You probably remember Pan Am, Woolworth’s and Mister Donut. You may not remember Bucky Beaver hawking a popular mid-century toothpaste called Ipana.
All these names, whether iconic or obscure, are proof that many old brands never die. They’re just reborn, living on in distant corners of the globe.
Call them zombie brands. It’s not just Blockbuster, which closed its last video-rental store in the U.S. last month even as the chain prospers in Mexico. Companies are eager to revive once-prominent brands as recognizable names catch international consumers’ attention, convincing retailers in far-flung places to stock what for them is a new product. Other brands just keep chugging along overseas long after fading away in the U.S.
“The really good brands tend to grow and die and get resurrected more often than you think,” said Rob Frankel, a Los Angeles-based marketing consultant.
Japan is one market particularly receptive to old U.S. brands. Take Mister Donut. It was the largest competitor to Dunkin’ Donuts (DNKN) in the 1980s, with as many as 275 stores in the U.S. and Canada, according to the restaurant’s website. Now, one remains -- just outside of St. Louis in Godfrey, Illinois. In 1990, Allied Lyons, the owner of Dunkin’ Donuts at the time, acquired Mister Donut’s North American stores and eventually converted them into Dunkin’ shops.
Meanwhile, a Japanese dust-cloth maker called Duskin Co. (4665) was building Mister Donut into a restaurant enterprise with more than 1,100 locations in the country, and entrepreneurs elsewhere acquired the rights to open more stores. Today, there are more than 10,000 worldwide.
Powerful brands have staying power far beyond the life of their products if managed creatively. Rather than letting an airline that hasn’t flown a plane in more than 20 years fade into history, Pan American World Airways has lent its name to clothing lines, luggage and even a railroad operator in New England. The company also signed a television deal with Sony Corp. (6758) for a period drama on ABC in 2011 featuring the once-prominent carrier.
While “Pan Am” only lasted for one season, the show found an audience overseas and has led to a revival of sorts for the brand. The renewed interest attracted a Japanese company that bought the rights to sell Pan Am products in the country, which will coincide with a big marketing effort there next year, according to Brice Cooper, Pan Am’s creative director.
“Pan American Airways, from its inception, was always an international carrier,” Cooper said. “There’s more global potential.”
Retailers and product lines come and go, stamped out by economic cycles, consumer tastes, corporate takeovers or mismanagement. When they do come back, zombie brands often reappear in emerging markets.
“More than ever, everybody outside of America wants to be American,” Frankel said. “They want to buy American. They import everything that we will sell them, from blue jeans to MTV. They just can’t get enough.”
In some cases, a brand can survive completely independent of its creators. F. W. Woolworth Co. operated the largest group of five-and-dime stores in the U.S. during the 20th century. Eventually, Woolworth’s luster wore off, and the chain fizzled as shoppers flocked to Macy’s Inc. (M) and JC Penney Co. (JCP) Woolworth ditched its brand in favor of Foot Locker Inc. (FL), its specialty sporting-goods shops.
“Consumers lose interest,” said Eli Portnoy, chief executive officer of Miami-based retail consulting group CultureRanch LLC.
The Woolworth name, though, has staying power in other regions of the globe. In South Africa, an unrelated department store is run by Woolworths Holdings Ltd. (WHL) and Australia is home to the Woolworths Ltd. (WOW) supermarkets. Russell Mahoney, a spokesman for the grocer, said the company’s founders liked the name of the U.S. discount stores and adopted it for their first shop in Sydney, opened in 1924. The companies have never been directly related, he said. According to the book “The Woolworths Way,” the Australian entrepreneurs wrote a letter to Woolworth in the U.S. about their plans to use the name and received permission.
Today, Woolworths has 872 stores throughout Australia and a robust online-grocery service. The company’s market value is $39.8 billion. Foot Locker’s is $5.75 billion.
Woolworths markets itself as Australia’s neighborhood grocery store and plays up its “local food sourcing.” Jonathan Barouch, who runs a technology company called Local Measure in Sydney, said he shops at Woolworths because it’s close to his home, has a convenient delivery option and gives him frequent-flyer points at Qantas Airways Ltd. (QAN), Australia’s biggest airline. He was unaware of the association with the U.S. brand.
