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Rebooting the legacy brand: Do's and don'ts

Rebooting the legacy brand: Do's and don'ts Russell Scott

As a marketer who specializes in creating awareness for brands that don't exist yet (theatrical film and TV) as well as legacy brands with a loyal, established following, I am constantly crafting narratives that build meaningful connections with audiences. More than ever before, I find those audiences, while craving something new, are always most responsive when they are allowed to discover something that unlocks their inner passion.

Their world now moves faster than the speed of thought, and the brands that were once household names now vie for their fragmented attention. As brands scramble to "reinvent" themselves, the length of time between said brand's reinventions can outpace the average desk stay of your garden-variety CMO. This thought is hardly comforting for those trying to decipher the tea leaves before the next technological gust of wind scatters their plans like so many abandoned MySpace pages and microsites.

With so much at stake, more brands are finally realizing the potential of the dormant brand equity that they already have, and are actively seeking ways to cash it in and spend it -- like George Bush famously said of his newfound political capital, back in '04.

One need look no further than Hollywood to see the enormous upside of this strategy. Look at some of entertainment industry's biggest recent success stories and where they came from: "Transformers" were mere toys with an animated series that peaked a quarter century ago; Marvel superheroes were all the rage in the '60s, as were the venerable "Star Trek" and G.I. Joe brands. All of these brands had one thing in common: loyalty bred from positive childhood association. Hollywood stumbled upon a not-so-new formula for success. Well-known brands are the new A-list stars. Next year, we can look forward to feature film adaptations of Monopoly, Candyland, Battleship, and Stretch Armstrong, which is good news if you are a toy or board game -- but what about the rest of us?

If Hollywood treats legacy brands like movie stars, then why don't agencies put more faith in the legacies of their brands? If focus groups, market research, and box office receipts are any indications, the path of least resistance surely must be to carefully reinvent, recalibrate -- reboot, if you will, a brand while remaining true to the core legacy that the brand has to offer.

In this light, let's take a look at the following brands and take a "legacy" snapshot of their current strategy:

Ford Mustang
For the 45th anniversary of America's favorite muscle car, Ford (with Wunderman/Team Detroit and Firstborn) unveiled a new microsite for its prize pony.

Long before you could customize a web page, you could customize a car -- and the Mustang has long been a staple of custom culture.

With a heavy emphasis on community, users have been able to customize together, watch others customize their cars, and even vote on the ultimate 'Stang. With a very targeted strategy aimed at the most passionate and loyal of audiences, the campaign embraced the 45-year reign of the iconic car with a user upload contest featuring fans' fond memories of their Mustangs, webisodes with Queen Latifah talking Mustang with Nascar drivers, and the unifying theme of the whole campaign: celebrating a classic design -- with a need for speed.

Lesson 1: One of the most effective (or at least popular) automotive campaigns in recent memory, the social media/community aspect of the Mustang customizer has performed as well as the car it celebrates. And I quote the venerable Muscle Car Blog: "One week after launch, almost 52,000 cars had been built with over 16,000 of those saved into the site gallery. And more than 30 forums and blogs were sharing their own creations -- all without a single dime put toward advertising."

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The Walt Disney Co. is the biggest media company in the world. It has a rich, storied legacy that represents the very essence of the American dream. The conglomerate that grew from humble beginnings has supremacy in theatrical, home video, consumer goods, resorts, television, radio, and now even superheroes with its recent acquisition of Marvel.

And yet, Disney knows all too well that it trades largely on the brand legacy it has so carefully managed over the last eight decades. So much so that the company recently launched a new community-based service called D23, which was born to manage the explosion of fan sites and social networks created around the Disney brand.

By taking a page from Comic-Con, D23 held its debut expo a few weeks ago, to great fanfare. This is a very interesting concept from a company that already has a robust online presence for its many different brands -- a new brand that is solely focused on its own legacy. Disney takes its fans very seriously -- the cult-like reverence that many adults retain is largely built on childhood-fostered trust and being made to feel like they are part of the "magic" that Disney promises. With D23, Disney has given a home to some of the most passionate and vocal fans, and transformed them into "charter members" and, more importantly, effective brand evangelists.

Lesson 2: Listen to your audience.

The Beatles
Q: How do you reboot The Beatles, the iconic 1960s band that once proclaimed they were "bigger than Jesus?"

A: With 21st century technology -- and 3D avatars, of course.

On Sept. 9, 2009 (09.09.09), Beatlemania 2.0 was unleashed. For the faithful, there were newly remastered albums, produced with scientific precision and cutting-edge technology that did not exist when they first debuted on compact disc in 1987. For the uninitiated, an entry point was created to a musical legacy that has spanned generations. And for the first time, officially sanctioned Beatles music was featured in a new medium: the Beatles Rock Band video game.

