When brands get separated from their origins

Posted by Marty Brochstein on July 20, 2011

What is brand identity?

Several years ago, I participated in a licensing conference at which one of the speakers ruminated on how brand names that once derived their equity from their origins have in some cases become so distant from their roots as to be unrecognizable. The example he used was the Amana brand of major appliances, which once was actually built in Amana, Iowa, from which it derived an image for midwestern stability and reliability. (It’s now owned by Whirlpool Corp.) I’d have to believe that, at this point, few purchasers of an Amana appliance even know that there’s a town in Iowa bearing the name, much less that the brand was meant to evoke a midwestern sensibility.

It’s not an uncommon trail for legacy brands to travel. I recall Rick Isaacson, the late, great former licensing guru at IMG, half joking that there’s a whole generation of Asian consumers that think of Arnold Palmer as a famous fashion designer — not as a charismatic golfer who with the direction of IMG founder Mark McCormick, turned his name and umbrella logo into a licensing and merchandising juggernaut beginning in the 1960s. The brand lives on.

Similarly, how many modern consumers know that Rene Lacoste was a world-renowned tennis player, and that the symbol on Lacoste apparel is actually a crocodile, not an alligator — owing to Lacoste’s nickname: Le Crocodile.

These thoughts came to mind as I was reading this column about Tim Horton’s — the ubiquitous Canadian donut chain with more than 3,000 locations. The author reflects on the fact that there’s a generational divide — those over age 30 probably originally knew the chain’s namesake as an all-star ice hockey player, while those younger think of him as the donut guy.

The columnist quotes one of Horton’s hockey contemporaries: “This may be the last generation that really only knows who Timmy was. Everyone else, they know the name, they associate it with coffee and donuts and conversation. But they don’t know the magnitude of the man. That to me is a little sad, but that’s life.”

Brands are malleable, living things. Some retain a solid connection to their origins, others travel a path and become something very different from how they began. That’s neither a good thing, nor a bad thing. That’s life.