Entrepreneurs revive brands that aren't quite forgotten

  • Article by: KEN BENSINGER
  • Los Angeles Times
  • January 12, 2013 - 2:10 PM

Twenty-five years ago, a new kind of sparkling water called Clearly Canadian hit store shelves.

In such flavors as Orchard Peach and Western Loganberry, the drink soon was raking in $150 million a year in sales. But in the face of growing competition, Clearly Canadian began to fade. By the early 2000s it had all but disappeared.

Enter Mark Thomann.

Early last year, the Chicago investor bought the Clearly Canadian name, hired a marketing team, contracted a bottler and hammered out a distribution deal to get the drinks back into U.S. supermarkets in March.

Thomann is making a bet that enough people remember Clearly Canadian to try it again. He's one of a growing group of entrepreneurs who specialize in digging through the graveyard of consumerism in search of zombie brands that can be revived.

"We believe we can make Clearly Canadian valuable again," said Thomann, chief executive of River West Brands, whose stable of resuscitated brands includes Coleco games and Underalls pantyhose.

Rebooting old names makes sense in a market crammed with products vying for consumers' attention; building a new brand can cost millions in advertising, and there's no guarantee of success. But for as little as a $275 fee to the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, one can buy a brand that, albeit dusty, is already familiar to millions of potential customers.

"It's very difficult to get a new brand established in today's marketplace," said Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "So if you start with some brand awareness, it can be an advantage."

These trademark trolls scour brand registration databases, clip old magazine ads and interview consumers about beloved brands of their youth. Such efforts have brought back Polaroid, Eagle Snacks and the Sharper Image in recent years.

Experts say old candy and soft drinks hold particular appeal for defunct brand specialists; consumers are nostalgic for foods they ate as kids. But that can also be a pitfall.

"You have to make the product relevant today," said Ellia Kassoff, chief executive of candy maker Leaf Brands in Newport Beach, Calif. "I don't want to sell to the dead."

Kassoff, an executive recruiter, has made a full-time business of updating defunct brands. Although he has purchased some, he has acquired others for almost nothing, thanks to a process known as abandonment.

Under federal law, a trademark is considered abandoned if it hasn't been used for three years. After that, anyone can argue they should be able to use it exclusively and receive legal trademark protection benefits that once belonged to the prior owner.

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