What is BrandlandUSA?
In the creative destruction of capitalism, companies change, merge and die. As a former board-member and officer to historic preservation organizations in his home state of Virginia, he regularly saw that process in action. To preserve commercial buildings, often the most interesting part of the building’s history, the store, would never re-open. For preservation to truly succeed, the commercial history and company was a necessary part of that preservation effort, particularly with buildings connected with retailing.
Very often, many of the brand names that are assets in this natural process are forgotten or cast aside, often unintentionally. As a former employee of Colonial Williamsburg Reproductions retail store Craft House, he saw firsthand that revived regional products and brands, even from two centuries ago and under a deceased (and unknown) tradesman’s name, had value, not only in the history that it taught, but the value that the object had in the present. Williamsburg brought back Tarpley’s Store, the Raleigh Tavern Bakery, King’s Arms Tavern, Shields Tavern, Christiana Campbell’s and many other historic businesses. They then reproduced historic furniture. The public was highly amused.
Why bother? Isn’t a dead brand evidence in itself that it should be a dead brand?
Sometimes. A tainted product like A. H. Robins’ Dalkon Shield, or a long-forgotten product like a minor regional produce brand probably cannot be brought back. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Very often, there is a new market for an old brand; for instance, A.H. Robins could have survived, not as a pharmaceutical company, but as a health and beauty brand.
Technology changes. But, if there is no longer a technology need for GE’s Magicube, the iconography of the Magicube could show up licensed on a store brand camera, a piece of photography related software, a campy T-shirt, a scrap book line, a brand of lighting for photography or even a photography studio. It may not be worth it for GE, but sometimes a smaller company can extract value and in the process protect the legacy for the larger company.
What should a company do if it has a brand that seems no longer worth producing?
Find a home for it, and talk to us. An unused brand name can disappear after non-use. (Read New York attorney Ron Coleman’s Likelihood of Confusion blog for more legal information on this fascinating area of case law.) An interim step is to use the brand name for a corporate subsidiary, or produce periodic promotional items with the trademark. Like the preservation of a historic building, you need to store it somewhere.
If a company cannot make the market case to still produce a brand, it can license the brand to others, use the name equity for a new product line, sell it to outsiders or turn the product into a niche brand. The key for the company is to keep the name in use to preserve the rights. Like a historic building, often the use for a historic brand does not immediately appear, and brands can be preserved until a new use appears.
The important thing is for the company owners of old brands to not look backward at past problems, but forward to simple, low cost steps to preserve that value in case the name has a future use. An example of this is Philip Morris, which has continued production of English Ovals cigarettes. Or Coca-Cola with Tab. While they are not blockbuster products, it keeps the brand alive and sells to niche audiences that might not be interested in big brand products. Tab has a hard core group of product fans, and keeping them happy not only helps sell Tab, but make fans of the parent Coca-Cola brand. If the brand is needed for a later brand extension or re-launch, it is there on the shelf with a clear legal title to the name.
Is there a precedent for bringing a dead brand back?
Many brands have come back to life. We might also call it restarting production. In the car industry, the Mini disappeared, then returned. Other dead “brands” that have had successful reissues or reinventions include:
- Lilly Pulitzer
- The Olympics
- College of William & Mary
- Fox News, there was once Fox Movietone News
- Vanity Fair magazine
What are some brands that could be revived?
BrandlandUSA has a Top List of nearly 100 brands that ought to be brought back. These brands include Bonwit Teller, Morton Frozen Foods, Burger Chef, Fisher Body, Romper Room, Oldsmobile, French Lines, B. Altman and Marshall Field’s.
Is there a biology component to branding?
Brand names, like all words, are keys to remembering. Killing off a brand is like killing off a native language. Much more is lost than what first appears on the surface. To use a Mazola commercial example, when we say “corn” or “maize” we get two different connotations. If we kill off one of the words, we lose something larger, even though the actual physical item, the corn itself, remains. To retrieve information, we need to keep the ideas and thoughts indexed, and words (and icons, colors and other parts of branding) are a main way we index consumer information. When a brand is lost, so are many ideas behind the brand. The brain never fully recovers the severed connections.
What does a disappeared brand do to the American identity?
Rightly or wrongly, many of our brands have been pitched to us as necessary to our psyche, identity and well-being. While this may not be true, we as a culture struggle and suffer when things are lost. This effect can be seen best with downtown department stores. In the 20th century, these stores were regional attractions that had loyal followings, and were marketed as literally part of each citizen’s family and religious traditions. Some of these stores even owned the Christmas holiday. So when the stores closed, disappeared, merged or morphed, an important part of American identity was lost. We grieved.
Some brand revivals have been failures, or less than successful. Why bother? Does anyone really want Body on Tap shampoo?
Of course, many brand revivals have not worked, or have been less than successful. Some are only a shadow of their original versions, and others seem to look pitiful beside the legacy of the original brand. For instance, Pan American World Airways (which has actually stopped as an entity twice) exists now as a licensing entity, a New England railroad and a charter/commuter airline. Even Body on Tap came back.
Best & Co., once a prominent New York department store, is now a small Greenwich, Conn. boutique. While these brands are small compared to the original, they keep the legacy and history of the brand alive. In addition, all former great brands were once small companies, so to be a great brand again, the reinvented company must start small all over again.
Is this backwards looking?
Of course, but what is valuable about a brand is more than its physical presence. It is the spirit, people and ideas that surrounded a brand. For instance, when we talk about about the shut down of Oldsmobile, what we miss is the ideas, people and culture that surrounded the brand. Each company in the United States is precious, and we need to nurture not only new start ups, but older companies that might have lost their way. When a brand goes, so does the intellectual and spiritual capital that surrounded it.
What can I do to help?
- First, you can learn about the brand names that you love, and support them. Pester companies with letters, advice and interest. Most brands have web-based fan sites. Consumers need to drive the process, and companies have come to recognize the value of fan clubs, fan meetings and collector groups to help legitimize the value of their brands. Even dead brands like Oldsmobile (as well as dead product-model brands) have large collector bases, and these interest groups drive the understanding and appreciation for the history of brand names. Strangely, companies sometimes do not realize the love and affection consumers have for their brands, and sometimes look down upon this sort of thing, though grow to love it when they see that it affects the bottom line.
- Second, you can collect the history of the brand, preserving the consumer objects that were part of a brand. User content websites like Wikipedia are an excellent forum for posting that user-created history; even better create a website around your favorite missing product.
- You can document buildings and people associated with the history of the brand. This helps to keep brands associated with founding communities and company towns, where these companies names are often held with affection.
- Lastly, you can check to our site, add our comments, and follow our progress.
What are the long-term plans for BrandlandUSA?
- First, we are building an audience and adding content to www.BrandlandUSA.com.
- In the distant future, we hope this blog can underline the need for a permanent place where the general public can experience historic brands and learn about business and economic history in the process. While many larger companies have their own brand archives, very often smaller, struggling companies cannot afford to do this. This archive would include advertising, promotional materials, signage, product manuals, oral histories and actual products. Many dead brands were produced by companies that are no longer related to their original business. These companies have no interest in taking their company backward. Business is always forward looking, and so we hope to help companies preserve those products, ideas, case studies and records.
How can we get in touch?