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Concrete brand talk in an ephemeral world

Zombie Brands Part 2: Five signs of a Zombie Brand

This is the second of two parts on Zombie Brand. If you haven’t, check out yesterday’s Part 1.

While it’s impossible to hard-wire the possibility for resurrection into a brand or product, there are lessons to be learned from the best Undead Brands. So, let’s do a brand autopsy of Atari to discover the signs that might have led to its second and third lives. These characteristics are also good checklists for new, growing companies, as well as those looking for some supernatural longevity.

Better beats first. Atari wasn’t the first home video game maker (it was TV maker Magnavox’s Odyssey) but it was the one that grabbed hold of the public consciousness. Atari became synonymous with home video games, bursting through the gates of success. Similarly, Apple’s iPod wasn’t the first portable mp3 player. But does anyone remember which product was first? In the face of the game-changing Apple product, it almost doesn’t matter. In a world of sequels, spinoffs and competitors, being the first to climb the mountain doesn’t guarantee a deep and lasting impression. Timing and quality will always be the stronger hand. (Though being both first and best certainly won’t hurt.)

The brand doesn’t abandon its roots, but grows from them. Like a sentimental Dr. Frankenstein, Atari released several other products after its fabled 2600 game system, but continued to support the system until its last official game release came thirteen years later. Though it would have been simpler to dispose of the old system and focus exclusively on newer projects, Atari kept the obsolete system around–even letting later systems provide backwards-compatibility for its games. The business rationale for this was to squeeze out more profit from the old system–but the unintended effect allowed time for the product to grow and improve. Technology and perspective allowed the 2600 to grow and change, and Atari unintentionally cultivated a deep loyalty to the long-lasting 2600. A smart company could do this purposefully.

Evolution is embedded in its DNA. In an age where products are discontinued, discarded, landfilled and replaced, it is refreshing to consider that an offering might grow to acquire new features and uses the original makers never intended. The Atari 2600 was built with very limited graphical and memory capabilities, but these constraints gave birth to all kinds of programming tricks that eager developers creatively used to do more with less. Also, allowing an open marketplace for peripherals gave rise to hardware additions of many kinds. In fact, the crazy and innovative add-ons for the Atari 2600–keyboard attachments, memory modules, cassette tape games and new controllers gave the 2600 a significant competitive advantage and a longer life. This innovation was mostly done by third party companies, but this kind of unplanned evolution (like the organic way Twitter users have helped shape the service) will keep a product relevant and memorable long beyond its original goals. Once a product or service is released to the world, customers are its stewards and often have better plans for it. Today’s companies ignore these developments at their peril.

The brand image has the ability to transcend its products and current market space. This is a great reminder for designers and marketers to consider the broadest spectrum when creating/redesigning a corporate identity. The qualities of the brand must be large enough to absorb a shift in markets, strategy change, or natural evolution. CEOs depart and markets collapse, but brand equity doesn’t have to die when these seismic shifts occur. Atari’s image will always be tied to video games and nostalgia, which is why the current leadership has struggled to evolve beyond the 80s image and properties that made it successful. Its history and products have left little flexibility to evolve the overall message. However, some of Atari’s contemporaries have been more successful: IBM stopped making physical International Business Machines and eventually focused its efforts on software-based business solutions and consulting.

Lovers of the brand refuse to let it go. This might be the most crucial (and elusive) element, because it really gets at the beating heart of how any brand performs—through the opinions and perception others have of it. Owners of organizations and marketers truly have little control over this aspect, except to say that creating a high-quality service or product is the first step in building a deep and lasting relationship with your brand’s audience. Awareness and cultivation of what your brand is doing “out in the wild” in now a necessary element, if there’s any hope your brand will live again.

Oct 29 2009

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2 Responses to “Zombie Brands Part 2: Five signs of a Zombie Brand”

  1. Tim Lapetino says:

    Grave robbery for fun and profit.

    Beyond the scope of this post, a question came up in our research: Can someone pull value from the recently-deceased? Rather than building a product or service on a clean slate, would it be possible for clever strategic positioning to capitalize on brands that are currently worm food? One firm is attempting to reawaken some dormant brand names.

    Very interesting.

  2. Chris Ridgeway says:

    Nicely done points! The loyalty aspect (‘lovers of the brand refuse to let it go’) seems the toughest to architect–only to say that, to the extent it seems a brand seems dominant/powerful, I’d guess consumers feel little responsibility. The “underdog” feel seems to engender loyalty. Nobody is loyal to Procter & Gamble products, but I’d guess Trader Joe’s brand has a high-return sensibility, not only because they’re differentiated, but also because people feel as if they’re tiny compared to large chains (which may or may not be true these days).

    Here’s what I’m wondering, though. On ‘The brand doesn’t abandon its roots, but grows from them’–does this apply to Apple?? They’re probably a good back-from-the-dead example, but it seems like part of their business plan (and ethos) is to cut off their previous models as soon as the next is released. Good luck getting support or buying the old product. This always struck me as a totalitarian Steve Jobs thing–rejecting his last view of perfection for his new one. But they do this all the time. Maybe there’s a reason why this doesn’t apply to them? Or maybe they’re good at these other factors, and so this they rose again despite the swimming upstream here.

    ps – love the link to the first MP3 player, which I was convinced was the Diamond Rio. Blast!

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