10 Brand Names Gone, But Not Forgotten | Business News

Posted on August 18, 2011


BOSTON (MainStreet) — Old brands never die — they just fade away until someone figures a way to capitalize on the nostalgia for them.

From candy to retailers, even the biggest names can fall out of favor. Some disappear forever while others just become harder to find.

Eventually — if enough folks start playing “remember when?” — someone will take notice and try to cash in.

Remember Narragansett Beer? Rhode Island-based Narragansett Brewing opened for business in 1890. In 1981, the original Cranston brewery was closed and due to poor management by Falstaff (which had bought the brand in 1965) andproduction came to a near stand-still. In 2005, Mark Hellendrung, former president of Nantucket Nectars, along with a group of investors, bought the brand back from Falstaff.

A similar East Coast treat, the sweet, concentrated syrups marketed since the 1930s as Zarex (with a Zebra mascot) were once hugely popular, then all but vanished. That is, until a new generation of owners brought it back to store shelves.

Last year, Racebrook, a New York-based private equity firm and auction specialist, announced it was selling off 150 “classic American brands” it had acquired over the years. Among them were Handi-Wrap, Victrola, American Brands, Meister Brau, Braniff International and Shearson (as in Shearson Lehman, which begat Lehman Bros., which begat financial chaos in 2008).

“In recent years, there has been renewed interest around the world in branding that evokes nostalgia,” John Cuticelli, CEO of Racebrook, said in a statement at the time of the auction. “These brand names have been, and will become again, globally recognized by consumers.”

Roughly a third of the names at that auction found buyers.

There are probably hundreds of long-gone or hard-to-find brands, products and businesses that trigger happy memories and remind us of “back in the day.” Here are 10 of the most talked-about:

F.W. Woolworths
There was a time when predicting the demise of the famous Woolworth’s would have been unthinkable.

The retail giant, one of America’s biggest businesses for many years, was among the breed of so-called five-and-dime stores that used their buying power to undercut the prices of competitors. Started in 1879, it is credited as being the first general merchandise store that kept its goods out in the open, letting shoppers handle, inspect and compare items.

For decades, shoppers across the country and overseas flocked to Woolworths to shop and enjoy a snack at its beloved food counters, which often became a community gathering spot (parent to modern food courts). Its success established a blueprint for retail giants that followed, Wal-Mart(WMT), Target(TGT) and Kmart(SHLD) among them.

Why do we speak of Woolworths in the past tense when so many people loved it for so long? Simply put, it collapsed under its own weight — expanding beyond sustainability and moving away from its five-and-dime discount roots and more toward a department store model.

The end came in 1997 when its parent company pulled the plug and evolved into Foot Locker(FL), devoting its energy to sporting goods and footwear.

The hallmark of hardcore geek cred is having owned an Amiga.

Unlike other computer makers that have come and gone, the Commodore Amiga still commands a place of reverence among tech aficionados. As The New York Times once put it, “Amiga loyalists are a fanatical bunch who make Apple(AAPL) partisans look apathetic.”

The first Amiga, made by Commodore as a follow-up to its Commodore 64, hit stores in 1985 as a top-of-the-line personal computer. Its various incarnations sold extremely well in Europe and the U.S., as users were enthralled by its fast processor, top-notch (at the time) graphics, audio and video editing capabilities and its proprietary operating system.

Over time, competition from Apple and IBM(IBM) eroded its share of the PC market. But a funny thing happened on the way to extinction: People held onto their machines, so much so that an estimated half-million are still in use. Websites and Internet message boards bring Amiga fans from all over the world together to offer advice, develop new programs and trade software and parts.

Strut with your fancy iPad if you want, the real techies are clinging to their decades-old Amiga.

The computer’s legendary status has led to a reincarnation.

A-Eon Technology is a privately funded company founded with the sole intent of developing new hardware for the AmigaOS. This week, beta testers were shipped its AmigaOne X1000, a machine built to look just like the old system. Under the hood it features a dual-core CPU made by Apple-owned semiconductor maker PA Semi, which provides parts used in the iPhone and iPad.

Merry-Go-Round/Chess King
If you were a fashionably dressed teen in the ’80s you probably relished a trip to the mall. Girls would head to Merry Go Round to pick up their Cyndi Lauper-inspired fashions (fingerless gloves!) and the boys would load up on whatever they thought their pseudo-Valley Girl would like (skinny leather ties!). If the outfit was really, like, oh my god, radical, it would be off to Glamour Shots to be immortalized in soft focus.

