Attack of the zombie brands!

Commentary about business and finance.
March 16 2007 7:17 AM

Attack of the Zombie Brands!

Why Tab, the Taurus, and so many other failed products are getting resurrected.

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Ford Taurus. Click image to expand.
The 2008 Ford Taurus

Last October, few tears were shed when Ford ended production of the Taurus. The unlovely, workhorse sedan had been the company's best-selling unit for much of the 1990s, mostly because of huge sales to rental-car companies. Shutting down production was a sign that Ford, in the midst of a serious restructuring, was looking to the future. But then in February, Ford announced that it would resume producing a car with the Taurus nameplate in the summer of 2007.

The Taurus isn't the only zombie brand around. Poke around the vast consumer products marketplace, and it's easy to find dead or dormant brands that have been revived or trotted out for second or third chances, from low-end autos to high-end couture, from mass-market soft drinks to gossipy magazines.

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What gives? Why kill a product only to resurrect it? Businessspeople and marketers put great store in the concept of brand equity, the set of intangible factors that account for the value of a brand or a product. Even when products fail or are withdrawn from the marketplace, they still retain vestigial brand equity. Some consumers used the product or will recall the name from advertisements. And given the cluttered marketplace, any advantage helps. That's precisely what Ford recognized in slapping the Taurus name on an existing model, the 500. "Consumer awareness of the Taurus name is double the Five Hundred that it's replacing," Ford executive Mark Fields said in February when he announced the re-running of the Taurus. The company also noted that even after its retirement, the Taurus "is one of the top three most recognized Ford nameplates, behind only the F-Series and Mustang." For a corporation not to use such an intangible asset would be wasteful.

Reviving a dormant brand is also a perfectly postmodern gesture and befits a culture in which innovation frequently consists of retooling models that have worked in the past. Last year, Coca-Cola relaunched Tab (the 1970s path-blazer for Diet Coke) as Tab Energy. It's a mash-up, combining "one of Coca-Cola North America's most iconic brand names with one of the fastest-growing segments in the beverage industry." Same name, different product.

Life, now in its third incarnation, has been similarly updated to keep pace with the times—or at least to stay just behind them. Founded in 1936, the Time, Inc. property was a great, picture-laden weekly magazine. But in 1972, having been superseded by television and other magazines, it stopped publication. The powerful brand was revived as a monthly from 1978 to 2000. But, having been superseded by television, other magazines, and the Internet, it closed again in 2000. In 2004, Life returned as a celebrity-oriented, fluffy weekly newspaper insert. *

For entrepreneurs interested in niche markets, reviving a dead brand can be an effective way of appealing to a narrow consumer base that has a reverence for the past. To most shoppers, the name Madeleine Vionnet doesn't ring une cloche. But for true fashionistas, Vionnete, inventor of the bias cut, couturier to Dietrich and Garbo, is an icon. Alas, her last collection appeared in 1939. Last summer, the name and the house were revived under the leadership of Greek-born designer Sophia Kokosalaki. Vionnet garments will soon grace the aisles of Barney's.

Not all brand-resurrection efforts are so high-minded. Sometimes finding dead brands is a form of dumpster-diving. Entrepreneurs have made businesses out of picking up discarded "heritage brands" on the cheap and trying to restore them to their rightful place on the shelves. Nuprin? Ovaltine? Prell? Without significant resources or large corporations behind them, these efforts tend not to meet with much success. The consumer-products marketplace is highly Darwinian, after all, and the brand names available for pennies are generally those that failed to adapt.

In the Internet age, brands sometimes mount comebacks before they've even gone under. Radar magazine folded in 2003 after two issues and re-emerged as a Web site and then as a magazine in 2005, only to fold again. A few months later, it returned for a third effort. Those who are quick to write Radar off would do well to recall that the magazine Radar would like to be was itself a zombie brand. Vanity Fair, whichhad a brilliant run as a Condé Nast property during the economic boom of the 1920s, was folded in the 1930s, and successfully re-emerged five decades letter as a Condé Nast property amidst another economic boom.

Readers: Do you have examples of other successful zombie brands? Or dead brands that deserve resurrection? Send your nominations to moneybox@slate.com. If responses are sufficient, we'll revive this column.

* Correction, March 23, 2007: The article originally described Life as a Sunday newspaper insert. It is officially published on Friday, and though some papers distribute it on Saturday and Sunday, most distribute it on Friday. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.