Finished. Used-up. Catatonic. Knackered. These reductionist, ugly missiles paint a bleak portrait of your future. You were the king of frozen dinners or canned meats or lip balm. You were the go-to for canvas tennis shoes or aftershave. But now, they label you a “laggard brand”. And that tugs at your soul like a Dementor’s kiss – you’re just as good as that gluten-free, paleo-organic coconut oil lip balm that’s sucking away your market share, your budget, and your career. But even with a barren budget, you can recover. Realize that you are the one you have been waiting for. And for god’s sake please stop calling yourself a laggard, and repeat after me, “I’m going to make a comeback.”
Great brands, like some great people, may simply have been born lucky. Take, for example, Malcolm Gladwell’s interpretation of relative-age effect: a Canadian sociologist found that an inordinate number of Canada’s best hockey players were born in the early months of the year. Why did they become great? Because young hockey players born early in the year were on the same youth team as those delivered in December. They were physically more developed. They were stronger, swifter, with crisper motor skills. The coaches zeroed in on them and gave them more playing time. And the parents dedicated more pressure and money and attention to them. And they became great.
All because they turned ten on January 1st instead of December 31st.
“Great people aren’t so great. Their greatness is not the salient fact about them.” – Malcolm Gladwell
Another of his interesting observations is how the era in which you’re born can cornerstone your success. Take tech giants Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Bill Joy, and Scott McNealy, all born in the early 1950s, around twenty years before the birth of the accessible computer. For Gates, he attended a private school which had an expensive computer and lived close to the University of Washington, with access to even more sophisticated computers. He accumulated his 10,000 hours quickly.
So maybe you were born at the end of the year. There’s hope. You’ll have to work smarter and have a great boss, but you can Betty White your way back to greatness. It’s happening now to scores of brands who had been simply taking a refreshing nap. Were they just lucky? Will they maintain the meteoric rise in market share? How can you make this kind of luck?
It was the summer hit we had all been waiting for. But this one wasn’t in the theaters. Netflix’ nostalgic Stranger Things bridged the generation gap like The Princess Bride. And it re-introduced us to Snack Pack in the metal can – with the lid that would cleanly sever your tongue as you licked it. Rumor has it that consumers are asking for the can and original labeling. Retro-cool!
Given how big a surprise Stranger Things was, that was some fortunate product placement. People were certainly googling about it:
Needless to say, they topped the all-time charts in the summer of 2016.
Product placement can be brilliant or it can be so bungled that it’s an eye-roller. As bad as seeing that re-targeting ad for instabrows. Snack Pack got it right, but they were probably lucky. The learning point: They took the risk and it paid off.
Birkenstock was a brand before America was a country – no kidding. First sold in the U.S. in 1967, Birkenstocks were all the rage with the flower children. Birkenstock then shuffled along, bedding the feet of people who were defiantly unconcerned about how ugly they were until they were awakened, when this happened:
Now, you can almost certainly find a celebrity to endorse your brand but, as you guessed, it’s pricey – like $50k – $250k per post for a big name with expansive reach.
But you can only use your intuition and probably limited research to determine if their audience will be receptive to your brand or make disparaging comments about you.
Of course, there are also the well-known celebrity faux pas and obvious product misfits to turn you off the Rodeo Drive of marketing. But you’re smarter than that.
Even more so than Snack Pack, Birkenstock appeared to have gotten lucky. But luck favors the prepared, as they say, and Birkenstock has moved quickly to sustain the huge growth without compromising their brand.
Pabst Blue Ribbon
Pabst, Miller, Busch, and other light lager beers were beaten down in the early-to-mid 2000s. Unsurprisingly, when offered an option for a brand their dad wouldn’t identify with or drink, Gen Ys looked to craft beer. The market’s indifferent grave digger, well-worn shovel in hand for years, turned over the soft turf in 2009. Only one brand has been lucky enough to make a comeback – Pabst. And as with our previous lucky examples, Pabst was in the right place and the right time.
The story is that a bar in Portland, which catered to thrifty bike messengers who drank $1 Blitz beer, replaced Blitz with PBR when Blitz went out of business. But it took more than one bar to pry the shovel from the calloused hands of the market.
According to a crowd of thoughtful Portland hipsters, they liked how Pabst had “no image”.
“It was just there. Scarce and cheap, it had few negative connotations beyond that it was a kind of blank canvas, where brand meaning could be filled in by consumers.”