Fashion is fickle and styles constantly changing. Most retailers are able to adapt by rotating merchandise. But Chess King (which actually had been around since 1968) and Merry Go Round, owned by the same parent company in their later years, seemed trapped in the amber of the New Wave era. Once the market for parachute pants, suspenders and Velcro wallets dried up, so did their sales, and they went out of business in 1996.

Diners Club Card
If you were a somebody in the ’60s and ’70s, you probably flashed a Diners Club card when picking up the check.

You may not see too many folks paying with the card any more, but it holds an important place in history for creating the massive credit card industry we have today. For many of our older readers, it was likely the first charge card they ever had.

The origins of the card began when a man named Frank McNamara had dinner in a New York restaurant but left his cash in another suit. The embarrassing situation gave him the idea for a “charge card” that could be used for payment. In 1950, Diners Club International launched the first such card of its kind, with members required to pay off the balance upon getting their monthly statement.

Over time, American Express(AXP) horned in on its market and there was additional competition from a new breed of “revolving credit” cards offered by the likes of Visa(V) and Master Card(MA).

Those feeling nostalgic for their first charge card can take some solace in the fact that Diners Club, though rarely seen, still exists, owned by Discover Financial Services(DFS), which bought Diners Club International from Citi(C) for $165 million in 2008.

Its current website, perhaps trying to rekindle its cache, describes Diner’s Club as “a globally recognized brand serving the payment needs of select and affluent consumers, offering access to more than 400 airports lounges worldwide, and providing corporations and small-business owners with a complete array of expense management solutions.”

It even has its own online gift shop, if you are inclined to brag about being “select” and “affluent.”

Thus far, we haven’t seen a similar reissue of the Players’ Club Gold Card, once marketed with machismo by the late Telly Savalas.

As kids, many of us guzzled soda. It is no surprise then that cola brands trigger warm, fuzzy (and fizzy) memories.

Pepsi(PEP) tapped into such nostalgia recently when it made Pepsi Throwback and Mountain Dew Throwback, packaged with retro labeling and a made with real sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup (just like in the olden days).

Other brands we may recall fondly from years past include Shasta, RC Cola (now owned by the Dr Pepper Snapple Group(DPS)) and White Rock (which always makes us think of grandmothers and ginger ale).

So why our focus on Tab? It started the diet cola craze, for one (advertising slogans included: “A Beautiful Drink for Beautiful People” and “One Calorie — Beautiful).”

The familiar pinkish can with simple white lettering has become a symbol of the 1970s aesthetic. TV shows and movies set during his era very often include a can somewhere in the scenes to add a touch of period-piece verisimilitude.

Alas, Tab in its original form had a hard fall from ’70s stardom.

To start with, there was that whole cancer thing. To produce a tasty but low-calorie beverage, Tab included the artificial sweetener sodium saccharin. Tests on lab rats (that years later were debunked) led to a scare that the chemical could cause cancer. Those concerns led to mandatory, off-putting warning labels. (The FDA relented on the labels and admitted it goofed regarding saccharine in 2000.)

The bigger problem was the global power of the Coca-Cola(KO) name. Soon after its introduction in 1982 a product called Diet Coke became the soda standard for calorie-counters, and the company focused on it rather than its older Tab product.

Tab, which hit shelves in 1963, never regained its popularity. As more and more diet drinks hit the marketplace it became a bit of a footnote to the cola wars.

Nevertheless, it is still available in the U.S. if your grocer is inclined to carry it (something the website ILoveTab.com has started a petition to encourage). There is even a Tab Energy Drink launched by Coca-Cola in 2009. Within a year, it was deemed an underperformer and now is found in only a handful of countries, among them Canada, Fiji, Mexico and New Zealand.

Rustler Steak House
Once upon a time, going to a “steakhouse” didn’t mean dropping a week’s pay at Morton’s(MRT) or The Palm. Middle America flocked to a variety of affordable, family steakhouses.

Bonanza, Ponderosa and Sizzler still dot the landscape and, for a time, Massachusetts’ Hilltop Steak House had the distinction of being the nation’s busiest restaurant.

Less durable among its peers was the Rustler Steak House, which thrived as an after-church, Little-League-victory, Uncle-Jim’s-birthday-party kind of place for those in the Mid-Atlantic states.

The beginning of the end for Rustler came when Marriott(MAR) bought its parent company, the Gino’s fast-food restaurant chain, as part of a move to extend its Roy Rogers chain.

