ANALYSIS: Old brands find new life by appealing to young crowd

Since 20-somethings don't like to be marketed to, getting them to embrace an old brand involves a careful use of key influencers, not a big media blitz.

Since 20-somethings don't like to be marketed to, getting them to embrace an old brand involves a careful use of key influencers, not a big media blitz.

Consumer brands have life cycles much like those of rock stars and politicians: They progress from relative obscurity to notoriety to - hopefully - having a huge following. Then, in most cases, they fade from the public's mind. But some faded brands manage to come back. In recent years, a few hoary ones have caught on with the finicky 20-something generation that tends to distrust traditional advertising and marketing. Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, the quintessential Middle American blue-collar brew, is now cool among young drinkers. Hush Puppies, once thought of as shoes for old men in Florida, have become hip. Puma, a one-time also-ran in the athletic-shoe market, is in. Yoo-hoo, a chocolate drink thought of as just for kids in the New York area, now is reaching out successfully to high school and college students across the country. The common thread among these brands and others is that they're using PR - not mass-market advertising - to get their messages to consumers. These efforts often bypass traditional media relations, and are aimed directly at the desired buyers. The larger of these brands are using a combination of grassroots PR and media outreach aimed at edgier or younger-skewing publications than they've dealt with in the past. Some are first targeting influencers in the audiences they want to reach, while others are inculcating their brands into the lifestyles of a key target market, hoping people will buy the products because they like the company that makes them. "People are looking for something to believe in - for something they understand" says Drew McGowan, a VP in Ketchum's brand marketing practice in San Francisco. Ketchum has worked with Pabst since March. Pabst's newfound popularity with young drinkers began without much impetus from the company, McGowan recalls. Rather, it was spurred by memories of the brand and the search for something different. "It's a return to your grandfather's beer," says McGowan. "It's a return to roots and Americana." The beer started catching on in trend-setting beer cities such as Portland, OR, but Pabst brand managers "haven't tried to push things out to people," McGowan says. Because young consumers are widely distrustful of advertising in particular and major corporations in general, "we walk a very fine line" in terms of how much PR is done for Pabst. "We don't want to do anything to offend the people drinking our beer," he says. Pabst speaks with bartenders to spread its message, seeing them as a gateway to consumers. "This is one of the strongest influencer campaigns I've worked on," says McGowan. Puma has gotten new PR direction in the past six years as its German parent took back responsibility for selling its products in the US, explains Barney Waters, director of marketing for Puma North America. (Prior to that, a licensee handled Puma's US sales.) Now "we have global direction for marketing," Waters says. Rather than be just another shoe, Puma has repositioned itself as a mix of sport, lifestyle, and fashion. Appealing to tastemakers Puma has gone after what Waters calls "tastemakers." "Your traditional tastemaker doesn't like to be sold to," Waters says. So rather than shell out for massive ad campaigns, Puma has used grassroots tactics. A new line of shoes aimed at auto-racing fans was launched this summer with a word-of-mouth campaign. "That community of consumers is very tight-knit, and wary of outside brands," Waters says, which is why Puma partnered with a company that works on racecar engines, putting its logo on the shoe alongside Puma's. Yoo-hoo also sought out key influencers when it began its brand revival, says Kristin Krumpe, director of marketing. When she came to Yoo-hoo six years ago, she was fascinated by the number of fans the drink had on the internet. Working on her own time, she started investigating sites devoted to Yoo-hoo, even taking the e-mail address yoo-hooguru@aol.com so she could become part of the online world of Yoo-hoo lovers. "I was living on the internet trying to find people who were passionate about Yoo-hoo," she recalls. She searched AOL member profiles to see who listed Yoo-hoo as a preference, and she tried to contact them. When she found a group of six high school students in Kentucky who liked the product, she sent them T-shirts and encouraged them to bring six packs of Yoo-hoo to their cafeteria. When she came across two Pepperdine students who loved Yoo-hoo, she eventually hired them to drive a yellow Yoo-hoo garbage truck around the country for a summer promotional contest called "pick your own stinkin' prize." The idea was to show Yoo-hoo's anti-establishment bias, Krumpe says. The two students, Josh and Nathan, today remain "the front line with these kids for us. This is the face we want them to see," she says. "Kids are very marketing savvy. You have to create value and show you understand and get them." Yoo-hoo, owned by a different company when Krumpe started, but now part of the huge Cadbury Schweppes empire, makes no mention of its corporate parent on its website or anywhere else in its marketing. "You have to have the appearance of being niche," Krumpe says. "The key thing is you can't ever become complacent. You have to position yourself so you're always evolving your brand image." Some brands that aspire to coolness want to be more than niche products. For them, PR efforts involve both reaching key influencers and reaching out for media attention as well. For instance, Ketchum has begun working with Sutter Home winery, trying to reinvigorate the image of white zinfandel, a variety Sutter Home invented 30 years ago. Calling it a niche product may ring a bit hollow since the winery sells about 4.5 million cases of white zinfandel annually. So the winery and Ketchum are reaching out to the wine and food press to explain how the creation of white zinfandel fits into the growth of the American wine industry. "What this wine did is open American taste buds to wine," says McGowan. Hush Puppies invested in lifestyle photography of its shoes that it distributed to editors, retail buyers, and stylists. The company sought out editorial coverage in publications that appeal to younger buyers, like Teen Vogue, says Barbara Scott, chief marketing officer. Like Pabst, Hush Puppies is a long-established brand, and it uses that history. When it comes to young consumers, "you can't sell to them," Scott contends. "You have to appeal to them with the values of the brand." Connecting brands to icons "Inasmuch as every generation would like to deny it, they do look for icons," maintains Kimberly Scher, SVP and director of client services at Lord Sullivan & Yoder in Columbus, OH. "Everyone looks for heroes. Younger people do have icons; they do have heroes." Scher's firm has helped old brands like Log Cabin syrup reconnect with consumers, getting Log Cabin involved in a program to refurbish historic log cabins around the country to show its concern for America's historical heritage. Bringing an out-of-favor brand back into favor means "you really need to understand your audience - their psychographic as well as demographic profile," she says. Revitalizing a brand for jaded Gen Yers also means not trying a hard-sell approach and, as much as possible, getting members of the target audience to tell others about the brand. And that takes time, marketing experts agree. Yoo-hoo's Krumpe explains, "You can't say, 'Next year we're going to make our brand cool.' It takes a while to figure it out."

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