A salient fact: Pabst did no real advertising at the time, excepting some NASCAR sponsorships. And the timing coincided with the birth of the hipster culture – young people who enthusiastically defined themselves as uniformly as the flower children of the 1960s. A third was the recession of 2008 hitting young job seekers hard by 2009. Finally, and noteworthy to our story, Instagram launched in 2010.
At this point you should be wondering whether PBR’s sales have gone as flat as last night’s last beer you opened then tossed in the fridge after binging on The OA. The answer is predictable:
So it was a fad. You may predict that Snack Pack’s and Birkenstock’s popularity will fall off in a year or two as well. But PBR and Birkenstock are making more moves to sustain their growth, unlike Snack Pack. They have three key elements in common which you can model to make your luck, then keep it.
Their Secret Recipe
I’m predicting PBR is going to stabilize and grow, but at a less frenetic pace. Same for Birkenstock. Both are doing three things I don’t see brands like Snack Pack (and maybe yours) doing:
1. Use Facebook Like Kids Do (they don’t)
Talk to ten people under the age of 30 and ask them how they use Facebook. For most, it will be some form of, “going to Thanksgiving dinner.” Their mom is worried about the damn dry turkey, your dad is reclining in his chair resting his beer on his belly and watching football, your single uncle has had a few too many, bellowing about how fantastic the turkey smells. The young interlopers are carefully interviewed like local politicians, responding politely and skillfully dodging questions about when they’re going to “settle down” and have kids.
Their lives are on Instagram and Snapchat and maybe Twitter – at least for now. Get on there right away – social gravy gets cold fast.
2. Pay It Forward
Be engaging. And by engaging, I mean be like its definition: charming, winsome, delightful. Take the time to thank as many of your community as possible. Repost their posts and promote their social feeds. But most of all, talk to them. You’ll build your community but it will be as torturously slow as walking through Times Square on a sunny summer day. Sandbag expectations.
Once your community starts growing into the few thousands, promote an “evergreen” hashtag – one that you’ll have forever. Pabst doesn’t promote one but instead, searches Instagram for mentions and reposts. Birkenstock’s is #mybirkenstock. Here’s an example:
It’s an enviable example of the power of the micro-influencer.
And it was free.
There is a third tip, and your boss may not go for it. You can get by without it, but you’ll have better success with younger consumers, which you’ll need to survive. Because when people get old and die, they can’t buy your stuff.
3. Take Risks
Birkenstock has flatly refused to compromise on the comfort of their sandals – they simply won’t make them more pretty and fashionable to make a show at fashion week. And they’ll not pay celebrities to wear their sandals. Organic, indeed.
Pabst is taking a different kind of risk. They’re reposting Instagrams that would raise most any brand manager’s instabrows.
Regardless, take a lesson from it. Pabst knows the persona of their audience. It’s not just young – there are millions of young people who would huff at seeing that post and it might even drive them away from buying PBR.
Pabst’s social audience on Instagram is young, but not real traditional. A quick look on our platform shows that they’re young, edgy, and price sensitive. Most are located on the west coast and in urban areas. They care about environmental issues. How to win them over may seem obvious to you but they still need that okay to take calculated risks and make mistakes.
If your target consumer is young moms in the midwest who are socially traditional, you can be fun with them – you can win them over with charm and wit.
You’ll need people engaging and taking risks on your social accounts who match your target markets. You’ll also need cover from your bosses to take some risks with humor.
And if you’re Snack Pack, you don’t need to repost a pic of a dude smoking weed in the bathtub, eating pudding.
Or maybe you do.
Jack is the CEO of MATTR – a full service influencer marketing company with proprietary audience matching technology.
Ferdman, R. “How Pabst Blue Ribbon Became a Billion Dollar Beer.” Quartz 2014.
“Geek Pop Star.” New Yorker (2014)
Gillespie, P. “Is PBR Still Cool? America’s Hipster Beer is Slowing Down.”CNNMoney 2015
Gladwell, M. “Outliers.” 2011.
“Gladwell’s Outliers: Timing is Almost Everything.” BloombergBusinessWeek. 2008.
Johnston, B. “the ‘instabrows’ trend.” iMessage 2017
Jordan, J. “Poem For South African Women.” (adapted)
McClelland, E. “And the Next Great American Beer Will Be…?” Salon 2008.