Rob Walker | Essays

Can a Dead Brand Live Again?

The coffee brand? Perhaps you recall its advertising slogan: “Fill it to the rim — with Brim!” Those ads haven’t been shown in years, and Brim itself has been off retail shelves since the 1990s. Yet depending on how old you are, there’s a fair chance that there’s some echo of the Brim brand in your brain. That’s no surprise, given that from 1961 to around 1995, General Foods spent tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to get it there. But General Foods disappeared into the conglomerate now known as Altria, which also acquired Kraft, maker of Maxwell House. With much smaller sales than that megabrand, Brim soon disappeared — except, perhaps, for a vague idea of Brim that lingered, and lingers even now, in the minds of millions of consumers.

What’s that worth? A small company in Chicago, called River West Brands, figures that it’s definitely worth something, and possibly quite a lot. The firm did its own research a year or so ago and claims that among people over the age of 25, Brim had 92 percent “aided national awareness.” What this means is that if you ask people anywhere in America if they have ever heard of Brim, about 9 out of 10 will say yes. If true, that’s potentially a big deal. Building that level of recognition for a new brand of coffee — or anything else — from scratch would involve an astronomical amount of money, a great deal of time, or both.

Marketers like to talk about something called brand “equity,” a combination of familiarity and positive associations that clearly has some sort of value, even if it’s impossible to measure in a convincing empirical way. Exploiting the equity of dead or dying brands — sometimes called ghost brands, orphan brands or zombie brands — is a topic many consumer-products firms, large and small, have wrestled with for years. River West’s approach is interesting for two reasons.

One is that for the most part the equity — the idea — is the only thing the company is interested in owning. River West acquires brands when the products themselves are dead, not merely ailing. Aside from Brim, the brands it acquired in the last few years include Underalls, Salon Selectives, Nuprin and the game maker Coleco, among others. “In most cases we’re dealing with a brand that only exists as intellectual property,” says Paul Earle, River West’s founder. “There’s no retail presence, no product, no distribution, no trucks, no plants. Nothing. All that exists is memory. We’re taking consumers’ memories and starting entire businesses.”

The other interesting thing is that when Earle talks about consumer memory, he is factoring in something curious: the faultiness of consumer memory. There is opportunity, he says, not just in what we remember but also in what we misremember.

River West is a young company, and few of its ideas have been directly tested in the marketplace. The revival of Brim, for instance, has yet to crystallize into a plan with real manufacturing and distribution partners. But River West is starting to bring some familiar names back into the consumer realm. It is thanks to River West that you can buy Nuprin again at CVS. The firm has also played a role in the return of Eagle Snacks to some grocery-store aisles. In late January, Drugstore.com began accepting orders for Salon Selectives, which is also making its way into 10,000 stores, including every Rite Aid in America and grocery chains like Winn-Dixie and Pathmark. And by way of a deal with River West, Phantom, a Canadian hosiery manufacturer, is pushing a new version of Underalls to department-store and boutique clients in the U.S.

Whether these brand-reanimation efforts pan out as a successful business strategy or not, they offer an unusual perspective on the relationship between brands and the brain. By and large, examinations of successful branding tend to focus on names like Harley-Davidson, Apple or Converse, which have developed “cult” followings. Such cases are misleading, though, because they are not typical of most of what we buy. A great deal of what happens in the consumer marketplace does not involve brands with zealous loyalists. What determines whether a brand lives or dies (or can even come back to life) is usually a quieter process that has more to do with mental shortcuts and assumptions and memories — and all the imperfections that come along with each of those things.

River West’s offices, on the 36th floor of the Chicago Board of Trade Building, are sprinkled with the bric-a-brac of obscure products: a Quisp cereal box, Ipana toothpaste packages, Duz detergent bottles. On a wall of Paul Earle’s office is a framed, five-foot-by-three-foot sheet of uncut “Wacky Packages” stickers — those 1970s trading-card-size brand-parody images that rendered the word Crust in the style of the Crest logo, for example. Earle has a Midwestern everyman quality about him: he’s compact, with a big and friendly let’s-get-along voice and a penchant for deadpan jokes. Only his designer-eyeglass frames deviate from his overall demeanor.
Earle loves brands. They are not mere commercial trademarks to him, but pieces of Americana. He seems not just nostalgic but almost hurt about the fate of the “castoff brands” of the world. “If commerce is part of the American fabric, then brands are part of the American fabric,” he said to me on one occasion. “When a brand goes away, a piece of Americana goes away.”

