What’s old is new again: These 10 classic brands maximized their moment and recaptured their cool factor.
A shoe that was once deemed universally ugly finds its way onto the foot of Instagram influencers across America. An electronics store on the brink of bankruptcy is now hailed as “one to watch” on Wall Street. These are the kinds of turnarounds we looked for in this list of comeback brands, which have made themselves over with ingenious new products, showstopper marketing, re-energized workforces and consumer-centric mindsets.
In a few cases, a charismatic, cage-rattling leader is responsible for sparking the revival, like Hubert Joly at Best Buy, John Legere at T-Mobile and Patrick Doyle at Domino’s. Others have caught fire almost by accident, thanks to retro-loving millennials and Gen Z consumers who decided that Birkenstocks are frumpy and awesome at the same time and Polaroid pictures are akin to expressionist art pieces. Nostalgia can give brands “a serendipitous tailwind,” says Martin Franklin, Polaroid Originals’ head of marketing, “but that is just a starting point.” How those brands have capitalized on their trending status makes them stand apart from their rivals.
Since Brandweek itself is a comeback kid (it was last published in 2011), there may be no better place to look at 10 brands that have rallied to stay relevant with modern customers.
It’s a long way from San Francisco health food stores to the Paris catwalk, but the 244-year-old German brand has made that unlikely journey, tripling its sales to $800 million and growing its revenue tenfold in the past five years. When stylists and photographers began dusting off the so-called “ugly duckling” of footwear in 2012 (the comfy, hippie-chic signature sandals launched in the 1960s and resurfaced in the 1990s), “we took it as a moment to revolutionize what we were doing,” says David Kahan, CEO, Birkenstock USA. What followed were pop-up shops at Berlin Fashion Week, Nordstrom and Barney’s, including limited-edition kicks with never-before-seen embellishments like pink fur lining, and a collaboration with designer Rick Owens. The first global flagship store will open in New York’s SoHo neighborhood this fall, and local artists around the world will contribute to new versions of the classic shoes. Nodding to longevity, the company’s fall ad campaign in Rolling Stone, T: The New York Times Style Magazine and other publications features real fans modeling their worn-in Birks. Every move has had to be “consistent with the DNA” of the brand, Kahan says: “Trends come and go, and fads come and go, but quality and authenticity and heritage are things that you can’t fake.”
Real folks of all stripes get their groove on to the infectious beat of a song called “Makeba” by the artist Jain, and the result is pure energy and joy, wrapped in denim. The wonderfully inclusive spot from FCB West called “Circles” became one of YouTube’s most-watched commercials of 2017 and helped the heritage brand make a statement: “It centered on the idea that you wear other jeans, but you live your life in Levi’s,” says the 165-year-old company’s CMO Jennifer Sey. Though its fans are legion (and iconic, like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Snoop Dogg and Alicia Keys), Levi’s sales peaked in 1997 at $7.1 million and then plunged with the rise of designer labels and fast fashion, with CEO Chip Bergh saying the brand “wasn’t even in the consideration set” with trendy young consumers by the early 2000s. To turn the business around, Levi’s innovated with new styles, fits, washes and fabrics (not to mention wearables from Google and customization via lasers), and collaborated with Vetements, Re/Done, Virgil Abloh and stylist Karla Welch. It also smartly capitalized on the “mom jean” trend, bringing back its ’90s styles. Last year, the brand saw its best results in a decade, with $4.9 billion in sales.
Leaning into its newfound status as a nimble ecommerce company, Domino’s now delivers pizza to ball fields, beaches and parks. Hungry fans can get their pepperoni fix at 200,000 nontraditional “hot spots,” summoning a pie via Twitter, Facebook Messenger, SMS, Apple watch, voice or mobile app. “We know that being accessible is something our customers want,” says Art D’Elia, svp, brand and innovation. That’s just a peek into how the brand disrupted the category and righted its ship, becoming the largest pizza chain in the world with $12.2 billion in 2017 sales. Its stock has soared 2,000 percent since its turnaround began under then-CEO Patrick Doyle in 2010, outperforming tech giants like Amazon, Apple and Netflix. And it all started when the brand, with help from Crispin Porter + Bogusky, trolled itself about its subpar food, publicly atoning for its crimes against pizza because “we knew we needed to be honest with our customers and ourselves,” D’Elia says. Product improvements followed, as did digital innovation and even paving potholes so food arrived intact.
