The Enduring Equity of Cougar Brands

Like Mrs. Robinson, Jiffy-Pop, Schlitz Are Sitting on Abundant Sex Appeal

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This is about brands and the product life cycle. It's an arcane subject that may be at the core of your business prospects, but it still made you nod off in business school, and ever since. "As you can see on this graph, where the X axis represents time, and the Y axis represents ..." Zzzzz.

So permit me to talk about Cougars, also known as MILFs.

The terms -- one describing the supply side of the equation, the other the demand -- both refer to attractive women of a certain age. I won't translate the acronym, which is vulgar, demeaning and juvenile (and pretty funny, if you ask me). But it does represent an interesting trend. Where sexual fantasy is concerned, old is the new young.

Why?

Well, probably Botox, lasers and liposuction have something to do with it. Between cosmetic procedures and Pilates, some women can defy gravity and physiology as never before. But it seems to me there is something else afoot here: Maturity carries with it all sorts of positive attributes, not least among them trust, experience, familiarity and know-how. This applies, yes, to some latter-day Mr. . Robinson, and it will increasingly apply to brands.

Now that may seem counterintuitive, at least according to all that is writ holy. If you'd been able to stay awake in those Marketing 101 lectures, you'd have learned that products (and, by corollary, brands) undergo a predictable life cycle: introduction, growth, maturity, decline. This is purported to be an immutable fact of commercial life, and is well-supported by history.

Studebaker. Alberto VO5. Frigidaire. Schlitz. Bufferin. Jiffy-Pop. The Whigs.

All were huge, premium brands. Now they're also-rans or extinct altogether, victims of competition, innovation, fashion, shortsighted management and a host of other factors. But there was nothing immutable or inexorable or even sensible about any of those case histories, because each brand, on the path to irrelevance, possessed a priceless treasure:

Brand equity.

They don't call it equity for nothing; awareness is an asset with bona fide cash value. On a balance sheet, it is represented as "goodwill." During the introduction and growth segments of the life cycle, millions or billions of dollars are invested to create and sustain it. So, when the brand for whatever reason loses its mojo -- whether it is usurped by innovative competitors or simply withers from management neglect -- does the equity lose its value, like so many shares of F.W. Woolworth?

Nope. Brand equity has the half-life of plutonium.

I don't know when Good & Plenty did its last brand advertising, but I sure remember Good & Plenty. I sure remember Slip 'n Slide. I sure remember Spic and Span. And I wouldn't mind owning any of those brands, because with a small investment and some loving care, it would be easy to regain distribution and sales. Why? Because brand equity is heavily leveraged. It requires a relatively small investment to unlock its vast residual value.

To introduce a new candy is a $100 million exercise. To relaunch Good & Plenty would take pennies. In a world where old is the new young, novelty is overrated. For instance, I have no doubt that some boutique brewery will go national with Yellow Sorghum Ale, or some such. But did you happen to notice the astonishing sales growth in the past five years of Pabst Blue Ribbon?

PBR! And this was accomplished without a media budget. It was done by word of mouth.

There are many such examples. The ultimate iconic American brand -- Harley-Davidson -- was not only rejuvenated, but propelled (and brand extended) to astonishing heights. The clothing chain Bebe, having forged an untapped market for young-adult designs, went stagnant until contemporizing (i.e., slutifying) its line in combination with a rebranding that literally placed the brand logo at the dead center of all advertising. The canvas-sneaker category alone offers two examples: Converse All-Stars and Jack Purcell. P.F. Flyers is making a move, too. Yo, Keds, get busy.

As we veer ever farther from the mass-messaging era into the relationship era of marketing, the value of existing relationships can only skyrocket. As the poet said...

We'd like to know a little bit about you for our files
We'd like to help you learn to help yourself
Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes
Here's to you, Mr. . Robinson. If you are trying to seduce me, why, you just go right ahead.

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