Earle’s professional entanglement with branding began at Saatchi & Saatchi, where he was a cog in a gigantic ad agency working for gigantic clients, like General Mills and Johnson & Johnson. That was in the mid-1990s, and he saw what happened as conglomerates merged: brands that didn’t have the potential for global scale got squeezed to the bottom shelf, or out of existence. He was attracted to the idea of working with “noncore” brands, but when he figured out that big-agency economics made it impractical, he left Saatchi and went to the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and then took a brand-management job at Kraft.

At Kraft he observed the same mergers-and-consolidation process from a different angle, and he seems to have found it equally frustrating. “These are American icons with loyal consumers,” he says. “It’s not their fault a $40 billion company doesn’t like them anymore. Consumers like them.” He sees reviving brands as “a civic mission” of sorts. “If it weren’t my job,” he said, “it would be my hobby.” He says this in a way that sounds not just plausible but hard to doubt.

Even so, he has set out to make this particular civic mission turn a profit. While he recognizes that a given brand might not be able to survive in the portfolio of a multinational, different sorts of business models might work to sustain it. As surely as the ownership of brands has consolidated through one megamerger after another, the consumer market seems to be moving in the opposite direction, with an individualism-fueled demand for almost unlimited variety. Earle’s theory is that such demand means room for brands like the ones River West owns, and his idea is facing its most significant test to date, by way of the reanimation of Salon Selectives.

Helene Curtis began selling this line of shampoos in 1987, and sales shot past the $100 million mark within a year or so. It was, one Wall Street enthusiast claimed at the time, “probably the most successful hair-care launch in the history of the universe.” Heavily advertised, the brand was a pioneer of the sales pitch, now routine, of a “salon” product available for home use. Unilever bought Helene Curtis in 1996, acquiring a new batch of cosmetic, shampoo and deodorant brands that had to be integrated into those the conglomerate already offered.

It’s often hard to pin down the exact moment a brand disappears, because a product can linger on retail shelves for quite a while before it’s sold down or otherwise liquidated. But by the early 2000s, Salon Selectives had become a casualty of brand-portfolio consolidation. A few years later, River West acquired what was left of it: intellectual property like the trademarks and the original formulas.

River West’s partner in the Salon Selectives effort is called SSB, which has five full-time employees coordinating the efforts of various subcontractors (manufacturers, package-makers) out of River West’s offices. Selective Beauty is run by Gene Zeffren, a former top executive at Helene Curtis with a Ph.D. in chemistry. Earle and Zeffren are partly motivated by the belief that there is a core of Salon Selectives fans out there who miss their product and are eager to buy it again. You would think, then, that the goal would be to give those consumers their old brand back, just as it once was. And sure enough, when I visited Anne West, the chief marketing officer of the new Salon Selectives, there was an array of pink plastic bottle samples in her office, part of an attempt to match the old color as closely as possible. She showed me a video in which a surprising number of randomly confronted Chicagoans, asked if they remembered Salon Selectives, responded by singing the jingle.

