5 Brands That Abandoned Their Fan Base

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Even brands with a solid core of loyalists let their eyes wander.

Even when you're older and more established, there's something about that younger demographic and its cache of cool that makes you want to shed your company's retro logo, spruce up its packaging, do some social media promotion and get the old buzz machine cranking again. Who knows, maybe you'll make some best-of lists, develop an ironic following among hipsters and make a cameo in Girls or a Duplass brothers film.

At worst, maybe you'll just shed those lame, dusty old consumers who've supported you so faithfully throughout the years. Maybe they built you into the behemoth you are today, but they're making you feel lame by association and really putting a damper on that whole new image you're trying to cultivate for yourself.

Coca-Cola's ( KO) introduction of New Coke in 1985 and its subsequent reversal and re-release of the original formula as Coca-Cola Classic just three months later is the unquestioned standard for how ditching your original fan base can go wrong, but there are also a handful out there who turned their back on their biggest fans and took it to the next level successfully. We surveyed the retail landscape and found just five examples of companies who forsook their original followings for a shot at something bigger. Here's how it turned out:

Apple ( AAPL)

Revisionist history paints Apple as the easy, out-of-the-box alternative to PC products that vaulted its way to stardom one dancing iPod-listening silhouette at a time.

In reality, you have to go back to 1998 to see just how much the company has changed. Before then, Apple was just a high-priced computer line with a slick interface, a rotating selection of software and operating systems and a whole lot of deep-pocketed fans in the design world. Oh, and it was trading at roughly $7 a share.

By 1998, however, they figured out that if you get those same design folks to build you a funky package for an easy, standardized, ready-to-use product, people will lose their minds over it. Thus the iMac was born and those first, colorful computers sold 800,000 units in their first five months. That was the blueprint: a deceptively simple piece of hardware with all its components made under the same umbrella and with an intuitive design and interface that rendered the instruction manual a pulpy spare part.

While Apple didn't ditch the design community, it had definitely gone mainstream. In three years, its core contingent of design geeks with G4s creating magazine pages, furniture and home layouts would be replaced by the kid on the F train listening to The Strokes through a fresh pair of earbuds. While Apple investors may bemoan the fact that the company is off its $700-a-share high, that 6,286% appreciation since the iMac has to come as some consolation.

Target ( TGT)

In the early '90s, Target may as well have been Sears ( SHLD) or Wal-Mart ( WMT). The company was expanding, buying up retailers like Marshall Field's and even starring in the early Jennifer Connelly film Career Opportunities, but was just as faceless a discount chain as any of its other competitors.

Not that there was anything wrong with that. Minnesota and Midwest shoppers didn't head to Target for its cultural appeal, but for deals. In 1994, however, newly installed Chief Executive Bob Ulrich knew that wasn't going to be enough to separate it from the pack. At the time, the chain was fending off a buyout bid from JC Penney ( JCP) and juggling the Dayton's, Hudson's, Marshall Field's and Mervyns chains in search of an identity.

Ulrich got the idea that if you stick with low-ish prices but add high-quality products such as architect Michael Graves' brand of home goods, Isaac Mizrahi's clothing line and Alton Brown cookware, you could lure a different brand of customer into your store. When that plan went into action in 1999, profits hit $1.1 billion, nearly tripling the chain's $460 million take in 1996. It bulked up Target.com to compete with Amazon ( AMZN) and started drawing college kids and their middle- to upper-middle-class families who got off on pronouncing the chain's name with the Francophone "Tar-zhay." By 2000, the parent company's name changed from Dayton-Hudson to Target Corp. Its non-Target stores were rebranded as Marshall Field's and sold off.

While Target's original core was somewhat siphoned off by Wal-Mart, its new clientele worked out just fine. The recession led Target to scale back its upmarket discount offerings a bit, but its share price has more than doubled since its 1999 shakeup. It's not your grandma and grandpa's Target, but with forward-thinking plans such as smaller, urban-based CityTarget, it's sure their great-grandkids' shop of choice.

