Dead Or Alive? Bringing Brands Back To Life

Michael StoneJanuary 14, 20195 min

We can all remember brands we loved (or not) that have disappeared. Frequently they are household name brands to which we became emotionally attached—brands to which we were loyal and for which we still have positive associations, brands we trusted. Most importantly, these brands often retain significant equity. Equity that is difficult to measure and value.

Under the right circumstances, licensing can resurrect these brands. With a well-conceived strategy, licensing can capitalize on their hard-won equity and overcome whatever challenges destroyed the brand. We can learn a great deal about brand licensing as we examine successes and failures experienced in bringing brands back.

Brands can easily be taken off the market and in the case of celebrities, pass away, but not so easily erased from our memories. There are many possible reasons for a brand’s demise, decline, and disappearance from the marketplace, and poor brand management usually is one of them. Bad management decisions and the inability to keep up with changes in the marketplace can cause an iconic brand to falter. Here are some other reasons (but not all of the reasons) iconic brands disappear:

1. The parent company stops investing in the brand’s marketing, innovation, and product development in favor of investment in other owned brands of a similar character. Example: Brim coffee (“Fill it to the rim with Brim”) ended up at Altria (the reconstituted General Foods), which also owned Maxwell House, which discontinued Brim. As companies continue to merge, brands we love may fall away as part of a large multinational’s brand portfolio.

2. Challenges in the larger economic environment limit consumers’ continued participation with the brand. Example: Gourmet magazine, founded in 1941, beloved by foodies, couldn’t survive in a marketplace with declining magazine sales and was shuttered in 2009 to give Condé Nast’s other food magazine, Bon Appétit, a better chance of survival in a challenging magazine market.

3. Strong new competitors steal share. Example: Linens ’n Things lost out to Bed Bath & Beyond.

4. Inability to keep up with trends and changing market conditions. Example: Kodak. Although not dead, certainly comatose (Kodak has licensed its name for digital cameras and 3D printers, for example). Kodak kept manufacturing film as the market turned to digital cameras and then smartphones.

5. Changes in consumer behavior, which, over time, erode the brand’s relevance. Example: Netflix saw the future, but Blockbuster didn’t. Internet services and on-demand cable services changed consumers’ behavior for accessing movies. When Netflix started sending movies to consumers, Blockbuster kept building stores. Demographic shifts in the U.S. population can also impact relevancy as immigrants and their U.S.-born children fail to develop emotional attachment to brands. Example: Hostess (maker of Twinkies and other packaged desserts) disappeared and was revived. But by the time of revival, the U.S.-born Hispanic population had grown considerably. They are more attached to the Mexican snack brand Bimbo than they are to Hostess, to which neither they nor their parents may have any attachment.

6. Financial challenges. Brands that have had great success and are beloved are not exempt from extinction. Example: Pan Am, a famous international airline carrier, fell due to financial challenges.

Consider some other recent examples of brands that disappeared:

Nokia, once the world’s #1 mobile phone, was acquired by Microsoft, which had partnered with Nokia on the co-branded Lumia phone. Microsoft phased out the Nokia brand (an almost 150-year-old Finnish brand name) to focus on Lumia, which failed. Microsoft then sold Nokia, and a newly established Finnish company was granted a license by the brand owner to reintroduce Nokia phones. This brand may yet have a second life.

Hess gas stations are gone as the parent company focuses on oil. The Amoco brand disappeared when it merged with British Petroleum, and the Amoco gas stations, a mainstay of America, were rebranded BP.

Oldsmobile, founded in 1897, an iconic automobile brand name in America, found its sales slipping when it couldn’t compete with smaller, more efficient cars, including those of its parent company General Motors. The brand closed its doors in 2004.

And who can forget Woolworth’s (well Millennials probably never knew it)? Founded in 1879, it was the leading discount retailer in the United States and changed consumer shopping behavior. It paved the way for other mass merchants that followed its model. Losses mounted and the parent company closed the last stores in 1986.

Even famous Internet brand names have disappeared. Gone are Netscape, Ask Jeeves, Hotmail, and Excite. Following the Verizon acquisition in 2017, Yahoo and AOL are struggling to become Oath.

But some dormant brands make a comeback and are revived, often through licensing as well as other models. Examples include Puma, the VW Beetle, White Cloud, Polaroid, the Cleveland Browns, Ovaltine, and Breck Shampoo.

The brands that vanished all left behind strong equities and imprints on our memories. Often, these memories are strengthened by famous taglines such as “Fill it to the rim with Brim” or “Show us your Underalls” or “We Have to Earn Our Wings Everyday” (Eastern Airlines) or “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile.” The loyalty and trust engendered by those brands doesn’t disappear quickly.

In fact, companies with a fresh or altered approach can often capitalize on existing equities, overcoming past challenges with greater flexibility, or a fresh strategy, a new consumer target, different product or retail distribution, a brand repositioning, or a modernized version.

And sometimes it’s not just how we remember the brands, but how we think we remember the brands. River West Brands was a company established to acquire the names of dead brands. Paul Earle, one of the founders, says that brand revival can take place based not only on what we remember but also “misremember” about brands. Brim was a decaffeinated coffee (that’s why you could “Fill it to the rim”), but do people really remember that or do they just remember that Brim was a coffee? River West brought it back as a full-flavored coffee, not limited to decaf. Earle believes that you can take the original value proposal of a brand and convert it into something related but different. He believes that people remember the essence of the brand but not the product specifics.

This is consistent with other brands who were revived like The Sharper Image. And in a way, it’s the secret sauce to bringing a brand back from the dead through licensing.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Michael Stone is the Chairman and Co-founder of global brand extension licensing agency Beanstalk. He is also the author of The Power of Licensing: Harnessing Brand Equity (Ankerwycke, October 2018).

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