Then she showed me storyboards for new Salon Selectives ads, which were not much like the original ones at all. She went on to explain that while the bottle color would be the same, its shape would be different. The reintroduced line also includes a number of new products, and the products are now more aggressively marketed as “customizable” (by hair length, thickness, texture, etc.) than they were in the earlier incarnation. Then there’s the apple scent. West said fans of the brand in its heyday frequently cited that signature smell as one of the things they missed most about the shampoos. So the new version will have an apple scent — but even that was being tweaked and “updated.” The bottom line is that Salon Selectives isn’t coming back just as it used to be, but sort of as it used to be. 
West figures that fans of the brand who are nostalgic for their long-lost product just need to know that it’s back. But the real point now is to attract younger customers who probably never used the stuff. The name “Salon Selectives” might sound familiar to them, so the strategy must balance that familiarity with something that makes the product seem fresh and novel. Later West sent me the new Salon Selectives ads, now running on VH1, Lifetime and other cable networks. The spots do not announce the return of a favorite old brand, or even allude to the fact that Salon Selectives was ever gone. In one, a woman escapes from prison and immediately washes her hair. The cop who confronts her admits that she doesn’t look like an escaped con but (punch line) as if she “just stepped out of a salon.” This is followed by glimpses of the (pink) bottles and a quick “mix and match” pitch and then, at the very last second, a snippet of the familiar old jingle, rerecorded. West calls this snippet a “button,” and it clearly aims to function as the slightest mental nudge: this is something you know about. 

Among River West’s various projects, this is actually one of the more conservative in testing the boundary between the positive associations of a familiar memory and the attractions of novelty. There’s less room to test that boundary because Salon Selectives hasn’t been “dormant” all that long: At least some fans of the old apple scent are going to have opinions about the “updated” version. Much will depend on specific associations with a product — which is not the same thing as a brand. Brands aren’t quite so tangible, so quantifiable. That’s what’s interesting about them.


One of Paul Earle’s professors at Kellogg was John F. Sherry Jr. (now at Notre Dame), who has devoted some study to “retromarketing” and “the revival of brand meaning.” In 2003 he wrote an article (with Stephen Brown of the University of Ulster and Robert V. Kozinets of Kellogg) on the subject for The Journal of Customer Behavior. “Retromarketing is not merely a matter of reviving dormant brands and foisting them on softhearted, dewy-eyed, nostalgia-stricken consumers,” they asserted. “It involves working with consumers to co-create an oasis of authenticity for tired and thirsty travelers through the desert of mass-produced marketing dreck.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but Sherry turned out to be more straightforward in conversation. “There’s no real reason that a brand needs to die,” he told me, unless it is attached to a product that “functionally doesn’t work.” That is, as long as a given product can change to meet contemporary performance standards, “your success is really dependent on how skillful you are in managing the brand’s story so that it resonates with meaning that consumers like.”

The holy grail example of brand reanimation is the Volkswagen Beetle, which a few years ago rose from dormancy and became a hit all over again in an updated form that was both nostalgic and contemporary. The reintroduced Beetle layered “nostalgic reassurance” over modern functionality. “It’s a brand that’s memorable for a lot of different reasons,” Sherry said. “But largely because it evokes this past that never was — that was morally superior or simpler, an era of better craftsmanship. That kind of thing.”

Such abstract notions are much on display at the Licensing International Expo, an annual event at which the owners of cultural properties — TV shows, movies, cartoon characters — meet with makers of things and try to negotiate deals granting them a paid license to use the properties to add meaning and market value to whatever things they make. It is a good place to contemplate the business potential of “the brand” in free-floating form, unmoored to any product or company that may have actually created it. A surprising number of the symbols represented at the expo held last summer in New York were simply brand logos. Spam, for instance, had its own booth. IMC Licensing was there on behalf of its clients Oreo, Altoids, Dole and Oscar Mayer. At one point I encountered a person dressed up as a can of Lysol, which is represented by the Licensing Company. 
 Another firm that represents a number of consumer brands is the Beanstalk Group, which staked out a rather large chunk of floor space at the expo, complete with a coffee bar and about 20 tables. Owned by Omnicom Group, Beanstalk is the licensing firm for a wide range of cultural properties, from Harley-Davidson to Andy Warhol to the United States Army. None of these are dead brands, of course, but Beanstalk’s track record with converting brand meaning into revenue is the reason Paul Earle was at the licensing expo. Beanstalk was exploring strategies to revive the Coleco and Brim brands as, essentially, licensing fodder.

