One of the biggest stumbling blocks for orphan brand names is the companies that drop them, and then seek to keep them away from new owners by way of lawsuits and intimidation.
American business history is rife with hundreds of thousands of brand names that have been dropped, discontinued or made bankrupt by company managers. In some cases, these brands just lie fallow, with no one picking them up. Many are not worth reviving; either the original product was not compelling enough or the concept was lame.
But in many cases, the products or names were interesting, and companies seek to hold onto the brand, not to develop it, but to keep it away from anyone else. In the best cases, companies seek clever ways to keep the value of the brand alive, just in case it might be of use another day. Recent cases of this include the revivals of the Hyatt House and Datsun brands.
But in the worst cases, companies sue small entrepreneurs after they have trademarked a discontinued brand, saying that the new startup is “confusing” the marketplace. They have no intention of doing anything with the brand, and instead just swoop down reluctantly with high priced lawyers only when some clever entrepreneur else sees value there.
The Old Testament gives some good guidance here on how companies can behave. Many Americans who grew up “going to church” occasionally find some sort of guidance in scripture. Our whole concept of Anglo-Saxon law came out of biblical principles, most of them Old Testament.
On some really crazy days, we can even find guidance in Leviticus that fits a business situation. One that fits perfectly is Leviticus 23:22, the passage about landowners reaping the harvest, and leaving the “gleanings” to the poor and to the stranger. (Picture above is The Last Gleanings, 1895, by Jules Breton.
And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the LORD your God.
This gives clear instruction on how companies need to see their old brands. The biblical guidance is clear that the farmer (ie big company) is to fully “reap the harvest” of their field. The big company is to make money, and lots of it, hopefully hand over fist. But they are also instructed not to take every bit of the harvest, and to leave some corners for the “stranger.” The practice of destroying good brands (i.e. “making clean riddance”) only to keep them away from others seems applicable to this teaching of the man who took us out of Egypt.
So how does this apply to a large company that has shareholders and must be accountable? The lesson in the story is that when you are harvesting mass amounts in a big field, you need to go where the harvesting is most productive. You want to focus on those brands that are bringing the biggest returns, and fueling your company. But if a farmer tries to harvest too much in his field, even the dumb little scraps, the process of searching out the back corners that are not quite productive wastes time. This takes him away from the big picture, and the big returns. Squandering time on “the corners of thy field” keeps companies away from the big profits, and their need to serve society by keeping the big fields productive.
A vibrant U.S. economy will have large brands, with scale and power, that serve the masses. But a vibrant society and economy will also have small company brands around the “corners” of the market that serve create opportunities for the margins, and even the poor. These small companies not only serve the poor, they help keep the “field” open for the big farmer. A healthy field (i.e. capitalism) serves all of us well.
In most cases, the brands have been forgotten; indeed the companies have purposefully made “clean riddance of the corners” by going so far as to take down signs of old brands and root out ANY reference to the old brand name.
But what is a fair thought going forward, and what I am hopeful of, is that companies (and the lawyers that advise them) are beginning to understand that if they want to keep a field fallow, they need to work and develop it. And in the case where there are overlooked corners, they might do well to at least ponder what Moses might have done, namely leaving a bit for the stranger.