Reviving A Legacy Brand

Steve RivkinMay 3, 20125 min

Ovaltine is reintroduced with new advertising but the same old orange jar. Sales of the century-old, malt-extract, milk flavoring powder doubled in the first 100 days. Coca-Cola brings back the 40-year-old Fresca brand of citrus soft drinks with a graphics makeover and new flavor combinations.

Can everything old be new again?

As the publisher of BrandlandUSA, Garland Pollard is an expert on America’s legacy brands. A native of Virginia Beach, VA, he is active in historic building preservation efforts – and in a sense, his study of the value and tradition of “old brands” serves that same purpose for marketers and brand-builders.

We asked him about the lore of old brand names – and what they mean for today’s marketers.

Q: What are some notable brand names that are coming back to life?

Recently I’ve written about Hyatt bringing back its storied Hyatt House name, as a re-branding of its Hyatt Summerfield Suites extended stay properties. A Hyatt House was the place to stay in the 1970s – a smart, slick, modern hotel.

And it appears Nissan is driving the Datsun name out of the brand graveyard. Datsun will reappear in emerging markets such as Indonesia, India and Russia as an entry-level economy brand. It’s another example of how companies can re-use their brand names a few decades down the line.

Q: The brokerage firm name E. F. Hutton was well-known 25 years ago with their slogan “When E. F. Hutton talks, people listen.” Now the name is being revived for a boutique financial advisory firm. Your thoughts?

It’s a brilliant idea. It has incredible name recognition for people who are over 50, which is a target audience. Best yet, it really became a consumer brand because of all the network TV advertising. And Wall Street has such a bad reputation we need some “old school” folks who can bring credibility to it.

Looks like it was started by someone within the family, which makes it totally credible. Bringing notables from the past to any future launch event is also a good tactic because of the institutional knowledge in those folks.

Q: Are there lessons here about the future of brand names?

Brands let us travel back and forth in time; you are in a sort of heaven, where time is present, past and future at the same moment. When you step into Saks Fifth Avenue’s main store, you go into the 1930s, but you are also very much in 2012, and are also in part of something that has a future. It’s alive. Great brands move to a classic point, where the company knows how to keep them relevant without ruining the original appeal.

Q: But isn’t a “dead brand” evidence that the marketplace has simply moved on, and left that brand behind?

No. Certainly some brands are useless, but the failure is almost always one of management, not the brand itself. A great current example is Instagram; they are worth $1 billion, and Kodak is broke. The idea was the “snapshot” and Instagram is really just selling the new version of the same idea of the Kodak snapshot. Companies use the killing off of the brand to cover up their failure; it’s the “brand’s” fault, not the management. Most brand names are good enough to adapt to the times.

Q: So you’re arguing that a brand is more than its physical presence. True?

It’s sort of a collective idea plus a collection of physical items, a collection of stories and myths and a group of people who like it. The problem is when the companies begin to believe that the brand is theirs. They never just belong to a company. Of course, legally they belong to the company, but the minute the company starts believing that it can dictate everything about the brand is the minute they forget their customers.

Q: What are some examples of other brands that have come back to life?

Here are just a few: Mini Cooper, the Beetle, every revived Broadway show, Lilly Pulitzer, College of William & Mary. Hawaii 5-O is back. Jeep is bringing back the Wagoneer, that stately wood-paneled chariot of the Reagan era, to overseas markets.

Q: The president of J. B. Williams Company once said of his dated Brylcreem, AquaVelva and Lectric Shave brands, “There’s a franchise there that even neglect couldn’t destroy.” Does that mean there are opportunities for entrepreneurs in bringing back old brands?

Lots. It’s not just about trying to snag great some goodwill. It’s about looking at what the market needs, and satisfying it. But the hardest part is that even if you get the rights to the brand, you still have to figure out how to recreate it. And with that, you are bound by another story, another entrepreneur’s struggle from a long time ago.

Q: Is there a marketplace for people to buy and sell old brands?

This has been slow to develop, as companies still do not really understand the value in old brands. There is plenty of licensing, which even has its own trade shows, but even that market didn’t develop until Disney and the invention of motion pictures. There are of course business brokers, who can sell businesses and goodwill. And then there is private capital, which seems to me more interested, of late, in sucking cash out of companies.

I am more interested in some sort of neutral ground, where other executives can begin to see what other companies need, and how they might find new uses for these assets, perhaps in shedding old brands as ventures into new spin-off companies. The key to success is unbiased research and history; if you don’t know the history of why the company declined, you can’t revive the brand. You have to understand the brand, and that takes insight, not just trolling the Trademark Office for expired brand names.

Q: Finally, a personal question. You worked years ago at Colonial Williamsburg. Did that spark your interest in long-ago products and brands?

I worked there in college at William & Mary, and my great-grandfather was mayor during its restoration. In Virginia, the story of what happened in Williamsburg was a story of hope in the middle of the Great Depression. There was this dead town, where all the buildings were run down. But with Rockefeller money and a lot of inspiration, it literally came back to life.

Today, we think of it as a museum, but what was the most fascinating about it was that the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin and John D. Rockefeller Jr. decided that the town’s business and industry needed to be re-created, too. So anything they found became a potential for reproductions or inspiration for interpretive items that were based on old items. In addition, they began to unearth bits of pottery and get companies like Wedgwood to recreate the patterns. The stores were also re-opened, so suddenly Josiah Chowning’s Tavern was real again after 200 years, serving up beer.

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