Michael Stone, the president and chief executive of Beanstalk, has a refined sense of the licensing business, and how consumer brands fit into it. He knows what many people think the business boils down to: I make plastic lunchboxes and you own the rights to reproduce images of Spider-Man. How about a Spider-Man lunchbox? Stone cheerfully explained to me that this is merely a “decorative” form of licensing, and that’s not his game. As a point of contrast, he told me about Beanstalk’s involvement with Stanley Works, the venerable maker of hand tools.

Stanley hired Beanstalk about nine years ago. Stanley conducted “consumer permission research” to try to determine where the Stanley brand could go. “I remember looking through the focus-group tests, and there was a guy who absolutely swore that he had a Stanley ladder in his garage.” Stone paused. “Stanley never made ladders.” This is an excellent example of what “brand equity” really means in the marketplace.

In contrast to the fanatical-devotion theory, part of the point of most branding is very specifically to circumvent conscious thought. Psychologists use the word “heuristics” to refer to the mental shortcuts and rules of thumb that allow us to resolve the various routine problems of everyday life without having to make a spreadsheet for every trivial decision. Brand owners want a way into your purchase heuristics. Often it is not so much a matter of, say, a Stanley Works fanatic seeking out all products bearing that trademark; it’s a matter of looking for a product and choosing one with a particular trademark that, for whatever reason, we find acceptable. This is not brand loyalty. It’s brand acquiescence.

We’ve all seen the Stanley name, for instance. And by and large, we trust it. We have a general idea of Stanley that fits into our hardware-store purchase heuristics. But there is a great deal of imperfection and vagueness in these thought processes, and that is good news for a licensor. It suggests that there’s potential — or “permission” — for the Stanley name to migrate onto new products.

What Beanstalk did not do when it took on Stanley as a client was recommend investing in a ladder-production facility and hiring a bunch of workers, plus a sales force to blitz potential retail channels. Stanley Works, as a company, has actually been moving in the opposite direction, closing factories and outsourcing its manufacturing since the 1980s. Instead, Beanstalk worked out a licensing deal with Werner, which was already the biggest maker and distributor of ladders in the country. “They needed another brand because they couldn’t expand the Werner brand anymore,” Stone said. So Werner started making and selling ladders with the Stanley name on them. This gave Werner a way to get more shelf space, reach more consumers and make more sales. What it gave Stanley was its name on a new product and a licensing fee. Beanstalk has worked out many such deals, hooking up the Stanley brand with manufacturers of work gloves and boots, power generators and a variety of other things that Stanley never made (and does not make now).

Too many such deals, or the wrong kinds, can boomerang: this happens with some regularity in the fashion world, when a famous designer name gets spread over so many products, with so little regard to quality, that the entire image of the brand sinks. Still, if you see a ladder made by Stanley, you may well think, Well, there’s a name I can trust. What you’re trusting, though, isn’t Stanley workers in Stanley factories upholding Stanley traditions and values under the watchful eye of Stanley managers. What you’re trusting is Stanley’s recognition that a badly made ladder with the Stanley name on it could be highly damaging to the Stanley brand. You are trusting Stanley’s recognition of the value of its brand and its competence in defending that value.

We circled back around to Beanstalk’s ideas for River West’s brands, particularly Brim. Stone mentioned White Cloud. White Cloud is a brand of toilet paper once owned by Procter & Gamble. P.& G. also owned the Charmin franchise, so eventually it let the trademarks on White Cloud expire. These were then acquired by an entrepreneur, who worked out a licensing deal with Wal-Mart to make White Cloud an exclusive Wal-Mart product. It became, essentially, a store brand, but infused with equity of mass-market familiarity. It’s very doubtful that the typical White Cloud buyer is aware that the product is available only at Wal-Mart. It’s also very doubtful that P.& G. (which would surely prefer that its Charmin didn’t have to compete against a brand that P.& G. itself created) will let anything like that happen again if it can possibly help it.
 This is essentially the situation that River West brokered with the Nuprin brand, which was a dead line of ibuprofen painkillers (once upon a time backed by the widely known “Nupe it” ad campaign). Its trademarks were acquired by River West and sold to CVS, where it is back on the shelves as a stealth store brand. (And presumably enjoying better margins than it would if, like a traditional store brand, it competed solely on low price, not trustworthy-brand familiarity.) My read was that this is what Stone thought should happen to Brim — and that Earle had mixed feelings, believing, perhaps, that Brim could come back as something bigger. Even Stone seemed at least somewhat intrigued with the possibilities of licensing a brand that was familiar but dead. “With Stanley we have to be careful — this is a famous brand; we have to do everything right and mitigate all the risks,” he says. “But with Brim, the risks. . . .” He paused. “There really are no risks.”