Colonel Harland Sanders might’ve been a late bloomer, but he was a born huckster. The white-suited Southerner was the public face of KFC for decades, then relegated to the archival scrap heap as the company suffered a precipitous sales slump, losing 40 percent of its business between 2007 and 2013. When the brand and its agency, W+K Portland, brought the Colonel back in 2015, along with the tagline “It’s finger-lickin’ good,” they turned a brand that execs said had “lost its way” into one that deftly invaded pop culture. “He lived the American dream,” says Andrea Zahumensky, CMO, KFC U.S., noting the chain infused its founder and his values into “our marketing, our restaurant design and our operations” while ensuring the return felt modern with new menu items and plenty of attitude. A variety of famous faces have been cast as the Colonel, from Reba McEntire and Rob Lowe to George Hamilton and WWE grapplers. Stunts like an online merchandise store, the Colonel’s cameo on General Hospital, a livestream of cats climbing on a Sanders jungle gym (four hours, 700,000 tune-ins), an animatronic Colonel taking drive-through orders and a chicken sandwich shot into space made the restaurant buzzworthy. The brand has now logged four consecutive years of same-store growth and, Zahumensky says, “we are hard at work on year five.”
Amazon looms large, but Best Buy has clawed its way back from a near-death experience after five years of a top-to-bottom revamp. The chain improved its employee training, customer service, website and delivery, shuttered underperforming locations and forged partnerships with Samsung, Apple and Microsoft for branded store-within-a-store concepts. (It even sells Amazon Fire TVs.) In a risky move that paid off, Best Buy price-matched the online behemoth, tackled showrooming head-on and brought shoppers back to the brick-and-mortar chain. Same-store sales rose 5.6 percent in fiscal 2018, and online sales have consistently jumped by double digits, reaching nearly $6 billion in the U.S. Hubert Joly, the dynamic CEO behind the reinvigoration, told Reuters this spring: “We have not only survived but thrived, and I don’t believe this is a winner-takes-all market.” Future plans include offering in-home advisers, a complement to the popular Geek Squad; breaking into the connected-health-services arena; and, via newly acquired mobile phone company GreatCall, targeting the lucrative 65-plus crowd. An updated logo and new ad campaign, with TV spots directed by Errol Morris, focus on “how we make a meaningful impact on customers’ lives,” CMO Whit Alexander says. “Our people are our insurmountable advantage.”
“Retail is dead. Long live retail!” That’s not the Walmart tagline, but the behemoth is thriving in an environment that has shifted dramatically from in-person to online shopping. In fact, analysts say its physical stores (within 10 miles of 90 percent of the population), coupled with a massive push into digital and grocery, are among its most formidable competitive advantages. Entry-level pay increased early this year (it’s now above minimum wage) but hasn’t quieted critics who say the company needs to do better by its workers. Still, the initial optics on that move were positive. The chain recently posted its best financial results in more than a decade, with a 40 percent jump in U.S. ecommerce sales in the second quarter, while same-store sales increased 4.5 percent and revenue reached $128 billion, a $4 billion gain. Walmart is snagging new customers, even cutting into broader and higher-income demos by buying Jet.com, Bonobos and ModCloth. The company “continues to hit on all cylinders with new technology, ramped-up categories like baby and toys, and expanded assortments with unexpected brands,” says Barbara Messing, a former TripAdvisor exec who is Walmart’s first female CMO, and the first recruited from outside the company.
There’s a thread that connects nature lovers snapping beauty shots of the planet, animated emojis singing Childish Gambino and Migos hits, and FKA twigs dancing through walls in a Spike Jonze mini-movie music video. It’s the Apple DNA, and those simple concepts paired with stunning visuals from TBWA\Media Arts Lab are pillars of the brand’s current boom. The tech giant just posted its best third-quarter earnings ever, with $53.3 billion in revenue, beating projections by $1 billion and becoming the first U.S. company with a $1 trillion valuation. But it wasn’t always unicorns and rainbows. Apple’s revival is the stuff of business legend (and Hollywood biopics), with the marketer pulling itself out of a decade-long downward spiral after the ouster of co-founder Steve Jobs in the mid-1980s. Jobs returned in ’97, reversed fortunes from a near bankruptcy and forged a path that would come to include the iMac, iTunes, iPads, iPhones, Apple TV and original OTT content. (Query of the day: Can Apple out-Netflix Netflix?) As community outreach, it transformed 500 worldwide stores into Grand Prix-winning modern town squares. “Apple, for decades, was known as somebody who makes magical products,” Rob Reilly, jury president and global creative chairman for McCann Worldgroup, told Adweek at the Cannes Lions. “Now I feel they’re making magical experiences, and important experiences.”
