Orphan brands

by Rob Horning

16 April 2007


In theory, a firm can build brand equity by paying special attention to the quality and (more important) the marketing of the products branded. The brand becomes almost a metonym for the company itself—consumers refer to the brand as if it were the company itself; i.e. we know the Coca Cola Company first and foremost through the Diet Coke on the shelf of the grocery store and depicted in advertisements. So it is easy to mistake brand equity as a measure of how closely the company is bound to its products, how protective it is of its own company image, and forget that brands are managed as wholly independent and tradable, sellable entities. As this WSJ article about abandoned brands adopted by startups and small-time entrepreneurs makes clear, the brands may ultimately have no connection whatsoever to the company practices that built the brand’s notoriety, and it’s quite possible that a fly-by-night company can trade on the equity established by a more reputable company, taking advantage of consumer nostalgia for what they can manage to remember, forgotten names that return and suddenly seem like old friends. Certain firms specialize in buying up rights to brands, banking on the latent value that can be extracted from those stray associations some consumers might have with them.

Mr. Franklin saw opportunity nonetheless. “We look for brands that are market leaders but haven’t been innovative,” he says of his acquisition choices, which include other niche products with famous names such as Ball canning jars, Bicycle playing cards and Crock-Pot cookers. “We had to make Coleman the innovator again.”
Mr. Franklin is in the vanguard of executives who are refining ways to turn one company’s trash into another’s treasure. Under pressure to deliver growth, a number of consumer-products titans, including Procter & Gamble Co., Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive Inc., have been selling well-known but underperforming brands to better focus on those with more potential. Smaller firms trying to play Dr. Frankenstein have bought such familiar castoff brands as Sure and Right Guard deodorants, Comet cleaner, Aqua Net styling products, Pert Plus shampoo and Rit dye.

The brands are divorced from whatever gave them their original value, yet they remain well-known and have vlaue because people don’t bother to think of brand-building as a process; brands are more useful to consumers when they are taken as givens, when they are taken for granted as signifying what consumers accept them as signifying. Attention to the process itself upsets the dream factory. So we accept the magic of brands, which allows them to passed around from company to company, and when they are stuck on varying products we are happy to pretend nothing essential underneath the surface has changed.

In a sense, orphan brands can function in the same way as talentless celebrities; they can be famous for being famous, and we’ve all seen how that can be surprisingly lucrative.

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