This brings us to Earle’s ideas about the potential upside of faulty consumer memory. Maybe, for instance, you’re among those who remember Brim. But do you also remember that it was a decaf-only brand? That’s actually why you could “fill it to the rim.” River West’s research found that many who recall the Brim brand have forgotten the decaf detail.

The relationship between brands and memory (faulty or no) is a specialty of Kathy LaTour, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In one of her most interesting studies, she worked with Elizabeth Loftus, a memory specialist and now a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and a third researcher, Rhiannon Ellis, to take the issue to its logical extreme: What if, for example, an advertising campaign “implanted memories into consumers of things that never happened?”

The researchers found that subjects presented with a fake Disney World ad inviting them to “remember the characters of your youth: Mickey, Goofy . . . ” were significantly more likely to say they recalled that as children they had met “a favorite TV character at a theme resort” than those who didn’t see the ad. The fascinating thing was what happened when they repeated the experiment, tweaking the ads to include Bugs Bunny, who, of course, is not a Disney character at all. About 16 percent of subjects subsequently claimed that, as children, they shook hands with Bugs Bunny at a Disney theme park. Repeated fake-ad exposure apparently led to higher false-memory rates. In a separate study, Loftus asked subjects with Bugs in their memories what, exactly, they recalled about this incident; of these, 62 percent recounted shaking Bugs’s hand, and more than a quarter specifically recalled him saying, “What’s up, Doc?”

Earle says that this imperfection of memory can be used to enhance whatever new Brim he comes up with. This is “a benefit of dormancy,” he says. The brand equity has value on its own, but it can be grafted onto something newer and, perhaps, more innovative. “Consumers remember the kind of high-level essence of the brand,” he says. “They tend to forget the product specifics.” This, he figures, creates an opening: it gives the reintroduced version “permission” to forget that decaf-only limitation as well and morph into a full line of coffee varieties. “ ‘Fill it to the rim with Brim’ stands for full-flavored coffee,” Earle says, with a chuckle. “Fill it to the rim — it’s great stuff!”

Finding the deceased brands that consumers are likely to remember — sort of — is a process that can begin, of all places, in the library. Earle spent hours going through old issues of People, Time, Glamour and other magazines, “looking for brand names that sounded familiar but that I hadn’t seen lately.” This results in many, many possibilities that don’t work out for one reason or another. But every so often the process yields an Underalls.

Earle was intrigued with Underalls. Produced by Hanes from about 1975 to the mid-1990s, Underalls was once a prominent brand, advertised aggressively. (“O.K. America — show us your Underalls!”) It spawned “flanker” brands like Summeralls, Winteralls and Slenderalls. It was unique and memorable: a good brand. “You see the memorabilia on eBay,” Earle says. “That’s usually a good indicator.” 
 By way of MarketTools, a research company, River West asked 1,000 women ages 25 to 54 to answer an online survey about hosiery brands. About 850 did so, and among these, 72 percent had heard of Underalls. Among those who recognized the brand, about three-quarters remembered the “Show us your Underalls” tagline. Promising. But River West needed a partner to actually manufacture and distribute whatever the new version of Underalls might be.

It found that partner in Phantom, a hosiery maker based in Toronto. Phantom’s main product line is called Silks, the dominant hosiery brand in Canada. The company also manufactures a number of store brands. Phantom wanted to get into the crowded U.S. hosiery market, says Svetlana Sturgeon, vice president of sales and marketing for Phantom, and it made a certain amount of sense to leverage a name far more familiar to American consumers than Silks would be. Sturgeon jokes that, at first, she did not want to admit at meetings that she remembered the brand (“I’m much too young for that!”). But she did.

