 1980, his story hit the big screen when Robin Williams played him in a Robert Altman film. Through it all, Popeye has never stopped chomping on spinach to save his "goil" Olive Oyl from danger.

In 2004, the carton character turned 75 years old. To commemorate the occasion, the lights atop the Empire State Building in New York were spinach green in January, and Popeye celebrated Fleet Week with sailors in June. And on Dec. 17, Fox featured a prime-time 3D cartoon show entitled Popeye's Voyage: The Quest for Pappy. Publishing group Hearst owns the rights to Popeye and plans to build on the momentum generated in 2004 with further marketing and licensing initiatives. Watch for video games featuring Popeye in stores and on the Web in 2005.

White Castle

The little square burgers may not be selling as well as McDonald's (MCD ), but the brand has certainly become hip. Hip enough, at least, to feature in teen wear -- White Castle logo T-shirts have been selling furiously at upscale department stores such as Nordstrom (JWN ) and teen retailers like Urban Outfitters (URBN ). Launched in February, 2004, White Castle apparel has already chalked up close to $1 million in sales, says Larry Levine, CEO of Impulsewear, the apparel and gift outfit that manufactures and distributes the T-shirts.

Not familiar with White Castle? "It's the goofy place where you went to eat at two in the morning after [you were out late] partying," says Levine. The brand also got a lift from the movie Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, released in July, 2004. Don't expect clothes with this kitschy logo to get cheaper anytime soon. Levine plans to continue limiting the apparel's availability by restricting supply to boutiques and high-end department stores.

Old Spice

Yo-ho. Suddenly, teens are plucking this staple from their grandfathers' aftershave kit. Young lads are especially enamored with Old Spice deodorants and antiperspirants, according to studies and surveys by Nielsen and MediaMark Research. And marketers are getting hot and sweaty about this 12- to 24-year-old male demographic.

Sensing an opportunity, Procter & Gamble (PG ) is now marketing Old Spice to appeal to the "teen spirit." P&G has also launched splashy marketing campaigns for Old Spice High Endurance deodorants and Old Spice Red Zone antiperspirant, and it has teamed up with video-game maker Electronic Arts (EA ) to create a gaming tie-in. The hook? The football video game NCAA 2004 has a "Red Zone" theme with a tagline, "When performance matters most."

At a recent industry event in Chicago, Tim Kopp, a P&G manager who handles marketing, said the TV ads for Old Spice deodorant had the "highest ROI [return on investment] of any marketing element in the past three years of Old Spice."

Result: The product now holds the No. 1 spot in the deodorant market, with a 20% share, besting Right Guard and other underarm giants. Old Spice is also the No. 1-selling aftershave brand, with 10% of the market. P&G doesn't plan to give up the lead anytime soon -- it spent $55 million on advertising Old Spice in just the first nine months of 2004, vs. $51 million for all of 2003, according to ad tracker TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

Comet

For years, this humble household cleaner was relegated to the dark, dank space under the kitchen sink. But when Prestige Brands bought it from Procter & Gamble in 2001, Prestige marketing exec Charles Schrank launched an aggressive campaign to boost sales. "We expanded the footprint of Comet's distribution into the fast-growing dollar stores, plus warehouse clubs like Costco (COST ) and Sam's Club (WMT )," says Schrank. For instance, it expanded distribution from 200 Sam's Club stores to 300. Apparently, Comet nostalgia and bulk discounts tug at the hearts of the baby-boom generation.

Indeed, Comet is the No. 1-selling household cleaning powder again, beating out tough rivals such as Ajax and Bon Ami. Prestige has even more ambitious plans in 2005. It will launch a Comet soft-cream cleanser that will compete with the Soft Scrub line of cleaners, and it will launch advertising for its new line of bathroom sprays.

For all these brands, it's back to the future.

Gogoi is a reporter for BusinesssWeek Online in New York

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