How to Rescue an Orphaned Brand

Ever since his company bought a struggling ice cream brand in late 2006, Aaron Serruya has been getting weekly e-mails with the same subject line: Swiss Orange Chip. Serruya, a partner at frozen dessert franchiser International Franchise Corp. in Toronto, eventually figured out that Swiss Orange Chip was a chocolate-and-orange ice cream flavor beloved at hundreds of Swensen’s ice cream parlors that flourished in the Southwest during the 1970s and ’80s.

Founded on San Francisco’s Russian Hill in 1948 by Earle Swensen, the ice cream stores were a victim of their own success, with the brand sold multiple times to companies that shifted their focus overseas and into the supermarket frozen dessert case. With national competitors like Ben & Jerry’s surging, and the recent popularity of frozen yogurt, Swensen’s languished, with only nine shops remaining today.

Serruya wants to bring back Swensen’s U.S. franchises and change all that. And like many entrepreneurs who make it their business to resurrect orphan brands, he is counting on customer loyalty, reputation, and nostalgia. He’s aware it’s a tricky business. “We have to remember that a brand that went away in the past went away for a reason,” says John Cerasani, a serial entrepreneur and author of a book on entrepreneurship called Paid Training. “It may have been because it was a fad, or maybe it was just an unsustainable business model.”

Speidel Rescue

Gennaro Cerce, 36, is too young to remember the 1970s national advertising campaign for Speidel watches, with their patented Twist-O-Flex bands. But when he heard that the 107-year-old company had fallen into bankruptcy, he wanted to rescue it. Speidel had long been headquartered in his home state of Rhode Island and he and his sister, Lynn-Marie, had grown up in a family jewelry-making business.

The pair secured a loan to buy the company out of receivership for $1.6 million in 2009. Since then, they have revitalized the Providence company’s sales network, invested in computer systems, and developed new products, including watches, men’s jewelry, and eyewear. Cerce says the company is profitable and has 15 employees, plus 30 independent sales reps. “We’re very proud of what we’ve done with it in a short period of time,” he says. “A woman came up to me and said, ‘If you can make me remember my childhood, I’ll buy any product you’re selling.’ ”

Relying on nostalgia in a country full of aging baby boomers is not a bad idea, but reintroducing any brand should involve updating and overhauling it as well, says Tom Simons, chief executive officer and chief creative officer at Boston communications firm Partners+Simons. His company has faced the same challenge representing a portfolio of Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance plans, some of which date back 75 years. “It is tough to calibrate what aspects of the brand are worth preserving and what should be consigned to history,” he says. “From my standpoint, [keeping products relevant] isn’t as much of a brand identity issue as it is a storytelling challenge. If the effort comes up short, the brand can lapse and find itself on life support.”

Pine Bros. Revival

Rider McDowell and his wife, Victoria Knight-McDowell, are entrepreneurs from Carmel, Calif., who developed the Airborne health supplement in the 1990s. They are now revitalizing Pine Bros. Softish Throat Drops, a brand of honey, cherry, and licorice sore throat remedies founded by German immigrant J. Herman Pine in 1870 in Philadelphia. In recent years, under a series of owners including Life Savers, production was moved overseas, the packaging grew stale, and the drops slowly disappeared from U.S. supermarkets and pharmacies.

While they say the drops are starting to regain traction, it has taken the couple more than three years to track down original recipes, bring back the company’s old-fashioned packaging, and develop marketing and distribution for the product, which made its debut in 2011. Today it is available at small retailers, online, and in some CVS pharmacies. “We will save mass-market distribution” for next year, McDowell says.

It is the consumer, of course, who ultimately decides whether a brand resurrection is successful. “Their attitudes, perceptions, and loyalties must be fully incorporated in any branding stew,” Simons says. “Much of the branding practice is very subjective,” so measuring financial and sales benchmarks “can’t be ignored.”