The point of the original Underalls was that they combined panties and stockings into one undergarment. (“They were the pioneers in the whole idea of eliminating panty lines,” is how Sturgeon puts this.) In early brainstorming sessions, Phantom and River West tried to come up with “the most expansive but credible definition” of the brand, Earle says. In this case that turned out to be “intimate-apparel solutions,” which means anything you wear under something else that’s “functional and fashion-forward,” Sturgeon says. This includes camisoles and bras and other things the original Underalls never sold. The San Francisco design firm Thinc came up with a new graphic identity and packaging ideas that referenced classic elements of the old ads, but radically updated them. New slogan: “Lovely underneath it all.” With the prototypes complete, Sturgeon has begun the process of meeting with boutique and department-store buyers, in the hope of getting products into stores, at least on a test level, in the fall.

Brand familiarity alone guarantees nothing. Sears owns several well-known brand names — Kenmore, Craftsman, DieHard, the Sears name itself — and is viewed by Wall Street as a basket case. Multinationals routinely go through cycles of acquiring and creating brands and then paring back when, inevitably, some underperform. A tiny number of hard-core loyalists not only doesn’t mean a whole lot when reviving a brand, it might be a problem because those people do remember. A number of the more cultish devotees of the VW Beetle, in fact, forthrightly rejected its reanimated version as a fraud. In that case, those consumers were marginalized by a far wider buying public who weren’t such sticklers.

And really, something like the Beetle is actually a special case: it wasn’t just a well-known product, it was a cultural icon on a level that very few products or brands ever achieve. River West is trying to reanimate brands that are sort of familiar but don’t have anything like a VW level of built-in cultural capital to draw on. If there is a cult of Brim out there somewhere, it’s pretty small and very quiet.

What River West really wants is to bring back these brands in a way that not only builds on their former popularity but also manages, via the skillful management of what we do remember and what we don’t, to transcend it. This would be quite a trick. A few months after he returned from the licensing expo, Earle more or less dropped the strategy of turning Brim into a glorified store brand. These days he’s talking about finding a “really innovative” coffee-manufacturing partner who could make the Brim brand an umbrella for groundbreaking (but unspecified) coffee advances that would work in the general market, not just one chain. He sounded almost protective of the Brim idea, and possibly a bit frustrated that he hadn’t hit on the way to bring it back. “Brim is, within our company, one of our best-known brands,” he said to me at one point. “In fact it’s our absolutely best-known brand. So expectations are high.”

Later he added: “The strength of a dormant brand is we can remake this however we want. The challenge is we can remake this however we want.”

Eventually, Earle introduced me at his office to Scott Lazar, chief executive of another River West partner, Reserve Brands, which is overseeing the revivification of Eagle Snacks. I’d never heard of the brand, but I was assured that plenty of Midwesterners knew it. Eagle had once been owned by Anheuser-Busch and was the beer maker’s way into the salty-snack market dominated by Frito-Lay. Its most well known product, it seems, was the honey-roasted peanut, particularly in tiny bags given out as snacks on airlines. Anheuser-Busch eventually pulled the plug, selling its equipment to Frito-Lay and the trademarks to Procter & Gamble in the mid-1990s. Lazar said that while the new Eagle has acquired those trademarks, the new and expanded product line consists largely of snacks that the old Eagle never made, with names like “Poppers!” and “Bursts!” These are rolling out in a variety of grocery stores across the country. Lazar tried to give me about six large bags of samples, but I demurred on account of limited luggage space.

I ended up with two bags, which Earle and I took downstairs to the bar at the Ceres Cafe. It was crowded and loud, filled with big Chicago men who in some cases had spent the day screaming on the Chicago Board of Trade floor and who in all cases were not shy. We found a place to sit, plopping the Eagle snacks in front of us. And one man after another leaned into our space and pointed at the bags and boomed, “Eagle!” Big hands reached toward the bags to get a scoop of snacks that the old Eagle had never made, and at the time were not in stores, and big voices declared, “I remember those!” 

This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, May 18, 2008. 

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