When the point-and-shoot, idiot-proof instant camera, the OneStep, launched in 1977, it was a runaway hit, and Polaroid was producing 5,000 units a day within a year, pulling in $3 billion annually at its peak. But the masses eventually lost interest, and digital photography became the go-to for capturing images (and taking selfies). There were two bankruptcies and six CEOs in the 2000s before investors and die-hard film fans resurrected the flagship brand and last year debuted its sister division, Polaroid Originals. It launched with the OneStep 2, a “recognizable descendant” of its predecessor, says Martin Franklin, head of global marketing. Though nostalgia is providing “a serendipitous tailwind,” the privately held brand is modernizing its product (special-edition film with metallic and rainbow frames instead of the traditional white border), diving heavily into content marketing and collaborating with Saint Laurent, David Lynch, Ryan McGinley and other artists (heirs apparent to Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Robert Mapplethorpe) to target Gen Zers and millennials. A Parker Day print campaign, “Still Got It,” with Baddie Winkle captured decades of quirky style this spring. Analog photography is “incredibly relevant,” Franklin says, because it forces people “to slow down, to be present, to make the most of important moments.”
Actor-comedian Rainn Wilson gets sucked into the vortex of “customer service hell,” emerging the worse for wear with his cellphone problems still fully intact. The new campaign from T-Mobile focuses on those pain points and debuts a “complete reinvention of customer care,” execs say, that does away with robots and phone trees. Instead: real people! It’s part of the brand’s “un-carrier” position that has remolded its image and boosted its bottom line under flamboyant CEO John Legere. Now the fastest-growing, best-performing wireless company, T-Mobile’s 2017 revenue was up 8 percent, to $40.6 billion, more than double the number in 2012. Second quarter revenue increased 4 percent to $10.6 billion, and the company went from losing 2 million customers a year to adding 1 million each quarter for 21 straight quarters (current subscribers: 75.6 million). Still behind market leaders AT&T and Verizon, T-Mobile has trounced its competitors in customer-first, industry-disrupting moves like dumping data limits and roaming fees, simplifying bills and allowing frequent upgrades. Consumers used to be locked into two-year contracts—“Remember those?” says Peter DeLuca, svp, brand advertising and communication. T-Mobile scrapped those plans and forced others to follow suit, along with doling out Netflix subscriptions, Pandora Plus memberships and discount Live Nation tickets. “We listen to our customers; they tell us what’s broken, and we fix it,” DeLuca says. “It’s really that simple.”
Critics have thrown much shade at the media platform for harassment troubles and stalled user growth, with Adweek asking in February, “Can 2018 be the year Twitter gets its act together?” Here’s the brand’s answer, just months later: Twitter is one of the hottest stocks on Wall Street, up more than 60 percent this year and outpacing rivals Facebook and Snap Inc. The company just joined the S&P 500, has logged three straight quarters of profitability and reversed slides in revenue and monthly active users (now at 335 million). Twitter suspended more than 70 million accounts in May and June alone, battling bots, trolls and disinformation, and reintroduced itself to marketers and agencies, reclaiming the hashtag in high-profile ads and arguing that its users are more engaged, influential and valuable than those on other social networks. Content partnerships are flourishing, and deals are in place with the NFL, NBCUniversal, Live Nation, BuzzFeed News, esports Overwatch League and Fox Sports (for the recent World Cup). Matt Derella, global vp, customers, credits a “clarified vision” at the brand. “We’ve become incredibly focused on our identity” as a news-based outlet heavy on public discourse, live video and streaming events, he says. “We don’t want to be one of the ‘look at me’ platforms. We’re different. We’re where conversation starts and culture is driven.”