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Comments Posted 03.18.08 | PERMALINK | PRINT | SINGLE PAGE

Rob Walker

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.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rob Walker is a technology/culture columnist for Yahoo News. He is the former Consumed columnist for The New York Times Magazine, and has contributed to many publications. He is co-editor (with Joshua Glenn) of the book Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things, and author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are
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