FOR YEARS, AMERICAN ROCK STARS facing declining popularity at home have headed for the greener pastures of Asia, where they could revive their careers and play to throngs of still-adoring fans. (Just Google the phrase "big in Japan.") Now, scores of brands with sagging fortunes in the United States are reinventing themselves as must-have luxury items in the Far East, a strategy they've adopted with particular fervor in the wake of the global economic downturn. They may not play in Peoria anymore, but the better question is this: Can they sell in Shanghai instead?
AMERICA'S OLDEST SURVIVING automobile brand, a division of beleaguered General Motors (GM), spent decades establishing a reputation for sensible luxury suitable for retirees and small-town doctors. But in 2005, after years of poor sales, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz famously called Buick a "damaged brand," and speculation was rife that the Detroit auto giant would pull the plug.
Instead, Buick was saved by China, which was nearly a century into a love affair with the venerable make by the nine GM reintroduced it there in 1998. According to GM, nationalist hero Sun Yat-sen owned one, and the last emperor Pu Yi's two Buicks were the first cars to enter the Forbidden City in 1924. Zhou Enlai's Buick, reportedly "acquired" from the emperor after the communist takeover, was the late premier's prized possession. Today, Buick is one of China's leading luxury-car brands and a status symbol for the young, upwardly mobile business elite. In 2010, Buick sold more than 550,000 vehicles on the mainland, at least triple what it sold in the United States.
PABST BLUE RIBBON
THIS ILLINOIS-BASED beer is no stranger to reinvention. After decades as a staple of stadiums and dive bars in the upper Midwest, the brew was improbably adopted in the early 2000s by coastal hipsters eager to appropriate its working-class cachet. But PBR'S latest act, in China, is even more remarkable.
Forget $1 cans: In China it is called Pabst Blue Ribbon 1844, and it costs 300 yuan, or $46, per bottle. Ads call it a "world-famous spirit" on par with Scotch whisky and French brandy. To be fair, it's not the same swill you find in Williamsburg: Sold in an elegant bottle and aged in wooden casks, the beer is meant to be savored in a champagne flute. But PBR'S Chinese fans apparently haven't seen the film Gran Torino, in which a gruff Clint Eastwood downs cans of Pabst and growls epithets at his Asian neighbors.
KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN
THIS FAST-FOOD GIANT'S American franchises are commonly found in drab strip malls, where they dish out buckets of starchy, guilt-inducing Southern comfort food. In Asia, however, KFC stands for something far different. …