Global brands found themselves facing a rapidly changing world as they entered the 1990s. While modern marketers might scoff at what was considered “rapidly changing” 26 years ago, cultural shifts were less niche before the internet broke them into fragments, and so the impact of choosing the “wrong” branding direction could be much more dangerous for a company’s bottom line.
The brands that prevailed in the early 90s were the ones that embraced a blossoming “alternative” culture best encapsulated in the exploding grunge and hip-hop scenes. Later in the decade, as alternative became mainstream, the commoditized aesthetic created a sort of cultural backlash. Still, while consumers may have changed dramatically over the course of ten years, many of the branding ideas and practices that found footholds in the beginning of the decade laid the foundation for what would become common practice throughout the 90s and up through today. This applies to messaging, which seemed to complete its decades-long mutation from hard-sale information to soft-sale irreverence, as well as media, which saw more and more marketers turning away from medium-specific campaigns and moving towards comprehensive multimedia strategies, including a new thing called the World Wide Web.
The brands on this list include some that were already global powerhouses heading into the decade (and remain so now), and some that were able to ride the zeitgeist – along with some strong brand marketing – to the promised land, only to crash-land when they found themselves mired in their own curated images. In fact, it’s a good marketing lesson: your brand identity can become a prison if it’s too closely bound to trends.
Successful brands leverage these trends without tying themselves to them. They represent values that transcend culture while remaining agile enough to capitalize on it when the time is right. Most of the following examples do not fit that description, which is why they’ve been, for the most part, relegated to nostalgia and novelty.
6) JNCO Jeans
The main question that comes to mind when considering the rise of JNCO Jeans is…WHAT WERE WE THINKING?
The behemoth, wide-legged jeans found a consumer-base in the alternative youth culture of the mid-to-late 90s – a culture that seemed intent on making a caricature out of every staple of the grunge scene. The JNCO Jean Company is a prime example of a brand that benefited from, but was ultimately bound by, its relationship to a trend.
In late 2015, the company tried to “rerelease” its signature jeans, hoping that enough time had passed to turn derision into nostalgia, and nostalgia into commodity. It hadn’t.
In response, this man wore the jeans for a full week (much to his girlfriend’s chagrin). The results are as humiliating as you’d imagine:
In short, we don’t see this brand making a comeback any time soon.
Unlike competitors Adidas and Nike, Reebok seemed to have really fallen off by the end of the decade. In the early 90s, though, the brand found success by aligning itself with both athletic achievement and a youthful hip-hop culture that was just starting to take off as a viable market.
The shift in brand image is clear when you compare a Reebok ad from the mid-80s to one from the early 90s:
Nike ended up going after the same dual market, but they did it better, and Reebok was essentially shoved out of its own brand position. Still, the legend of the Reebok Pumps lives on…
4) Abercrombie & Fitch
After being sold to Limited Brands at the tail end of the 80s, Abercrombie & Fitch rebranded itself from an outdoor apparel brand into a teen-focused phenomenon. The company sold preppy clothing for teens that found a hot market when the inevitable backlash to the “grunge-era” hit, becoming the go-to brand for a decidedly anti-anti-culture in the latter half of the decade.
Abercrombie & Fitch’s ads became iconic for, ironically, their lack of clothes. It was a far cry from the baggy cynicism of the Gen-Xers, instead shifting to clean-cut, all-American youth with a pronounced emphasis on sexuality (something that would create its own backlash in the 2000s).
Unfortunately, when the ever-swinging pendulum of youth culture went back towards “alternative” styles, A&F couldn’t keep up and saw profits plummet.
Buoyed by flagship creations like Mario and Donkey Kong, Nintendo became the gold standard in the gaming world and made competitors like Sega look like also-rans. The brand’s focus on establishing characters and worlds throughout sequels, spin-offs and console updates meant that the consumers’ brand connection was not only to the quality of the graphics and games, but to the characters they loved and had grown up with.
Nintendo complimented the strong foundation of game series it had developed with marketing that appealed directly to kids and young teens – loud, flashy and anti-authority, the ads not only implied that the console wasn’t for adults, they said it outright.
Nintendo finished the 90s still in a strong position, but while its main competitor, Sega, faded away by the end of the decade, new and stronger competition came along. Moving forward, Nintendo’s adherence to its colorful, kid-friendly characters and messages would become somewhat of an albatross, as its consumer base grew up, and Playstation and Microsoft capitalized with branding that appealed to older audiences looking for more grown-up themes.
AOL is a unique case, in that it succeeded mostly because of functionality and a lack of competition. As the first “online service” company, AOL benefited from a sharp increase in computer sales at the end of the millennium.
Still, the company was smart enough to leverage its market success into a strong brand. AOL’s logo, the “yellow running man,” became iconic – a symbol for the fledgling Internet and the ways in which it could connect people around the world (or, in the case of AOL’s Instant Messenger “AIM,” allowing people to connect via cheesy song lyrics and requests for a/s/l).
Unfortunately, as technology continued to evolve and surpass the company’s own capabilities, the brand began to represent something slow and outdated – a case of a brand identity so tied to an era and a product that it couldn’t transition into something new when they both ended.
Mentioned above, Nike was able to dominate the 90s with a brilliant combination of star-power, memorable advertisements and a finger placed firmly on the pulse of the culture.
Nike’s endorsement deals are legendary – Michael Jordan certainly helped usher in the globally ubiquitous version of the company we know today – but they overshadow just how revolutionary Nike’s overall advertising and branding campaigns were. From the vague but powerful slogan, “Just do it.” (launched in 1988), to the TV commercials that could have doubled as avant-garde short films, Nike became in the 90s the modern progenitor for brand marketing that favors ethos and emotion over direct messaging; implicit feelings over explicit words.
With this tactic, Nike was able to capitalize on trends, events and celebrities without ever being tied to them (they even managed to escape the Tiger Woods fiasco relatively unscathed). In the end, those things do not represent Nike’s brand. Nike instead plugs in those things to reinforce its own set of brand values – drive, determination, perseverance, grit, athleticism – values that transcend fickle cultural movements but are, instead, innately human.