New York Times
May 18, 2008
Can a Dead Brand Live Again?
Do you remember Brim?
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
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