Business Columns & Blogs

Bill Virgin: Old names might be of value

Care for a beer? Perhaps you’d like Meister Brau.

Or if an airline vacation to sunnier climes is more your speed, perhaps you’d consider Braniff or BOAC.

Some in-depth reading? Try Saturday Review.

But we’re not suggesting you purchase a can of beer, an airline ticket or an issue of a magazine. What’s being offered is a chance to buy the whole company.

Of course, you won’t get very much for your money – just the right to own and use a trademarked business or brand name that may be recalled by some but forgotten by far more.

A recent ad in the Wall Street Journal affords the opportunity to revisit the topic of brand names – what potential they have to capture share of the market, and why some endure even when the company has been out of business for years.

The ad was placed by Racebrook Marketing Concepts, which is holding a Dec. 8 auction of 150 trademarks and domain names.

Many of the names likely didn’t generate much sense of recognition even when the underlying business was in business. But quite a few on the list will provoke many to say, “Hey, I remember them.”

BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corp.) was once prominent enough to have been name-checked in a Beatles song, and Saturday Review was the magazine you read – or claimed to have read – if you had intellectual pretensions.

Try a few more: General Cinema (and its logo of the company initials arranged to depict a movie projector). Shearson. Infoseek. Collier’s (the magazine).

In the paper-goods category, you could own a brand name with a local historic connection – Champion International, former operator of a Tacoma mill now owned by Simpson.

Brand names disappear because of mergers and acquisitions, poor marketing, changing consumer tastes, competition or technology advances.

On occasion, they stay disappeared because of the odor of failure or scandal surrounding them. For example, the auction list includes the name of a once prominent bank – Continental Illinois. It’s not likely you would want to use that name for a new financial institution, unless you figure that no one will remember or care that it was for years the largest banking failure in U.S. history (until eclipsed by a Seattle-based institution).

But other names carry with them not just recognition but warm tinges of nostalgia.

In September, a fire burned an old warehouse in Seattle that was once a manufacturing plant for Sunny Jim peanut butter. On the list of where-are-they-now brand names that longtime residents of this region recall fondly, Sunny Jim has to rank near the top; it once commanded a huge share of the regional market for peanut butter.

The company itself was sold to an Alaskan Native corporation in the late 1970s, and the trail runs cold from there. Given the interest in and revival of locally produced commercial foods, would there be any value to relaunching the Sunny Jim brand around here?

That’s a tricky question. Pontiac and Oldsmobile have great legacies; anyone want to spend money on trying to get a new generation of car buyers interested in a brand of yesteryear?

Still, the lure of owning a once-prominent brand name will no doubt prove powerful enough that someone will try. The historic record does not suggest such ventures are likely to succeed, but sentiment often trumps reason.

If someone pulls it off, throw them a real challenge: Ask them to make a case for reviving the brand name of, say, Washington Mutual.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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