Dead brands

by Rob Horning

21 May 2008


As I was reading Rob Walker’s feature about dead brands—brands abandoned by their owners that firms are now acquiring and trying to reanimate—I was wondering how long it would be before he got into what I think is the most interesting point about them, namely, that the product that goes out under these brands is ultimately superfluous to their value—their “brand equity” seems entirely the product of their advertising and not at all of the original quality of the products. So the names can be purchased and a new product released under those names with no effort to simulate the original. The new Brim coffee probably won’t taste the same as the old Brim but no one will care. As Walker points out, most people won’t remember that it was decaf only. (I didn’t.)

Earle [founder of River West, a zombie-brand clearinghouse] 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.

Brand value seems to be a matter of how memorable the jingle is—which points to the conclusion that branding has nearly nothing to do with guaranteeing specific qualities, as sometimes is claimed. If anything, it might remind consumers who to hold responsible if the product disappoints, but as the sale of brands from company to company shows, that now doesn’t really apply either. Brands are a language in the Saussurean sense, a collection of signifiers, with no necessary relation to any signifieds, whose meaning is established through grammar and custom alone—that is how they are used in the moment and what we collectively remember about their previous meanings. And our memory is very faulty.

Walker eventually gets into this through the way brands live on in people’s memory in a different way than the utility of branded products does. The brands connote emotional qualities—the bundles of characteristics of goods that economist Kelvin Lancaster argued (see Krugman’s synopsis here) were more relevant to consumers than specific products. These bundles, as brands, compete in the marketplace, the specific products in their particularity recede from the picture. Best of all for marketers, the connotation of the brand is fairly malleable—more so than, say, the taste of robusto beans. So marketers can bank on the brand’s sheer familiarity as a kind of abstract notion—not famliarity with some particular aspect, just familiarity in general. Brands, then, are like celebrities who are famous for being famous.

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