Commentary by Adam McIsaac on the reanimation of dead brands.

18.May 2008

Old brands never die, dammit.

Notes on popular culture as homeostasis

Rob Walker has a piece in this morning’s Times Magazine about companies who purchase the rights to dead brands – e.g., Brim decaffeinated coffee, Underalls, Eagle Snacks – and revivify them. The brands return to market, however, having first been updated: the plan for Brim is to contain a full portfolio of coffee-related drinks, caffeinated and non-, because consumers – while remembering the brand name well – have apparently forgotten that it was a decaffeinated brand.

I’m the kind of guy who flips through old magazines and thinks, Ah, hell. Why can’t a fella buy a box of Quisp anymore? I wouldn’t think twice about Quisp if it were still on the shelves [Actually, it’s back, too. —Ed.]. And though I remember my mum buying Brim, I wouldn’t think about it at all if it hadn’t been name-checked in the Beasties’ Root Down. But here’s what bugs me: the complete separation from the brand and the product, which seems … well, cynical. Mr. Walker’s subjects refer to the return of the Volkswagen Beetle as the master pattern, but the Beetle is still made by the folks who always made it, and the new version holds true to the original’s mandate: a simple car for the middle class. Brim, Underalls, Eagle Snacks, Salon Selectives are not only not iconic brands, but the reloads have little, if anything, to do with the original product. Which, I suppose, is part of the point. When all folks can remember of a brand is the jingle, you can shove anything under that jingle and sell it.

Evidently, experience with a brand makes consumers very susceptible to developing false memories relating to that brand, which is in equal parts fascinating and chilling, and goes part of the way to explaining a related question: Why won’t Americans let anything die?

Why is everything continually made and re-made? Most of the bands that toured when I was a boy are yet on tour, even – or perhaps especially – the crappy ones. The latest sixties television show to be reanimated is Get Smart, which was okay in its day, but why does the filmgoing public want to see it? Especially when they’ve only seen it in the context (or lack thereof) of syndication: Get Smart finished its original run before I was old enough to watch it (I’m forty; Get Smart was cancelled in 1970.).

Well, it’s certainly easier to keep something going than make something new. But I suspect that the desire to see a television show you saw in afternoon syndication re-made with current stars and the desire to once again see Brim on the supermarket shelves come from the same place. These aren’t genuine enthusiasms –the stakes aren’t big enough – but rather the desire for continuity: the same desire for continuity, by the way, that forms the bread-and-butter of political or religious orthodoxy. We didn’t know we missed Brim until someone pointed it out, but now we do. Whatever it was.