“I’m not sure the U.S. connection would have too much impact on my choice,” Barouch said. “I also drink Starbucks, take my kids to McDonald’s and eat at Sizzler locally. So I think connections to U.S. brands are OK.”
Some long-forgotten U.S. brands are still going strong in distant lands. Ipana toothpaste had the ingredients for a high-flying American brand in the 1950s: a beloved mascot and memorable catchphrase. Bucky Beaver, the big-toothed cartoon created by Walt Disney Co., could be seen in newspaper and TV advertisements alongside his signature tagline, “Brusha, brusha, brusha.”
Portnoy, the branding consultant and a former executive at Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (BMY), which owned Ipana during its rise in the U.S., said the company couldn’t keep up with Colgate-Palmolive Co. (CL) and Crest owner Procter & Gamble Co. (PG) Those companies won recommendations from dentists across the country and prime real estate on store shelves. Bristol-Myers stopped selling Ipana in the U.S. during the late-1960s, according to Laura Hortas, a spokeswoman for the company.
“There’s a tremendous barrier to entry into the toothpaste market,” Portnoy said. “We choked on the amount of money they spent. They built these dental relationships. They really own the marketplace.”
Procter & Gamble now sells Ipana in Turkey through a joint venture with a local company there, Hortas said. Bristol-Myers is not involved, she said. Ipana is one of the most popular toothpaste brands on the market in Turkey right now. “Brusha” in Turkish means “to brush.”
“Starting from scratch is so expensive with a brand,” Portnoy said. “If you can still sell a particular brand overseas with no marketing and minimal shipping costs, you do it.”
Wounded U.S. brands left for dead at home can continue unscathed elsewhere. After Chi-Chi’s failed to overcome a bankruptcy and a highly publicized hepatitis A outbreak in 2003, the Mexican restaurant chain still operates in countries such as Belgium, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates.
In the ever-evolving world of technology, salvaging a damaged brand is especially difficult. Nextel Communications helped pioneer walkie-talkie-style calling in the U.S. After the merger with Sprint Corp. (S) in 2005, the Nextel brand was abandoned in favor of Sprint in the U.S. Nextel’s name survives in Latin America, where it’s a popular telecommunications provider.
The popularity of online social networks, in particular, tends to be driven by what’s trendy. Friendster, an early social networking site, is hanging on in Southeast Asia. MOL Global Pte, the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia-based company that acquired Friendster in 2009, managed to retain its users by adding features similar to Facebook Inc. (FB)
As the world’s largest social network started to secure a presence in the region, MOL transformed Friendster into a computer gaming network in 2012. Friendster CEO Iannis Hanen said people are now discovering his games through Facebook, and signing up to create profiles and play games on his site. Friendster claims to have the largest online community in Southeast Asia, with almost 10 million people logging in at least once a month, according to Hanen.
“Our faithful members are still attached to the brand,” he said. “Southeast Asia has always been a strong market for Friendster. In the early years, many members from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines connected with their relatives and friends in the U.S. via the website.”
Napster is another fallen social media brand in exile. The web service introduced the concept of digital music to millions of Americans yet it soon became a symbol of illicit activity after record labels sued the company and its U.S. users. Best Buy Co. (BBY) bought Napster in 2008 and failed to recreate its earlier success with a legal, subscription-based music-streaming service under the same name.
Rhapsody International Inc. acquired Napster in 2011 to aid in the software maker’s overseas expansion. People have been more receptive to the Napster name in Europe, where it wasn’t as demonized in the media.
“Napster has much better awareness in the U.K. and Germany,” said Jon Irwin, the former Rhapsody president who oversaw the acquisition. “In the U.S., it has a connotation. You have to be careful how you deploy that brand.”
Old brands have a powerful nostalgic lure that can inspire young American entrepreneurs. Stella Parks, 32, discovered the transplanted Mister Donut during a six-month stint living in Tokyo a decade ago. The Lexington, Kentucky, native fell in love with the sweet, doughy treats at the franchise that fans in Japan affectionately called “Misudo.” Even though she can’t get them at home, the desserts -- including the signature Pon de Ringu, with its cartoon lion mascot -- played a role inspiring Parks to become a pastry chef.
“It was such an important moment in my snacking history,” Parks said. “They also have a strawberry-glaze donut that haunts my dreams. It was just so intensely strawberry but not fake.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Milian in San Francisco at email@example.com