That plan fell apart when Marriott re-sold the Gino’s chain for $365 million to Hardee’s which, in turn, sold off the properties to McDonald’s(MCD), Wendy’s(YUM) and Boston Market. The remaining Rustler steakhouses were sold off by the Marriott and, in 1985, Collins Foods, a subsequent owner, converted them into Sizzlers.

A similar fate befell the family-friendly, cafeteria-style chain of York Steak Houses, many of which were found alongside shopping malls.

Popular in the ’70s and ’80s, York was owned by General Mills(GIS), but most were shuttered by 1989. (The parent company also jettisoned other food chains, including Betty Crocker Tree House and Guadala Harry’s, and spun off others such as Red Lobster and Olive Garden as Darden Restaurants(DRI) in 1995. Today only one York Steak House remains, near the Westland Mall in Cleveland.

McCall’s Magazine
A confession: As kids we used to sneak a quick read of our mothers’ copies of McCall’s Magazine.

We weren’t looking at the popular housekeeping-themed magazine for centerpiece ideas or sewing tips. Our focus was on the “Movie Guide for Puzzled Parents,” a column intended to alert America’s moms as to what releases had violence, nudity, swearing and gore. As kids, it unwittingly advised us which movies were worth sneaking into.

That might not be a great example of why this particular magazine was so iconic in its day. But it does illustrate something important: All of our moms either subscribed to the magazine or snatched up copies from supermarket checkout lines. Started in 1870 as a promotional tool to advertise sewing patterns, by the 1960s, owing to the growth of middle class suburbia, it had nearly 8.5 million readers.

Over the years, the magazine remained popular despite multiple owners, among them Time(TWX) and The New York Times Co.(NYT).

Then along came Rosie O’Donnell. The success of the former VH1 VJ as a daytime talk show host gave the comedienne Oprah-like aspirations to cross over into the world of publishing. In 2000 she was taken on as editorial director at McCall’s and the following year it was renamed Rosie, featuring herself on all subsequent covers. The change was ultimately a failure, and the magazine ceased publication and triggered a series of lengthy legal battles.

General Cinemas
Think of the great movies of the ’70s and ’80s — Star Wars, Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark — and the odds are good you will remember standing in line for tickets outside a General Cinema.

The theater chain opened for business in 1985 and helped usher in the era of the megaplex.

While the movies were what we went for and remember most, the chain had its own flourishes that leave us with fond memories.

There was its traditional animated Popcorn Bob and his Candy Band, who marched and danced while telling us not to talk during the show and reminding us of the snacks we could buy in the lobby.

There was also the famous animated logo that preceded each film, the G and C merging into an abstract movie projector while a syncopated jazz jingle played: Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo (tacha-ta-tacha-ta tacha-ta-tacha-ta).”

After filing for bankruptcy in 2000, the movie chain was sold to rival AMC Theaters in 2002.

Pan Am
Think back to when the “friendly skies” were really friendly. When you could board an airplane without a strip search, carry on more than 3.4 ounces of water and took your shoes off only if you wanted to.

There was a time when men wore suits and women wore their Sunday best when they boarded an airplane — sweatpants or jeans were just simply uncouth. Smoking? Sure thing. In fact, a lovely young stewardess would light your Chesterfield as she handed you another scotch and soda.

A lot of airlines have come and gone since the days when boarding an airplane was still an adventure and true luxury. TWA is MIA, and Braniff is perhaps remembered by many only because its TV commercial is part of the end credits of South Park. Pan American World Airways, better known as Pan Am, still inspires happy memories, however.

What’s so special about Pan Am? Aside from its starring role in the “glory days” of aviation, it pioneered many of the things we now take for granted, from jumbo jets to computerized reservation systems, affordable international flights to in-flight snacks (back then they were meals).

We may think back even more warmly because Pan Am departed the airways in 1991 (declaring bankruptcy after years of financial troubles), long before flying became even more cramped and clamped-down.

This fall, ABC is looking to tap into memories of those good old days with the series Pan Am, a drama populated by the pilots and stewardesses of the famous airline.

When was the last time anyone ever offered you a Chiclet?

For younger readers, Chiclets were these tiny, tiny pieces of gum, covered in a candy shell.

Now owned by Kraft(KFT), Chiclets are no longer easy to find in the U.S. But the rest of the world, in particular the Middle East, still gobbles up the tiny treats.

Don’t count Chiclets out just yet. Like so many candies, you can pretty much count on a return at some point, just like others snatched from the abyss to capitalize on nostalgia such as Pop Rocks and Wacky Packages.

— Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

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