This legacy brand secured its immortality decades ago, but with each subsequent re-release it had remained fairly unchanged -- until now. Fans and gamers can interact with the brand as never before, and increase the relevance of the Beatles brand to new heights, hopefully inspiring yet another generation of songwriters and musicians. (And yes, it worked on me. I picked up all the re-masters, and yes, they are awesome.)

The 09.09.09 campaign was a brilliant, multi-platform effort that leveraged every possible outlet, from traditional point-of-purchase to relentless print, broadcast, and rich media. In addition to the Beatles Rock Band microsite, there was a dedicated Amazon store that was impossible to avoid during the final weeks of the big push. Ironically, the technology that has been employed to improve, sweeten, and create a new immersive experience has yet to embrace the obvious final hurdle -- the iTunes "I want to hold your hand" experience -- but that is an obvious post-script. Even as we gleefully predict the imminent decline of packaged media, millions of satisfied customers are happily ripping tracks from their new CDs and rocking out to "Revolution."

Lesson 3: The biggest brand in the world can be rebooted -- with a little help from their digital avatars.


Once upon a time, there was Kentucky Fried Chicken. Colonel Sanders, a friendly Southern gentlemen, offered up fried chicken by the bucket that was, and I quote, "Finger lickin' good." In the 1990s, an abbreviation of the name took hold: KFC.

Freed from the negative associations that words can convey, these three consonants became the call letters of the brand -- which was still fried chicken. Then, Kitchen Fresh Chicken was introduced -- an attempt to subvert the meaning of the brand entirely, yet keep its ubiquitous call letters. And now, in a further twist, we have KGC, which is not an offshoot of a Soviet spy agency, but rather a new grilled chicken, which asks us to "unthink" everything we have previously learned about the KFC brand.

There is a whole new effort underway at a dedicated microsite to create awareness for KGC at KFC, including a Facebook app and a recent stunt involving the United Nations and a massive amount of free chicken. 

The brand has a distinctive Southern fried legacy, but is hesitant to leverage it, partly because the South reminds us of the War Between the States, and "The Colonel" looks like a land baron holdover from the Reconstruction. Also, "fried" is no longer considered a healthy dining option (see Krispy Krème).

That being said, KFC, like McDonald's, Oscar Mayer, and Coca-Cola, can also evoke warm family memories of picnics, parties, and childhood gatherings, if positioned correctly.

Lesson 4: There is great value buried in the backstory -- a vast, undiscovered story of Kodakchrome moments that could be celebrated online with a simple photo upload promoting KFC as a family tradition. If I can join the Grilled Nation, I should also be eligible to participate in the KFC Family Photo Album of summers past...

The reboot to end all reboots. With a brand nearly as steeped in its own mythology as the more grandiose "Star Wars," "Transformers" began life as a Hasbro toy line in 1984, accompanied by a Marvel comic and an animated series. A quarter-century since Optimus Prime and Bumblebee first sparked to life, the second installment of the film franchise, "Revenge of the Fallen," has hauled in over $400 millon in U.S. box office, and the DVD will undoubtedly keep the busy bots red hot.

Central to the current fan-based frenzy, the online movie marketing included a fan kit, fan art, and other tools to keep the troops engaged. The DVD boasts a "25 Years of the Transformers" retrospective that will entertain the faithful with interviews and footage from Botcon. 

This is a legacy brand that understands the collective power of its cross-generational audience, and has secured a "Star Wars"-like fan base that will flourish online and off for years to come. Gen-Xers watched the cartoon, and today's kids can interact with their Transformers on- and offline with microsites for the film, a toy line, and a passionate online community.

Lesson 5: By embracing a legacy as intricate as the Transformers, the brand is able to build upon its mythology and make each individual generation feel that it belongs uniquely to them.  

Remember when you could print your photos instantly? Heh.

So says the corporate site of Polaroid, whose fortunes fizzled with the advent of the digital revolution. Now, its iconic artifact from last century is making a splashy comeback.

Currently marketing a compact digital camera that prints 2x3 stickers, the once mighty Polaroid is poised to return its clunky classic Instant Camera and famous Instant Film, this time aimed squarely at the hipster market. There is an emotional connection to be made here -- the ubiquitous Polaroid is woven into the very fabric of American culture. Vacation photos, photo booth funnies, and guys like Warhol and Hockney making high art with lowbrow equipment has given the humble Polaroid a mythic place in our personal pop culture history. 

Lesson 6: Even though there is no online campaign to point you to yet, watch this brand play the nostalgia card hard in 2010.

Russell Scott is CEO and creative director at Jetset Studios and co-founder of Retroland. 

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet. 

Russell Scott (CEO, Creative Director) is a native of Los Angeles, and has dedicated his life to the betterment of the popular culture that he claims as his primary influence. Too much TV can be a good thing, as his endless love for classic TV,...

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