For those who are interested in a perfect case study of how to revive a dead brand, look no further than Miami-based Perry Ellis International‘s revival of the Munsingwear Penguin.
On an October 2007 weekend trip to Miami’s South Beach, the two-year-old flagship company store on Lincoln Road Mall was hopping (or flapping).
Penguin was a spin off of Minneapolis-based Munsingwear, itself one of the early American clothing brands. Munsingwear was founded in 1887; Munsingwear’s history, born as Northwestern Knitting Company, was one of innovation. The company’s founder, George Munsing, took the itch out of woolen underwear by milling cotton and silk with wool. Munsingwear became a top American clothing brand. In the 1940s, it even made American-flag bras and girdles.
Today, the brand “Munsingwear” mostly connotes union suits and underwear, though the company made a wide variety of clothing including Vassarette intimate ladies’ apparel, Grand Slam sportswear and Kangaroo “pocket” underwear. Vassarette is an interesting case in itself as a diminished brand; it was, perhaps, the first Victoria’s Secret and was thought of as a high-end brand but today is mostly found at Wal-Mart.
Penguin was a sub-brand of Munsingwear, and became the golf shirt of icons like Arnold Palmer, Richard Nixon and Bing Crosby (click here to see the shirts in a vintage Key Biscayne photo with Eastern Airlines founder Eddie Rickenbacker).
By the 1970s, the Penguin brand was tired, and if traditional brand theories were to be applied by wonky brand managers, the brand would have been dead forever, as focus groups would have associated it with with out-of-fashion grand-dads of the early 1980s. But in 2002, Perry Ellis was more visionary than that, and they revived the brand. It was a hit among males 25-45, though we are sure it has a few fans in the 70-plus market too. The old guys give the Penguin street-cred.
Why did it work? The new look for Penguin was not ironic or updated at all. The logo (seen at right) was EXACTLY the same. In fact, the un-baggy feel of the Penguin shirts was in stark contrast to the rap-baggy clothes sold everywhere. It was just a good-fitting shirt in colors that were serious. What was genius about the revival: It all had the feel of Johnny Carson; Palm Springs, 1972.
The South Beach company store has a strong concept of the brand; for instance, in the back, a large color portrait of a 1970s family dominates. A clerk said that it was the head of the brand’s family. One would assume to be the family of George Feldenkreis, who turned a small importer of Cuban shirts into what is now Perry Ellis International. (Actually, a blog post comment below says it is Chris Kolbe, head of the brand for Perry Ellis. A picture from the New York opening, as well as the family photo, is here. ) This is as far away from Abercrombie as it gets, and it works.
At the shop, the clerk asked if I had grown up with the brand. Oh, no. It was out of fashion by the 1970s; by then Izod Lacoste, Boast and Polo had taken over knit golf and tennis shirts. Instead, Penguin was a brand for grand-dads, sold in those suit stores that had “sport shirt” sections. (In my case, I think I recall it being sold at the men’s store C.C. Baker on Hampton Boulevard in Norfolk near Old Dominion University. And yes, my grandfather took me there.)
The clerk then said that most of the current Penguin customers didn’t actually ever wear the shirts back then; instead they had dads or grand-dads who did.
BRANDLAND USA RULE: If a company shuts down a brand because it is not attracting younger consumers, wait a generation, and start it up again, but don’t screw it up and change it. This was the case with Munsingwear’s Penguin, which came back pretty much like it was.
The next generation, when it gets older, will find the brand hip again. This is a lesson for General Motors, which unnecessarily killed off Oldsmobile. Wait a few years, and bring the Olds Vista Cruiser back. All those men wearing Penguin shirts need something to drive in.