Redhook ale

It's been a long, weird road out of Seattle for one of that city's pioneer craft breweries but, somewhere along that more than 30-year odyssey, Redhook got lost in the woods.

Founded by Paul Shipman and Starbucks ( SBUX) co-founder Gordon Bowker in 1981, Redhook rode the early success of simple, yet flavorful brews including its Wit, Pilsner, Long Hammer IPA and especially its flagship ESB to tap handles across the country. With its Evergreen State big fir logo and Pacific Northwest creativity, it expanded its empire to an East Coast brewery in Portsmouth, N.H., and became the first bicoastal craft brewer decades before West Coast breweries such as Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues started scouting out real estate in North Carolina.

Like those breweries, however, Redhook had to find a way to make its '80s and early '90s microbrew success relevant in a new craft beer climate. While die-hards still loved its timber lodge style tasting rooms in Portsmouth and Woodinville, Wash. -- where it relocated when its operations outgrew existing space in Seattle -- its beers were a familiar face being taken for granted on store shelves.

In 2008, Redhook made a big play for market share and visibility when it teamed up with Portland, Ore.-based Widmer Brothers Brewing to form the Craft Brewers Alliance. In a move that polarizes the craft beer community to this day -- and stripped Redhook and Widmer of their "craft" distinction in the eyes of the Brewers Association craft beer industry group -- the brewers gave Anheuser-Busch InBev ( BUD) a 32.2% stake in the operation in exchange for access to its sprawling distribution network.

As far as Redhook's critics are concerned, this is where we can end the story. It's not. Despite the alliance, now known as the Craft Brew Alliance ( BREW), and the A-B distribution, Redhook was pretty much the same beer it ever was. It released a 30th-anniversary brew in 2011 that tasted a whole lot like a banana-flavored German Aventinus and began a brewmaster's series to go back to its small-brewing roots. At the same time, it changed its packaging to snub-nosed bottles to distinguish itself on shelves.

Those stubby bottles should have been a big red flag warning about what was to come a year later, when Redhook decided to remake itself as the SpikeTV of craft beer. It turned its Pale Ale into "Audible Ale" and partnered with sports radio host and former ESPN fixture Dan Patrick to promote it -- with Redhook and Patrick sponsoring a contest featuring the "Redhook Ultimate Mobile ManCave" as its prize. In July, Redhook begins a partnership with chicken-and-jumbo-TV chain Buffalo Wild Wings ( BWLD) that will put Redhook's Game Changer Ale -- being brewed especially for the sports-centric casual dining spot -- on tap at more than 900 locations nationwide. Its annual concert series at its Woodinville brewery, meanwhile, has been redubbed "Sausagefest."

That term could easily be applied to Redhook's new business plan as well. So why is a more than 30-year-old company diving so deeply into the sports-and-bro market and leaving its more earthy, feminine side behind? Because it has to. Simply put, it's not pulling its weight in the Craft Brew Alliance and makes up only 28% of sales, compared with 39% for Widmer and 33% for 2010 pickup Kona. Sadly for Redhook, Kona is leaving it in the dust with 34% growth last year alone.

That doesn't mean Redhook is on the wrong track, however. After the sportier, manlier push that included an official beer for the Emerald City Supporters -- the giant fan group that backs Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders -- Redhook's sales increased 10% last year and have continued climbing through the first quarter of 2013. The blatant push for the 21- to 35-year-old male demographic seems cynical on its surface, but those bros may just save the brand.

Cracker Jack

If the New Coke fiasco should have taught MBAs and marketing majors anything, it's that consumers don't just relinquish their sentimental favorite brands easily.

