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Concrete brand talk in an ephemeral world

Zombie Brands Part 1: How love can bring a brand back from the dead

Sometimes a company taps into an existing ethos so deeply that nothing–irrelevance, poor management or even lack of product–can keep it from rising again. Today in part 1, we’ll look at the story of one such zombie brand. In part 2 we will find out if there’s a magical ingredient that allows brands to crawl back from death.

There’s no silver bullet to fend off death in the marketplace. Brands cease to innovate, fail to evolve, or simply meet the end of a natural life cycle. But looking at the story of one particular brand’s resurrection might provide clues to the ingredients for a Lazarus-like return.

From the heights of Mount Fuji to the depths
Despite being out of mainstream eyes for nearly 20 years, the name Atari is still synonymous with video games. Wrapped up in the nostalgia of the late 70s and 80s, the video game maker has gone from certain-death to life, and back again. Though Atari released many products, none were as successful or memorable as its original home video game system, the Atari 2600. Released in 1977 in all of its faux woodgrain glory, the 2600 was Atari’s successful attempt to bring the arcade video game “craze” to homes. The product grabbed public attention and eventually became the most popular game system of its era, selling more than 30 million units through 2004.

The 2600 seemed to die its first death in 1982 when a glut of poor third-party games and bad licensing decisions caused a video game market crash and an apparent end to this “fad”. Atari and its competitors languished in discount store bins as home computers took hold. But the wildly successful release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985 re-ignited the market for video games, and Atari took the opportunity to bring its first system back. The 2600 was redesigned as a smaller, cheaper version and enjoyed decent sales (with new releases and a huge back catalog) until later systems rendered it irrelevant. The final official game release for the 2600 came in 1990.

Reanimating a brand with self-published love
It seemed as if the 2600, with its antiquated, blocky graphics, would be left to the dustbin of history. But in 1995 (one year before the Atari corporation would cease to exist) programmer Ed Federmeyer self-published the first “homebrew” 2600 game, Edtris (using old, reclaimed Atari game cartridges). People still had great love stored up for this brand and the fun it stood for. The knowledge and skill to make new games already existed, but this release became a tipping point in the new life of Atari. Because of the fan passion, the Atari corpse was stirring. This effort snowballed into an eventual wave of community-created games. The frequency and quality of these home-grown fan games grew along with the Internet (especially eBay), as Atari aficionados created forums, message boards and sites to engage with the video games of their youth. Atari didn’t provide these outlets officially, but the lovers of the brand made them almost inevitable—all that passion had to go somewhere. The fanbase grew into a full-on community, with projects and games birthed out shared love for Atari, rather than profit.

This small-but-powerful groundswell of renewed passion didn’t escape the notice of the corporate world. In an effort to trade on the brand equity of Atari, French company Infogrames purchased the name rights, and later rebranded itself as such in 2003. The newly-christened Atari recognized the growing enthusiast/nostalgia market, and created new commercial products to capitalize on it. Partnering with professionals in the Atari community, Atari released its Atari Flashback (2004) and Flashback 2 systems (2005), plug-and-play consoles with built-in games, appealing to both community members and casual fans. The second of these married the community and commercial interests, when it came installed with original, homebrew, and even unreleased prototype games. It not only provided a quick nostalgia hit, but was also designed to be modified—anyone with a soldering iron and screwdriver could add a cartridge slot that would play the original cartridges as well! It deeply captured this fan ethos, because the Flashback was championed and developed in conjunction with seasoned Atari lovers.

Now, most of the Atari community activity takes place at its unofficial hub, AtariAge.com. It is a mature online community with message boards, and a store that sells new cartridge games to support the site. More than 100 homebrew games have been released, and new hardware and technology allow these hobbyists to design games and custom hardware that far exceed the quality of those released in Atari’s heyday. While Atari died as a corporate entity, fans not only kept the 2600 alive, they had improved and developed it in a way the original creators never planned! Atari’s many corporate failures have faded into history, and what’s left is the heady nostalgia of the past, combined with a passionate, fan-directed future.

Tomorrow we’ll dig into part 2 of our post: Five Signs of a Zombie Brand. We’ll do an autopsy on the Atari brand to discover what qualities made it ripe for resurrection, and how that can apply to other brands.

Oct 28 2009

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2 Responses to “Zombie Brands Part 1: How love can bring a brand back from the dead”

  1. [...] Blog « Zombie Brands Part 1: How love can bring a brand back from the dead [...]

  2. I do believe all of the ideas you’ve offered in your post.
    They’re really convincing and can certainly work. Still, the posts are
    very short for novices. May just you please
    extend them a bit from subsequent time? Thank you for the post.

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