Attack of the zombie brands II.

Commentary about business and finance.
March 20 2007 3:56 PM

Attack of the Zombie Brands II

More products that refuse to stay dead.

McRib.
McDonald's McRib Sandwich

At the end of last week's article about zombie brands (the Ford Taurus, Tab soda, Life magazine), I asked readers to nominate other products, presumed dead, that have returned to the shelves. Judging by the volume of responses—more than 250—there are enough zombies among us that I'm thinking of buying a shotgun and barring the doors of my house. Do all these zombie brands testify to a lack of imagination among marketers? Or are companies just smartly seeking to tap into the incredible consuming habits of the greatest generation of consumers, the baby boomers?

The most noteworthy zombie is a technology brand, which is odd, given the extremely short half-life of tech products. But it turns out that even relentlessly forward-looking technology consumers are susceptible to a bit of nostalgia. That's what seems to explain the return of Commodore—the 1980s computer brand, not the singing group. Some 25 years ago, when PCs were just getting started, the Commodore 64, along with the TRS-80, occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of young computer geeks. The company didn't survive the IBM onslaught and faded from view. Now, however, it seems Commodore is being revived as a high-end gaming computer, pitched at aged, deep-pocketed computer geeks.

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For some reason, transportation also entices the zombie branders. Back in the day, France-based Motobecane made cool, expensive racing bikes that appealed to the Breaking Awaycrowd. Now, years after the company folded, Motobecane USA is making cool, somewhat-expensive racing bikes for the Lance Armstrong crowd. Indian Motorcycle, an iconic brand that traces its origins to 1901, has been through several rebirths. It lay dormant from the first Eisenhower administration (1953) to the second Clinton administration (1999). The 1999 revival was short-lived, however, and today new owners are preparing for another relaunch. They're taking orders. Indian is seeking to burn rubber on the same road paved by British motorcycle firm Triumph, which failed in 1983 and was brought back in the 1990s.

It turns out that Detroit has more zombies than Dawn of the Dead. (The remake of the 1979 classic is, of course, a zombie zombie movie.) General Motors is in the process of reviving the Camaro (dead since 2002). Reader M.C. noted: Pontiac dug up the GTO after burying it last year; the muscle car Dodge Charger, discontinued in 1987, has been reintroduced; and the Mercury Montego, off the market since the late 1960s, was reintroduced in 2005.

But as is the case with everything manufactured these days, China seems to be a hotbed of zombie brands. Brent Butterworth, editor in chief of Home Entertainment,notes that the brand names of Westinghouse and Polaroid, two once-proud blue chips that were titans in consumer electronics, have recently been applied to flat-panel TV sets made in China. Meanwhile, a Chinese company acquired the assets of bankrupt British carmaker MG and is planning to reintroduce the sports car.

Occasionally, one blue-chip company capitalizes on another blue-chip company's neglect. In the 1990s, Procter & Gamble folded its White Cloud paper products line into Charmin and allowed the trademark to lapse. An entrepreneur picked up the trademark and then brought it to Wal-Mart, which now produces White Cloud as a house brand.

The most inexplicable zombie product has to be the McRib, the hard-to-describe and equally hard-to-digest pork-based sandwich that McDonald's unearths from the dead-products bin every few years. As one reader noted: "It's advertised as being available for a 'limited time' as if the fact that it can't survive in the marketplace is a reason to eat it." Since last fall, McDonald's has sent out the McRib on a Farewell Tour. (Don't believe the McHype!)

Readers sent many more suggestions, including Pan Am, Narragansett Beer, and a host of 1970s-vintage musical groups. Venezuelan blogger Tomas Sancio notes that Hugo Chávez is resurrecting the locha, an old currency. And a few wags suggested that the political phenomenon known as "George Bush" is a zombie brand, buried in 1992 only to be unleashed on an unsuspecting populace in 2000.

I also asked readers to submit nominations for brands they would like to see resurrected. The results were somewhat surprising. Almost all the responses concerned just two kinds of products. First, junk food. Clearly, consumers are deeply nostalgic for the high-sugar, high-cholesterol, high-fat munchies of yore. Pleas were made to bring back Bosco chocolate syrup, Adams sour gum, and, inexplicably, the Burger King Yumbo. The largest category of nominations, by far, was for hair-care products. I received wistful calls for the resurrection of: Yucca Dew, Body on Tap, Silkience Shampoo & Conditioner, Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific!, Breck, and Brylcreem.

The lesson for marketers: Forget about bringing back dead brands for big-ticket items like cars and motorcycles. Try resurrecting cheapo products that will help baby boomers recall the days when their hair was thicker, more voluminous, and less gray.

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

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