Cracker Jack has been building equity since it was introduced at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. It's been a staple of Take Me Out to the Ballgame since 1908. Whenever some yahoo tries to pull it out of a baseball stadium in favor of a knockoff, as the New York Yankees' director of stadium hospitality did in 2004, the response is often so face-meltingly vitriolic that its return becomes inevitable.

Despite that fervor and fans' continued complaints about the degeneration of toys from tin whistles to little scraps of paper and the nearly complete disappearance of peanuts, Cracker Jack owner Frito-Lay continues to mess with the brand and poke the bear. In the latest round of a game the PepsiCo ( PEP) marketing team likely refers to as "Shut Up, Old Man" when nobody's listening, Frito-Lay decided to go '90s on Cracker Jack this year and make it all sorts of extreme.

In a new line rebranded as (we're not kidding) "Cracker Jack'D," Frito-Lay has coated its peanut and popcorn mix with flavors such as "Spicy Pizzeria," "Cocoa Java" and "Salted Caramel." The marketeers reason that millennials aren't hitting the Cracker Jack in huge numbers because it "isn't relevant to them" and they "want more intense flavors and a wider variety of textures." Keep in mind, they're talking about the same generation that's embraced Pabst Blue Ribbon and helped revive vinyl records.

The company swears it's keeping the original around and might even throw in extra peanuts and mobile-app prizes if baby boomers behave themselves. But even Frito-Lay's recent figures suggest this is going to turn Cracker Jack into a sticky mess for the company. Frito-Lay's profits grew 1% last year, to $3.6 billion, but much of that came from old standards such as Doritos. Also, isn't Frito-Lay's parent company the same group that gave America real-sugar Pepsi in throwback cans and taco Doritos in retro bags?

If the changing face of Cracker Jack doesn't scare off loyal customers, the added heart-jolting caffeine that The Center For Science in the Public Interest found in the new "Jack'd" flavors just might.


By 2006, Louis Roederer's Cristal was no longer the aspirational champagne of choice that the world's elite ordered behind closed doors away, from the rabble. It was inextricably linked to hip-hop and its air of elitism intertwined with hip-hop's culture of cool in what appeared to be a symbiotic relationship.

It turned out to be anything but. The makers of the champagne originally produced for Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1876 apparently didn't like seeing New York rappers such as Diddy, Notorious B.I.G., Big L, 50 Cent and Jay-Z flaunting it in videos and -- in Diddy's case -- spitting a nearly $100 swig of it at the camera. When asked about Cristal's place in the "bling lifestyle" by The Economist in 2006, Louis Roederer's managing director Frederic Rouzaud answered an extraordinarily dumb question with some ignorance of his own.

"That's a good question, but what can we do?" he replied. "We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business."

That was only Rouzaud's first mistake. His second was assuming that renaissance man Jay-Z wouldn't read The Economist. Jay-Z, who was selling Cristal for $450 to $600 a bottle at his 40/40 sports clubs, immediately pulled it from his wine lists in favor of Dom Perignon and Krug and proceeded to scorch the earth by issuing the following statement:

"It has come to my attention that the managing director of Cristal, Frederic Rouzaud, views the 'hip-hop' culture as 'unwelcome attention.' I view his comments as racist and will no longer support any of his products through any of my various brands, including the 40/40 Club, nor in my personal life."

Cristal didn't just turn on its loving audience, it spat on it and insulted it so badly that hip-hop's flagbearer basically banished it from the kingdom. When writing about it four years later in his book Decoded, Jay-Z posited that Cristal trapped itself in the belief that its previously obscure luxury brand was elevating the hip-hop community, when perhaps the opposite was true. "With language, rappers have raided the dictionary and written in new entries to every definition -- words with one or two meanings now have 12. The same thing happens with brands -- Cristal meant one thing, but hip-hop gave its definition some new entries. The same goes for other brands: Timberland and Courvoisier, Versace and Maybach. We gave those brands a narrative, which is one of the reasons anyone buys anything: not just to own a product, but to become part of a story."

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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